Painting the Town Red: Jacques Louis David and Revolutionary France

The Tennis Court Oath (1791) by Jacques-Louis David | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The French Revolution is perhaps the most famous revolution in all of history. In 1789, the French people, suffering from starvation, excessive taxation, and governmental bankruptcy, began a process that led to the overthrow of the French monarchy. The years that followed marked a violent, bloody period of radical social and political change. It starred well-known figures, such as King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Maximilien Robespierre, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the guillotine. It spread universal ideals of the Enlightenment, such as liberty and equality, throughout France, ending the last traces of the feudal system of the ancien regime. It was under these circumstances that the artist Jacques Louis David painted some of the most memorable and vivid images of the French Revolution that we have today.

Oath of the Horatii (1784) by Jacques-Louis David | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Jacques Louis David was the leader of the neoclassical movement of art; that movement sought to strip paintings down to their bare essentials, returning to the same realism that was portrayed in classical Greek art. This was a sharp contrast to the opposing Rococo movement occurring at the same time, which emphasized color and depicted frivolous, lighthearted activities. At the beginning of his career, David made a name for himself as a historical painter by depicting subjects of antiquity, perfecting the painting style founded by Nicolas Poussin. After spending many years as an apprentice under Joseph Marie Vien, he gained immediate acclaim in the artistic world with his painting Oath of Horatii (1784), which was displayed at the Parisian Salon in 1785.1 The painting is marked by the accuracy of its classical figures and setting. The emphasis on lines and geometry gives the figures a statuesque appearance, which recalls the sculpture of classical Greek art. This emphasis on composition over color highlighted the serious tone of the painting, in which the Horatii are swearing to their father to protect the good of the state.2 It was evident by the event that David portrayed that he held the government of France responsible for the nation’s troubles.

With the rise of the revolution, David was able to shed the classical disguise of his complaints against the monarchy and depict contemporary events. He captured key moments, including the execution of Marie Antoinette and the Tennis Court Oath, featured above. Painted in 1791, The Tennis Court Oath depicts the Third Estate declaring themselves the National Assembly of France, voicing their discontent with the French monarchy. After being locked out of the Estates General, the Third Estate, made up of the elite of France that were not of the aristocracy, fled to a nearby tennis court where they vowed to remain in session until a new constitution was written. Soon, they decreed the end of the feudal system and published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, declaring the equality and natural rights of the citizens of France.3 David focused on action in this painting by emphasizing the outrage of the National Assembly. The people flood the room, throwing their arms up in outrage. The direction of the lines of their arms and a spotlight of sunlight draws attention to a central figure as he proclaims their desire for liberté, égalité, and fraternité.

By 1790, David was deeply involved in the Jacobin Party and formed a friendship with Maximilien Robespierre, the leader of the party and later of the Reign of Terror, and several other radical leaders. Elected to the National Convention in 1792, he was one of those who voted for the execution of Louis XVI. In 1793, he worked to dissolve the royal French Academy of Art and replace it with the Popular and Republican Society of the Arts.4

Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

David’s most influential painting, the one that fed the revolutionary fever, was his portrait The Death of Marat (1793), which became a rallying point during the Reign of Terror. The painting depicts one of David’s friends, Jean-Paul Marat, who was the founder of the populist journal L’ami du peuple and a leader of the Jacobin movement, and who was killed by Charlotte Corday, the daughter of a devout royalist family.5 David was commissioned to immortalize Marat as a hero only a day after the famous assassination as part of a political move to suppress counter-revolutionary forces.6 In the painting, Marat lies dead in his bathtub, holding a letter from his assassin. David maintains his somber realism, the same style as his historical pieces. The image was so powerful and poignant, it has come to be seen as a “secular Pieta.”7 Much like his recall to antiquity, in the portrait David called to mind religious qualities that struck a chord with the French people. Just as Jesus Christ died for the sins of all, Marat died for the principles of the revolution. The National Convention, with the help of David, worked to erase the influence of the Catholic Church, whose clergy helped make up the privileged First Estate of France. Marat was now a martyr that France could identify with, replacing the sacrificial image of Christ.8 

The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799) by Jacques Louis David | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 1794, as the Jacobin party fell from power, David was imprisoned for seven months, where he continued his work as a painter. After his imprisonment, he returned to historical painting, depicting The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799). He later referred to this work as his masterpiece. While the painting marks David’s return to antiquity, there is a clear shift in his style of painting. Instead of the geometrical realism of Poussin, the forms of this painting are more relaxed and smooth. The Sabine women sought to bring peace between their fathers and Roman husbands. Again, David used a scene from antiquity to portray his feelings about the political climate after the fall of the political regime to which he dedicated himself. Not long after, keeping his dear friend Robespierre in mind, David swore he would never again follow a single man; instead, he would follow principles. However, it was not long before David met the charismatic and ambitious Napoleon Bonaparte and quickly fell under his sway.9 Soon after, as Napoleon rose to power as the emperor, David was appointed to the position of first painter. During this time, he painted many portraits of the emperor, including a depiction of the Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine (1805-1807) and the Distribution of the Eagles (1810).10

Bonaparte Crossing the St. Bernard Pass (1800) by Jacques-Louis David | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The most famous of these imperial portraits was Bonaparte Crossing the St. Bernard Pass (1800), where David continues the shift shown in The Intervention of the Sabine Women and romanticizes the emperor. It is suspected that Napoleon hired David as court painter and propagandist to champion the imperial regime, and this portrait demonstrates why this argument could be true.11 In Bonaparte Crossing the St. Bernard Pass, the emperor is portrayed as a leader in action and his physical stature is idealized. The names of Hannibal and Charlemagne are engraved in the foreground of the piece with Bonaparte nearby, associating Napoleon with these famous conquerors and their successes in battle. With Napoleon looking straight at the audience, the piece seems to take place right in the middle of the action, as if compelling the viewer to take part. Although his horse looks wild and frightened, Napoleon displays total control over it, displaying his strong qualities as a leader.12 Although the portrait is set against a bright red backdrop, the linear line work in the painting is clearly the work of David.

After the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, the monarchy was restored, and David was exiled to Brussels. From there he continued his work, focusing on portraiture, until his death in 1825.13 Still, he is most remembered for his work depicting some of the most important events in French history, giving us images of the French Revolution that are still unparalleled in art history.

  1. Encyclopedia of European Social History, 2001, s.v. “David, Jacques Louis,” edited by Peter N. Stearns.
  2. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004, s.v. “Jacques Louis David” by Paula K. Byers and Suzanne M. Bourgoin.
  3. Milestone Documents in World History: Exploring the Primary Sources That Shaped the World, 2010, s.v. “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen” edited by Brian Bonhomme and Cathleen Boivin.
  4. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004, s.v. “Jacques Louis David” by Paula K. Byers and Suzanne M. Bourgoin.
  5. Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire, 2006, s.v. “Marat, Jean-Paul,” by Charles C. Gillispie.
  6. Arts and Humanities Through the Eras, 2005, s.v. “Neoclassicism.”
  7. Arts and Humanities Through the Eras, 2005, s.v. “David, Jacques-Louis.”
  8. New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2003, s.v. “French Revolution” by A. Latreille.
  9. Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire, 2006, s.v. “David, Jacques-Louis,” by Simon Lee.
  10. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004, s.v. “Jacques Louis David,” by Paula K. Byers and Suzanne M. Bourgoin.
  11. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004, s.v. “Jacques Louis David,” by Paula K. Byers and Suzanne M. Bourgoin.
  12. Tauranga Memories, 2010, “Napoleon on show: Propaganda via art,” by Debbie McCauley.
  13. Encyclopedia of European Social History, 2001, s.v. “David, Jacques Louis,” edited by Peter N. Stearns.

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57 Responses

  1. This is a great topic! Jacques Louis David’s paintings can be found everywhere when you’re learning about the French Revolution. It’s always interesting to see how major historical events were recorded prior to photography. David captured pivotal moments in French history, from the death of Jean-Paul Marat to Napoleon Bonaparte’s crossing of the St. Bernard Pass, in impressive detail. In particular, I can see how “Death of Marat” became such an influential force in the Reign of Terror. The light and shadow, as well as the way Marat is framed, makes the painting almost resemble a journalistic photograph. His face is in view, and he has a hopeful expression even as he is dying. This gives him the look of a hero or martyr, inspiring the painting’s viewers to fight for him.

  2. This article was very interesting. His paintings did a great job capturing historical movements in French history. It was interesting to get the history behind each painting because it gave us his perspective at that time. I also found it interesting that he used his painting skills to advance his political gain while expressing his views. This article was very well written.

  3. It is impressive how a simple man can get pictured many events in history. For what I was informed in this article, Jacques Louis David was an impressive artist capable of captured in his brain any moment in history and create a beautiful image in a canvas. I should have love to put his painting, the intervention of the Sabines, in my article of Romulus.

  4. This is a nice article that goes through the most important moments of the French Revolution by explaining the paintings of the most important artist of the moment; Jaques Louis David. It is clear that Jacques Louis David’s paintings follow the chronology of the French Revolution against the authoritarian power of the Monarchy. The three paintings that have impacted me the most are David’s paintings of “The tennis Court Oath,” “The Death of Marat,” and “Bonaparte Crossing the St. Bernard Pass”. I think that these paintings represent and immortalize powerful moments of the Revolution, that still today transmit the message that the artist wanted to express with his paintings.

  5. This was a very interesting article! The paintings that Jacques Louis David created were amazing and important pieces of work that displayed the political climate of his time. Basically, they seemed like propaganda for what he was involved in and who saw those paintings were influences by his work. His painting were very powerful especially when it came to the ideals of the revolution. He used his skills to advance his political gain. The author did a great job telling the story of Jacques Louis David and his involvement of the French Revolution.

  6. I think that Jacques Louis David did an amazing job at giving us a glance of history in the moment which I think was something difficult to accomplish. David lived through many different and important moments in french history, in the article there is a part where he said he would follow no man and ended up being Napoleon’s personal painter, which I though was contradictory to himself and his goals. Atleast in the end he was able to still be a painter even if he was exiled after Napoleon’s defeat, but I do believe his paintings are great a capturing moments and movements in french history.

  7. While learning about the French Revolution in my Foundations of Civilization class, I saw some of these paintings by Jacques Louis David. Discovering David’s life behind these paintings he created and the history behind them was really interesting. I like the style of his work, how real he depicted these scenes. It was also fascinating to learn that David was involved in the Jacobin Party and later followed Napoleon Bonaparte to become his painter.

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