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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30 Comments

  • This is an excellent article. It is nice to read an article on art during the French Revolution. Jacques Louis David had a distinct art style for an artist in his time in France. He used his paintings to convey his feelings about politics and the events of the French Revolution. I had seen the painting of Napoleon before, but never knew who painted it.

  • At least of the few of the paintings that were shown, these paintings capture what beauty and negative impact look together on a canvas of some kind. The power behind the historical paintings can really capture the preciseness of the design and yet get a better understanding of what is happening where in certain times of the battles. This article really well explains the detail of this artist and gives a good explanation of these pictures.

  • Art is obviously an important piece of history that shares the visual perspective of the people during important events, such as the French Revolution. Without Jacques Louis-David’s paintings, I don’t think historians and other individuals would understand the key moments during the French Revolution. Furthermore, David’s paintings also shared his viewpoints on certain leaders and groups of people, because the lighting of each painting shares the glorious moments that was happening in France.

  • I have heard of the iconic painter Jacques Louis-David and who created literal history through his art he made. For example bringing out the true emotions of Napoleon and the emotions of the people that were involved in the war and even the people watching the war. Learning about Louis-David taught me about Napoleon as well because they were so connected with their art towards the war. Really nice article I have learned much from this article, a lot more than I knew previously before reading this.

  • Nice article. The paintings that David did were quite important to the political climate of the time. People saw the paintings that he did, and bought into what they were supposed to represent. His painting of Morat was especially important because it helps reinforce the ideals of the Revolution. And the painting of Napoleon was immortal. I have seen that painting of Napoleon on the cover of so many books. It’s iconic at this point.

  • It is amazing how one man created so many iconic paints in such a tumultuous time is history. A lot of David’s work seems to be propaganda for whatever cause he was involved in. Just like photo journalists today and the power their images can have, he seemed to sway people with his paintings. Napoleon was very smart to scoop him up and use David’s artistic abilities for his own political gain.

  • Jacques Loius-David’s “Oath of the Horatii” is reminiscent of classical art, which is alluding to the importance of reason and logic. This is applied to the French Revolution. France no longer wanted to be influenced by the catholic church and thus a rational revolution began. The sought an ordered society like that of the Ancient Greeks. It is fascination how such an old civilization still has a great impact and influence on modern society.

  • I loved that this article touched on everything from the many other figures in the Revolution, to the art, to the monarchy, and even the Age of Enlightenment, all while staying concise. I benefited from reading this article because up until now, I had a difficult time grasping what exactly the French Revolution exactly was. Through this article, I have gained a better understanding on the Revolution itself and the man that was Jacques Louis-David.

  • The topic of the French Revolution is something that I touched briefly in World History in high school, but I did not learn it as thoroughly as it is described in the article. While it is not a topic that would normally catch my attention, it proved to be something interesting to learn about. French history is very interesting and teaches a lot about a failed monarchy. They were known for being frivolous with their traditions and art, I saw this through the article.

  • Jacques Louis-David is an extremely iconic painter who remains timeless and literally created history through his art. He brought out the essence of Napoleon and the true emotions of the people involved in war. Learning about Jacques Louis-David also taught me about Napoleon as well, because they are both so interconnected through his art. I really enjoyed this article and the flow of the story

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