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April 16, 2017

Painting the Town Red: Jacques Louis David and Revolutionary France

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.

Recent Comments


  • Brandon Vasquez

    This article was very good. The way Jacques Louis David influenced history was different than someone who led an army like Napoleon. Propaganda has been important in any parts of history as the more people see one stance of things the more they’ll believe it. In the portrait of the “Death of Marat” it brings to light of a famous Jacobin being killed by a royalist which would have definitely sturred up some issues.

  • Peter Alva

    I enjoyed reading this article because of how much of his artwork was included. His artwork and how he would talk about politics through his painting tells about him not only as a person but how long art has influenced thoughts and was able. His artwork reminds me of political comics but in paintings of this time. Also, the fact that this was all during a revolution is kinda insane to me.

  • Adelina Wueste

    This article was very good! It is always interesting to learn about a historical figure that impacted history in somewhat of a different way. I really liked how you included so many of Jacques Louis Davids pieces of artwork. The images and the descriptions of the paintings helped me understand how Davids’s art changed over time. Not only did the images and descriptions help me understand how Davids’s art changed, but also how his artwork related to the current events in France.

  • Jacob Adams

    This article provides a thoroughly researched account of the life and work of Jacques Louis David, and highlights the artist’s crucial role in the French Revolution. What stands out to me is how you contextualized David’s work within the broader historical and cultural framework of 18th-century France. The article is well-organized and presents a comprehensive overview of David’s most famous paintings, while providing insight into their symbolic and artistic significance to the political climate of the world. Overall, the article was an excellent introduction for me to David’s work. The pictures and sources through out were well placed and kept me engaged with the reading.

    • Eugenio Gonzalez

      The article was very informative. It was interesting to learn about the different paintings of Jacques-Louis David. Without a doubt, the images and descriptions help the reader understand the context of the images and maintain the reader engaged with the article’s narrative. The article does a great job of demonstrating how Jacques- Louis David used art to express his thoughts on politics.

  • Christopher Morales

    There are many different people with different roles in war. You told us the story of one who I have never heard of. I feel like this is a shame due to his beautiful art. He captured a lot of history that allows us to see what it really was like. I wish every time period had a painter that could portray the events as he did for Napolean and the political faults for his time. His art was part of a realist movement that expressed the world as they saw it. I really appreciated the pictures you used as well.

  • Sydney Nieto

    Very interesting article. I knew that during history there was famous wars or people, but not many painters. I like how much care David had put into his work, coming to the different paint styles, in order to tell a story. The painting that stood out to me was the “Death of Marat”, which represented the dead of his friend with the letter from his assassin.

  • Gabriella Parra

    The concept of this article is amazing! It was captivating to learn about French history and views held about it from art made at the time. It’s interesting to see that Jacques Louis David used his art to display his thoughts on politics at the time even if he wasn’t literally drawing an event of the French Revolution although the beginning of the revolution gave him the freedom to do this. It’s also interesting that his art had a more romantic style toward the end of his career. I wonder what influenced his art in this way

  • Hailey Koch

    Amazing job on your article, I had a really good time reading it and learning new facts about someone like Jacques Louis David. I learned that he was a so-called leader of the art. He was part of an incredible movement that was meant to bring a painting back to its originality just like Greek art. David wanted his art to be classical and one of a kind. He had captured key moments of history in his paintings that were happening around him. Not only was he able to capture them, but he was able to do them in such a way that stood out to others since they were different from their other paintings.

  • Sofia Perez

    Amazing article Teresa! When I took World History in high school I also had to learn about the different types of art pieces and styles throughout history. One of the artists I remember learning about was Jacques Louis David. Out of all the paintings talked about in this article, my favorite is Bonaparte Crossing the St. Bernard Pass because of the realism and vibrant colors used that brings the painting to life.

  • Lyle Ballesteros

    This is a great article! I am a big fan of art history and art history in regards to how it connects to real world events and the French Revolution is a perfect example of this and I think you presented that very well through the prism of Jacque Louis David who was incredibly revolutionary in regards to both art and the politics and government of France during the French Revolution. His story is specifically interesting due to him being a diehard supporter of the Revolution and creating some of the most important pieces of art that are still regarded as apart of the Revolution to this day. But then when Napoleon takes charge of France he is hired by him and become somewhat of a propagandist artist for Napoleon and created many painting that would put Napoleon in a good light and a great leader.

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