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.
Painting the Town Red: Jacques Louis David and Revolutionary France
Public Ratings

Written By
More from Teresa Valdez

The Battle of Bosworth Field and the Successes of the Wars of the Roses

By all means, King Richard III had no reason to be nervous...
Read More

9 Comments

  • A well written and put together article. I always knew that the French Revolution was a dark time but not how one painter lived through it all. To continue to paint in what he believed in even when imprisoned for several months when the Jacobin party fell. In a way it is kind of inspirational that he wanted to follow his own principles and painted what he thought was true. Sadly that belief ended when Napoleon took power and followed him instead.

  • Artists have been involved in politics for a long time.
    If an artist connects themselves to a political movement they take a risk. Sometimes the risk pays off, but sometimes it backfires on them. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei spent months in a Chinese prison for criticizing the government. The artist who created the iconic “Hope” poster for President Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign eventually came to regret making it. Shortly after the election, he was sued by the associated press, who had claimed he used one of their photographs as a source for the image.

  • This article was amazing. I have been studying French history and particularly the French revolution for a long time, and this is the first time that I discover it on this angle. It’s funny because we have all seen these paintings before and never really knew who the artist was. Art is an important part of the French culture, and it is interesting to see what was happening through the eyes of the artist.

  • Jacques Louis David was a famous painter during the French revolution. He brought the art style back to the Greek era of realism. He captured key moments during this period. I believe a picture is worth a thousand words. It is important for us to have art in our lives. When we look back at the piece we not only see what happened we can see how the person felt about the time. This article says that Jacques used his paintings to express his ideas about the monarchy that was oppressing the French people. The picture of his painting really emphasis this point.

  • Awesome article! It was well-written and well-researched. Although, I must disagree with the French Revolution being the most famous revolution on the basis that I am American! I say that in jest. This was a great article about Jacques Louis David. It was able to explain how the Revolution impacted his life and therefore his works. Jacques was an incredible artist who’s works come to mind at the thought of the French Revolution.

  • Great job!I can tell you took a lot of time and did a lot of research for this article! The photo of the painting of Oath of the Horatii was great and caught my attention, as well as your photo of Bonaparte Crossing the St. Bernard Pass, and all the photos were great. I loved them! Overall great article!

  • Hi Teresa, I really enjoyed reading this article and learning about the famous painter Jacques Louis David and how he was the leader to a whole art movement. I thought you did a great job of choosing images to put into your article. They are beautiful and they show how much work and thought the painter put in them to silently protest the French monarchy.
    I hope your article wins any awards, great job!

  • It seems as though Jacques Louis David was born in the right place at the right time. I do not think anyone else could have done a better job portraying France’s revolution than David. I have heard about David before, but I was surprised to read how he was also the one who painted the memorable Napoleon Bonaparte portrait. I just wish that there were paintings in today’s world that captivate the conflicts in the same level and depth that David did. Great use of paintings, fantastic article!

  • I love the images you used in your article! I remember one from Dr. Whitener’s lecture. And your title was a clever twist. Jacques Louis David was very talented and recorded some of the most import people and incidents during the French Revolution. I love his portrait of The Death of Marat one of his friends who died tragically, and he even immortalized him as a hero. Great article and nice topic!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *