The neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David was an influential figure throughout the Revolution of 1789. He created images to depict the New France in order to entice the public to join the revolution. (The power of art: Jacques-Louis David, 2006) During this period the public were confronted for the first time by a modern press which used propaganda to manipulate the public opinion so that it was in agreement with their political ideas. (Dowd D, 1951) This meant that a number of David’s paintings were used as devices for propaganda as they had historical and political themes which supported the ideas for the New France. This essay will refer to a number of David’s paintings and will illustrate the political causes served by David and how his paintings supported them.
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David’s first notable painting Les Serment Des Horaces was commissioned by the Administration of royal residences in 1784 in order to promote patriotism in France. (Boston College, 2011) To symbolize this strong image David illustrates a scene from Titus-Livy, where the story leads to a war between Rome and Alba to end through a battle of the champions. The painting shows the three Horatti brothers standing in unison to fight against the Curiatti of Alba. The story tells us that there are family ties between the two families and that the issue is resolved by the father of the Horatti by telling the three brothers, ‘to conquer or die;’ an image which was supported by the French government. (Schama S, 2006) David has used this image to portray the relationship between France and its citizens; The Horatti Brothers represent the three estates of the Ancien Régime coming together under guidance and direction of the government who is represented by the father. Professor Simon Schama talks about the painting in contrast to the current events during the time of the unveiling in 1785; he explains that during this period France was in a financial crisis, and that looking at the painting felt like a call to arms against the great crisis. Schama shows that David had created a piece of pre-revolutionary propaganda against Louis XVI France which soon followed in the form of the revolution. (The power of art: Jacques-Louis David, 2006)
David’s painting named The Tennis Court Oath depicts an image of hope for France. In 1789 David painted the procuring event that taken place when King Louis XVI made an attempt to stop the meetings between the three estates in the Estates General. His painting of the oath illustrates the first occurrence of nationalism in France as the three estates come together to pledge an allegiance to the reform under an oath led by M. Mounier who reads “Let us swear to God and our country that we will not disperse until we have established a sound and just constitution, as instructed by those who nominated us.”
It is clear that the painting has strong symbolic themes as Schama explains that the great space between the roof of the tennis court and the people is representative to the scale of the forthcoming revolution. He also shows an awareness of the electrical storm surrounding the venue, and describes the revolution as an “unstoppable force of nature.” (The power of art: Jacques-Louis David, 2006) The combined message which David has painted is strong in order to mobilize public opinion. Dowd explains that the themes present in the painting leave an indelible imprint of the nature of the revolution and that painting is a good device to be used for propaganda. (Dowd D, p 538)
The painting marked the first stepping towards becoming the New France, and David was keen to see it through to the end. Schama states that the messages portrayed in David’s Historical roman paintings had finally come to life following the oath. It was a time where the people of France came together for change. (The power of art: Jacques-Louis David, 2006) David’s paintings had finally mobilised public opinion in favour of the revolution.
David’s next painting The Lictors bring to Brutus the body of his sons shows the extent of David’s passion towards the cause of the revolution. By the time of the unveiling of the painting the revolution had started; there was a national assembly and the bastille had been destroyed. It was certain that the revolutionaries, including Jacques-Louis David, had profound beliefs against the monarchy. This concept is depicted in David’s painting which tells the story of Brutus who sends for his sons to be killed after plotting to bring back a monarchy within the Roman Empire. There is a clear division in feelings between the father and the mother when the sons are brought to them. Brutus looks away from his dead sons in anger for what they made him do. Brutus knew that his actions where done for the greater good and showed no remorse. However, the mother actively grieves for her dead sons for she does not understand that the need of the national is father greater than the need for family. Therefore Brutus is not seen as a monster by his colleagues, but a hero for sacrificing his familial lineage for his country.
As the revolution continued in time, it was certain that David’s messages became more profound through his artwork. By this time David’s devices of propaganda had gone from telling people to simply follow the revolution, to be prepared sacrifice yourself and the life of your family if you don’t cooperate. The painting of Brutus was deemed David’s darkest painting by Schama due to the extent of the message that it gave to David’s followers. (The power of art: Jacques-Louis David, 2006)
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The final painting that this essay will refer to is David’s most controversial piece named Marat Assassiné. The painting portrays Jean-Paul Marat to have been murdered whilst working in his bathtub. He was French revolutionist who used his post as a journalist to name people of the national assembly as traitors and was the cause of hundreds of deaths during the revolution. However David did not want his friend and colleague to be remembered as a murderer, therefore he painting Marat to be remembered as a man of “Goodness, honesty and patriotic selflessness.” (The power of art: Jacques-Louis David, 2006) To do this David altered Marat’s working environment; instead of Marat’s desk being covered in lists of traitors, David painted a letter placed on Marat’s desk to a woman whose son was in the French army with a monetary gift to her.
David changed the scene of Marat’s death so that the people would think that Marat was a martyr at the cause of the revolution. Even in 1793, David’s paintings were still used as devices for political propaganda. It is clear that David’s capacity as a painter was to the revolution; otherwise he would have painted Marat in his bathtub with names of traitors at his side. (The power of art: Jacques-Louis David, 2006)
Throughout this essay named examples have been used in order to analyse David’s capacity as a painter. It is clear that David’s work was present throughout the revolution and was used as devices for propaganda in order to manipulate the opinion of the public. David used many techniques in order to put the message of the revolution onto the canvas. Before the revolution he used images from Roman history in order to portray a sense of patriotism amongst all French citizens. This idea was realised in 1789 when the national assembly took place. The three estates merged together under oath in order to make the New France. David’s depiction of this in the Tennis court oath shows his desire for change. It is clear that the painting symbolically showed the beginnings a revolution. Following this David’s used more profound images to serve the cause. His painting, the Lictors bring Brutus the bodies of his sons, shows the strongest message that he had painted. David’s image of Brutus shows that the revolutionaries were prepared to sacrifice friends and family if they opposed the revolution. Even though David produced many paintings for the revolution, before 1793 he had never altered reality in order to promote his cause. His painting Marat Assassiné was not a painting of Jean-Paul Marat the man who sent hundreds of innocent citizens to the guillotine; but the man who died for his country. David perceived Marat as a model republican, thus he painted Marat as hero rather than a murderer. Many of David’s paintings following 1789 had a political theme running through them and it is true that his capacity as a painter was at the service of the cause.
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