Art in the Age of Revolution

Art in the Age of Revolution
ESSAY Topic 2. The Enlightenment philosophers attempted to reform society through the pursuit of science, rationalism and education. This essay examines the art of Jacque-Louis David of the 18th century whose work was influences by Enlightenment ideals.
Jacque-Louis David and the Ideals of Enlightenment
Key words: Enlightenment, education, revolution, ancient antiquity, neo-classicism.

The age of ‘Enlightenment’ was the age of reason, it was a time when science became the new rational, and philosophers and artists worked to change society, away from religion, superstition and the monarchy. With the engagement of education, discoveries in ancient antiquity were made, a new order that encouraged question that brought light and power to the ordinary and bourgeois society. This new age began in the mid 1600’s and in-sighted a wave of revolution across Europe and America. A statement quoted by Protagoras from ancient antiquity, outlined the scientific nature in the examination of the exactness of measurement in nature, “The measure and rule of all things” (Protagoras, sited in Winckelman, 1764. ch1, pp74, 1). This was particularly so in Etruscan, Greek and Roman art of antiquity, so it could be said that ‘The age of Enlightenment’ should actually be named ‘The Return to the Enlightenment’ or what came to be known in artist’s terms as ‘Neo-classicism’. The mathematical principle of scientific thinking, or the scientific revolution, was explained by Sir Isaak Newton’s (1642-1727) discoveries, in the laws of gravity, calculus, laws of motion and the weights of the sun and planets (Gleick, 2003). Winckelman expressed, the superiority of ancient Greek art, and perceived to base the principle on rules of proportion, and compared it to architecture, and stated that ‘all rules were found in man’ (Fernie, 1995. cp4). Winckelman (1764) wanted to bring forth the visual arts in his book: ‘The History of Ancient Art’, in a pure scientific context. He wanted to bring measurement to the art, in cultural history, the time and place, where and when it was created, what government or power influenced the artist, or even the climate, and the status of the artists. Winkelman in effect “elevated historical structure over individual life” (Fernie, 1995. cp4, pp70-1). This concept was not new, as ancient Rome deciphered Greek art in terms of measurement. The Romans evaluated and copied the art of the Greeks for propaganda, for the purposes of changing society structure; they were the first to introduce democracy within a Roman Republic (Plant, 2012). It was in the time of enlightenment that political theorists cast aside traditional values and endeavoured to ‘reconceive society in ideal terms’, scientific terms (Williams, 2009 ch3, pp1) contrary to religious or superstitious beliefs. It was the ideal of reason, that inspired the artist Jacque-Louis David (1748-1825) and the Jacobins in the révolte nobiliare of the Tiers Étate to gain popular government, and change the aristocratic idea of art, and leadership to a democratic one (Tomory, 1969).
It stands to reason that Jacque-Louis David was influenced by intellectuals such as Johann Joachim Winckelman, because he was in Rome after being awarded Prix de Rome and was permitted to go to Italy for advanced studies in 1774, just ten years after Winckelman published ‘The History of Ancient Art’ in 1764. Also, David must have been influenced by the French philosopher Denis Diderot and his contribution to the ‘great Enlightenment enterprise, the Encyclopaedia of Arts, Sciences, and Crafts 1751-1752’. Diderot expressed the weakness of the current contemporaries and encouraged a ‘higher sense of moral purpose’ (Williams, 2009. ch 3 p97). This new ideal proved to be a great player, in sighting the greater good and moral value of society. And during David’s artistic and political career he became instrumental in roles of influence by drawing on the aspirations of those around him, and some believed that his work favoured anyone that was in power. Though, on greater inspection, of David’s work, the build-up too, and during the French revolution, through to his role in Napoleon’s campaigns, we might find that David was loyal to his own belief, in that his work would serve a greater human need rather than that of an aesthetic or aristocratic nature (Rosenblum, R. and H. W. Janson. 1984).
On returned visits to Rome David was deeply influenced by Roman ideals and that of social republicanism, and it was during this time he looked away from French contemporary frivolity in the Rocco and worked to exercise a moral integrity, he became known as “the perfect political artist” (Honour, 1968). He became a leading figure for neo-classicism, which was seen to be a reaction against the Rocco. Winckelman stated, that ‘artists, should become public educators and not pander to the whims of aristocratic patrons’ (Winckelman, cited in Honour, 1968, p19), so it seems that David was deeply influenced by Winckelman and the philosophers of enlightenment and recognises his neo-classic role in revolution.
David was a strong supporter of the French revolution and joined the Mountain and then joined the Jacobin club led by Maximilien de Robespierre (1758-1794). David was elected to the National Convention in 1792, to become the official painter of the revolution, where he played a voters role, in the execution of Louis XVI.
oath of horatiiFig.1 ‘Oath of the Horatii’ 1784
Jacque-Louis David
Oil on canvas
Louvre , Paris.
The ‘Oath of the Horatii’ painted in 1784 has often been thought to be miss construed as a manifesto to the French Revolution, though, Honour (1969) says that the work was commissioned for the Crown by Comte d Ángiviller and does not represent a Roman Republican scene. The painting may imply, a Roman theme of patriotic allegiance, but it does not imply patriotism to revolution, because, at this date; 1884, patriotism in France ‘still implied loyalty to the King’, but, when taking this into consideration, David was obviously influenced by Roman politics. David studied in Rome in the 1770’s, and the influences of Enlightenment philosophers were intrinsically Roman in methodological terms, as, is the patriotism depicted in the son’s allegiance to the sword, the architectural structure and Roman costume. Roman antiquity used a combination of Greek mythology and Roman Catholicism in order to appeal to the Greek masses, for the purposes of propaganda, in order to change society value, which is conducive to modern enlightenment (Plant, 2012). The women are draped in organic sorrow as their mechanistic male counter parts; wreak ‘masculine martial spirit’ (Craske, 1997). This is a combination to organic natural mythology and ridged Roman order. This painting must have been based on Roman Republican ideals and society structure, because there is no reference to monarchy, but there is in the allegiance to the three swords, the three men, three arches, and three women. Three meaning more than one (Geddes and Grosset, 2005) this must be reference to the Roman Republic (Plant, 2012. ch 8) certainly not a monarchy, which is an allegiance to one.
the lictors returning to brutusFig.2 The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons
Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Oil on canvas, 422 x 323 cm


In David’s painting of ‘Brutus’ of 1789, ‘David chose a Roman Republican theme-the expulsion of a tyrant’, where, ‘Brutus is seated in the atrium of his house while the lectors carry in the bodies of his sons, which he condemned to death for treason’(Honour, 1969. p72). David began the painting of ‘Brutus’, as the French Revolution entered its first stages. This could have illustrated to the public stoic patriotism, and austere duty, when ‘Brutus’ was displayed in the Salon in 1789, and in 1790 when David’s ‘Brutus’ was staged at the close of Voltaire’s, performed, ‘Tragedy of Brutus’. Voltaire was hailed a prophet, some sixty years earlier and was known for his beliefs in civil liberties, his freedom of religion, and was also considered a radical. Soon David would be awarded the same status. In 1790 David was chosen by the Jacobin club to Paint the ‘Oath in the Tennis Court’. The oath by the Third Estate (the so called voice of the people) held in the Salle du Jeu de Paume at Versailles, swore never to disband until a new constitution had been drafted. Though the ‘Oath of the Tennis Court’ never got past conceptual design, David continued on a path of political cause.
oath of the tenneis courtFig.3 ‘The oath in the Tennis Court’ Salon .
Pen and ink. 26×42”
Louvre Paris.

During Robespierre’s ‘Reign of Terror’ during the French Revolution David was called upon to commemorate a series of martyrs. The greatest of these was the ‘Death of Marat’ (Rosenblum, R. and H. W. Janson. 1984).
Jean-Paul Marat was a personal friend of David’s during the revolutionary years and was also a Jacobin which, in-sighted political executions from his newspaper, ordering the public to hand over expatriates and persons accused of treason. Charlotte Corday, in resistance, gained access to his apartment and murdered Marat in his bath. Marat was made, instantly, into a political martyr and was immortalised on canvas forever. David immortalised Marat as a saintly Christ or one of Homeric Deities.
death of moratFig.4 ‘Death of Marat’
Oil on canvas, 65”x50 8/8”
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts at Brussels



A new kind of religion was born in the guise of social reform, immortalised by David and Marat. The crude wooden box in the foreground is cleverly used to appeal to the masses. The box resembles a tomb stone, with A Marat and David’s name inscribed as a formal memorial. David has also inscribed the numeral ii, which referrers to the year two of the new revolutionary calendar. A close relation of the image displayed by Marat’s corps is reminiscent to the Christ draped in pure white cloth, angelic in appearance, which ultimately promotes the ‘higher sense of moral purpose’ (Williams, 2009. ch 3 p 97) and sacrifice. It has ‘elevated historical structure over individual life’ (Fernie, 1995. Cp 4, pp 70, 1), cementing a new value of self-sacrifice, into the minds of the people, for the purpose, of the political cause.
After the death of Robespierre and his fellow Jacobins, David narrowly escapes into exile, until he recognises a new hero. David enters into a new allegiance with Napoleon Bonaparte at the expense of individual liberty, and the ideal enlightened democracy. Though the concept of equality and nationalism survived as a means of political and social change, for monarchy was prevented from absolute rule (Rosenblum, R. and H. W. Janson. 1984).
napoleonFig.5 ‘Napoleon leading his troops in victory across the perilous Alpine pass at the Grand St Bernard’
Oil on canvas
261 cm × 221 cm (102⅓ in × 87 in)
Château de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison
In David’s painting of Napoleon leading his troops over the Alp’s, he has produced the epitome of propaganda. Bonaparte ‘Calm on a fiery steed’ (Rosenblum, R; H. W. Janson. 1984). Here David continues to educate the people in patriotism and loyalty to the nation. The raised hand is reminiscent to the ‘Oath in the Tennis Court’ and the ‘Oath of the Horatii’ swearing ligancy to the Republican cause, and when we reflect on David’s career, we discover from his education in Rome, that the following of the Roman antiquity, and the ideals brought about in the neo-classical movement, in art, and in politics was consistent to enlightenment theory. We can see that David and the enlightenment brought with it, revolution, and a change in social order, which still exists, and is still visible in propaganda material and politics today.



Craske, M. 1997. “And ‘tis in Vain to Find Faults in the Art of Deceiving…”. In Art in Europe 1700-1830: A History of the Visual Arts in an Era of Unprecedented Urban Economic Growth, M. Craske, 145-217. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Geddes and Grosset, 2005. “Tarot”. David Dale House, New Lanark, MLII 9DJ, Scotland.
Gleick, James 2003.” Isaac Newton.” New York Pantheon Books
Honour, H. 1968. “Art and Revolution”. In Neoclassicism, H. Honour, 69-99. London: Pelican Books.
Plant, Ian 2012. Myth and Mythology: “Myth in the Ancient World”. Palgrave Macmillan. South Yarra.
Rosenblum, R. and H. W. Janson. 1984. “Part I: 1776-1815”. In Art of the Nineteenth Century: Painting and Sculpture. R. Rosenblum, and H. W. Janson, 14-109. London: Thames and Hudson.
Tomory, P.A. (1969) ‘Neo-classicism and Romanticism c. 1770-1850’in Foundations of Eurpean Art (pp.207-229). Harry N Abrams, New York.
Williams, R. 2009. “The Enlightenment”. In Art Theory: An Historical Introduction, 2nd ed., R. Williams, 95-121 & 286-290 (sources). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
Winckelmann, Johann Joachim. 1764. “The History of Ancient Art”. In Art History and its Methods: A Critical Anthology, Eric Fernie, ed., 68-76. London: Phaidon

Fig. 3
Fig. 5



2 responses to “Art in the Age of Revolution

    • Thanks for your comment Rebel Mouse, I understand that my conclusion is somewhat short as my finishing was rushed, but I must say that my conclusions are souly my own and derived from my personal evaluations of the resources studied in my references. If you read some of my other posts you will find that my connections in historical references may not have been made by others. However I’m not sure what source you are referring to.


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