Art in Revolutionary France was affected by three external events: the deposition and emigration of the aristocracy; the excavations of ancient remains at Herculaneum and Pompeii (1738 ff.); and the rape of Italian art by Napoleon. The emigration removed from France most of the class with enough money and taste to buy works of art; and sometimes the artist, like Mme. Vigée-Lebrun, followed the émigrés. Fragonard, though completely dependent on the purses of the leisure class, supported the Revolution, and nearly starved. Other artists supported it because they remembered how the nobility had treated them as servants and hirelings, and how the Académie des Beaux-Arts had permitted only its own members to exhibit in its Salons. In 1791 the Legislative Assembly had opened the Académie to any qualified artist, French or foreign, to compete. The Convention abolished the Académie altogether as an essentially aristocratic institution; in 1795 the Directory replaced it with a new Académie des Beaux-Arts, and gave it headquarters in the Louvre. This had been made a public museum (1792); there the French artists were allowed to study and copy the works of Raphael, Giorgione, Correggio, Leonardo, Veronese, … even the horses of St. Mark’s; never had stolen goods been so commendably used. In 1793 the Convention renewed the government’s support of the Prix de Rome, and of the French Academy in Rome. Slowly the rising middle class replaced the nobility as buyers of art; the Salon of 1795 was crowded with spectators, overwhelmed by 535 paintings. Art prices rose.
Strange to say, the Revolution did not bring any radical movement in the arts. On the contrary, the inspiration given to neoclassicism by the exhuming of ancient sculpture and architecture near Naples, and by the writings of Winckelmann (1755 ff.) and Lessing (1766), had stimulated a revival of the classic style, with all its aristocratic connotations, and this reaction proved strong enough to withstand the Romantic and democratic influences of the Revolution. The artists of this leveling age (Prud’hon dissenting) accepted in theory and practice all the classic and nobiliary norms of order, discipline, form, intellect, reason, and logic as guards against emotion, passion, enthusiasm, license, disorder, and sentiment. French art under Louis XIV had observed these old rules of Quintilian and Vitruvius, of Corneille and Boileau; but under Louis XV and Louis XVI it had relaxed in baroque and frolicked in rococo. With Rousseau defending feeling, and Diderot upholding sentiment, it seemed that the age of Romanticism was at hand. It was in politics and literature, but not in art.
In 1774 Joseph-Marie Vien, excited by reports of the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, started out for Italy, taking with him his pupil Jacques-Louis David. The youngster, all set for revolution, vowed that he would never be seduced by the conservative, aristocratic art of classical antiquity.50 But there was something masterful in him that responded to the majesty of form, the logic of construction, the strength and purity of line, in the art of Greece and Rome. He resisted its masculine message for a time, gradually yielded to it, and brought it back with him to Paris. It harmonized with the Revolution’s rejection of Christianity and the idealization of the Roman Republic, of the Catos and Scipios; it even accorded with Mme. Tallien’s Greek gowns. Now it seemed due time to put aside the celestial aspirations of Gothic, the juvenile surprises of baroque, the gay frills of rococo, the rosy nudes of Boucher, the leaping petticoats of Fragonard. Now classic line and logic, cold reason, aristocratic restraint, and stoic form must be the art goals and principles of colorful, emotional, democratic, romantic, revolutionary France.
David, who was to dominate French art during the Revolution and the Empire, was born in Paris in 1748 of a prosperous bourgeois family which always kept him from want. He entered, at sixteen, the Académie des Beaux-Arts, studied under Vien, tried twice for the Prix de Rome, failed twice, locked himself up, and tried to starve himself to death. A neighboring poet missed him, sought him, found him, and wooed him back to food. David competed again in 1774, and won with a rococo painting, Antiochus Dying for the Love of Stratonice. In Rome he became enamored of Raphael, then put him aside as too femininely soft in mood and line; he found stronger nourishment in Leonardo, and a stately control of thought and form in Poussin. From Renaissance Madonnas he passed to ancient heroes of philosophy, myth, and war; and in the capital of Christianity he shed his Christian faith.
He returned to Paris in 1780, took a rich wife, and submitted in the Académie Salons a succession of classic subjects—Belisarius, Andromache, and some portraits. In 1784 he went to Rome to paint, against a Roman background, a picture commissioned by Louis XVI—The Oath of the Horatii. When he exhibited this in Rome an old Italian painter, Pompeo Batoni, told him, “Tu ed to soli, siamo pittori; pel rimanente si puo gettarlo nel fiume” (You and I alone are painters; as for the rest, they can jump into the river).51 Back in Paris, he submitted his work, as Le Serment des Horaces, to the Salon of 1785. Here, in Livy’s legendary history,52 David found the spirit of the patriotism that had been the real religion of ancient Rome: three brothers of the Horatii family take an oath to settle the war between Rome and Alba Longa (seventh century B.C.) by a fight to the death with three brothers of the Curiatii clan. David pictured the Horatii swearing, and receiving swords from their father, while their sisters mourn; one of them was betrothed to one of the Curiatii. Frenchmen, who knew the story from Corneille’s Horace, caught the picture’s mood of intense patriotism, which counted the nation above the individual, even above the family. A King sincerely dedicated to reform, and a city already stirring with revolution, united in applauding the artist, and his rivals acknowledged the skill with which he had revealed heroic courage, paternal sacrifice, and womanly grief. The success of The Oath of the Horatii was one of the most complete and significant in the annals of art, for it meant the triumph of the classic style.
Encouraged in his method and his choice of subjects, David turned to Greece and offered (1787) The Death of Socrates. Sir Joshua Reynolds, viewing the picture in Paris, pronounced it “the greatest endeavor in art since Michelangelo and Raphael; it would have been a credit to Athens in the time of Pericles.”53 Two years later David returned to Roman legend with The Lictors Bringing Home to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons; this was Livy’s tale of the Roman Consul (509 B.C.) who sentenced his two sons to death for conspiring to restore the monarchy. The painting had been commissioned before the fall of the Bastille, apparently with no thought of the impending revolt. The King’s Minister of Art forbade its exhibition, but public clamor secured its admission to the Salon of 1789. The crowds who came to see it hailed it as part of the Revolution, and David found himself the artistic mouthpiece of his time.
Thereafter he gave himself to the Revolution in a rare marriage of politics and art. He accepted its principles, illustrated its incidents, organized and adorned its fetes, and commemorated its martyrs. When the radical deputy Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau was assassinated by a royalist (January 20, 1793), David set himself to commemorate the scene; within two months he presented the picture to the Convention, which hung it on the walls of its chamber. When Marat was slain (July 13, 1793) a crowd of mourners entered the Convention gallery; soon a voice from among them cried out, “Where are you, David? You have transmitted to posterity the likeness of Lepeletier dying for his country; there remains for you another picture to paint.” David rose and said, “I will do it.” He presented the completed painting to the Convention on October 11. It showed Marat half submerged in his bath, his head fallen back lifeless, one hand clasping a manuscript, an arm dropping limp to the floor. A block of wood beside the tub bore the proud inscription “To Marat David.” It was a departure from David’s characteristic style; revolutionary fervor had replaced neoclassicism with realism. Furthermore, this and the Lepeletier broke classic precedent by taking recent events as subjects; they made art a participant in the Revolution.
By 1794 David had become so prominent politically that he was elected to the Committee of General Security. He followed Robespierre’s leadership, and arranged the procession and artistic decorations for the Feast of the Supreme Being. After Robespierre’s fall David was arrested as one of his followers; after serving three months in prison he was released on the pleas of his pupils. He retired in 1795 to the privacy of his studio, but he returned to prominence in 1799 with a masterly panorama, The Rape of the Sabines. On November 10 Napoleon seized power, and David, fifty-one years old, began a new and triumphant career.