Revolutionary France was a troubling time to be an artist. ‘The Declaration of the Rights of the Man’ declared an end to censorship. Yet Robespierre’s terror saw the blood of countless artists stain the Place de Revolution. The rules were less clear but in many ways state control over the arts remained unchanged. But the state didn’t just erase art, it also sponsored its creation.
Enter Jacques-Louis David, married to a royalist and a member of the artistic elite who became the de facto artist of the revolution. David’s great talent was his ability to take stories that were known but distort how audiences felt about them. We can see this in David’s neoclassical style through which he depicted the same characters but with new emotions.
Take his painting ‘The Oath of the Horatii’, presented in the Paris Salon in 1785. The painting depicted a narrative known by the citizens of Paris: two groups of men, the Horatii and the Curatii, were selected to fight in order to resolve a conflict between Rome and Alba.
On the left of the painting we see the oath taking place, presented in the geometric lines of the Horatii. On the right we see the women, the sisters of the Horatii and the wives of the Curatii, weeping at the fate of their loved ones.
In the period dramatizations of the story there is little reference to this oath and the selection of the combatants is usually depicted as the result of aristocratic whims. Here David paints a world where the state is worth the ultimate sacrifice.
But perhaps the message here is too subtle. ‘The Oath of the Horatii’ was, after all, accepted into the Paris Salon and David continued to receive royal commissions after its release. To see David’s true political masterstroke, we must look later in his career. On 13th July 1793 revolutionary journalist and politician Jean-Paul Marat was stabbed in his own bathtub by journalist Charlotte Corday.
The real Marat bathed to ease a debilitating skin condition and his murder, committed by a woman whilst he lay helpless in a bath, was an ignominious one. Were the story to end here it is likely we would care little about Marat’s death. But we do care.
On 16th October 1793, whilst Marie Antoinette was guillotined for high treason, David unveiled his new painting in the Louvre, ‘The Death of Marat’. In the painting Marat slumps out of the bath, Christ-like with blood pouring down his chest, the skin unblemished.
There is more than a hint of religious martyrdom about the image. But Marat is surrounded by a dark background, very different from the light of heaven we are used to seeing. The soul of religious symbolism is missing. Instead Marat is a martyr for the revolution. It is through this expert and surprising manipulation of what we think we know, that David tells us how to feel. He tells us to believe in the revolution.