Revolution—Where Art and Political Unrest Intersect
Marie-Antoinette de Lorraine-Habsbourg,
eine de France et ses enfants (1787)
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was born in Paris in 1755; before her father died when she was only twelve years of age, Le Brun received artistic training from him benefiting from his skills as a portraitist. He encouraged her to continue studying art, but much like her female predecessors in the arts, she had no access to a formal education. Due to her natural talent, Le Brun was considered somewhat of a prodigy and already had a modest amount of clients by the age of fifteen. By the time she was nineteen years old, she had gained so much recognition as an artist, that her painting materials were seized as punishment for operating as a professional artist without guild or academy membership.
In response to this patriarchal injustice, Le Brun joined the Académie de St Luc, an academy that admitted very few women at the time—by the age of twenty she was already established at court and her career took off, throwing her into the spotlight when Queen Marie Antoinette became her official patron. Over the course of her career with Antoinette, she had commissioned approximately thirty portraits of the extravagant Queen. Le Brun had applied for admittance into the Académie Royale in 1783, but was rejected on the basis of her husband being the art dealer, Jean Baptiste Le Brun, but she was later admitted through the Queen persuading the King to put in a good word for her favorite painter.
When Le Brun painted this particular portrait of Antoinette with her three surviving children in 1787, it was due to the Queen’s desire to show her more tender and motherly characteristics. Antoinette summoned her favorite painter to Versaille to commission this publicity portrait. It was an effort to counter her image of frivolity and extravagance—too little, too late and she completely missed the mark just two years before the explosive start of the French Revolution in 1789. Le Brun knew that her marriage was unsuccessful, and in 1789, upon fearing for her life due to her status as the Queen’s personal artist, she ended up leaving her husband and her country. She fled, in exile, to Italy with her young daughter Julie where she would remain for several years.
It was extravagant luxuries such as the exorbitant amount of portraits that Antoinette commissioned, her lavish lifestyle of clothing, jewelry, expensive furniture, and excessive parties that ended up driving her country into such a state of poverty and unrest. In no uncertain terms, Antoinette’s love of pretty things was the straw that broke the back of the impoverished citizens of France and led to an all-out revolution.
Visual Element of Tone as Contrast of Light and Dark
The dramatic dark and light contrasting tones in this piece create a focal point for the painting; they effectively draw the eye to the Queen and her children. It is the softness of the shadows, versus a stark contrast that make the subject matter less harsh and give Antoinette a more motherly air. It stands to reason that if Antoinette’s reputation had not already been sullied as being an unapologetic flirt and spendthrift, that this painting may have helped to give her the sweet and caring image that she needed to quell the anger of her people.
Visual Element of Color as Tone
While the architectural elements of this painting work with less colorful tones, Antoinette and her children are bathed in luscious reds and oranges, and the applicable darker tones of these colors to represent the depth in the folds of the dresses and other fabrics.
Visual Element of Color as Symbol
As mentioned before, we see reds and oranges as the focal point in this painting, for Antoinette the deep crimson reds of her dress bring to mind her reputation as a passionate woman who was believed to float from affair to affair. Truly I think this was supposed to be more mindful in the sense of not boasting the royal purple color and instead of using red to promote the loving and caring nature of her as a monarch. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned propaganda did not save the Queen from eventually meeting the guillotine.
I think, in the grand scheme of things, that this is actually a very lovely portrait, Le Brun was a very talented artist, and the softness of her subjects that she captured truly would have softened any harsh image formed by public opinion—at least it would in an era where being informed on political issues was not as widespread as it is today. As it is, I have never been a fan of Marie Antoinette, but that may be personal bias as I have never appreciated the concept of a monarchy. It is for this reason that I would not own a copy of this painting, but having seen other paintings by Le Brun, I know there are at least a few of her works that I would otherwise own. This particular painting is something that I would expect to see in a place such as the Palace of Versaille, Antoinette’s home of luxury and extravagance.
La Prise de la Bastille (1789)
French artist Jean-Pierre Houël created La Prise de la Bastille (The Storming of the Bastille) in watercolor in 1789. It is assumed that Houël painted this while in Paris, but that cannot be specifically verified. He was known to have witnessed the reign of Louis XV, the French Revolution, as well as the period of Napoleon’s First Empire. This particular watercolor painting depicts the fall of the Bastille, a state prison on the east side of Paris, on the morning of July 14, 1789, after being attacked by a tumultuous and violent mob. The Bastille had become a symbol of the monarchy’s dictatorial rule and as a result, this event became a defining moment in the French Revolution.
Despite the prison only having held seven prisoners at the time of the attack, the fall of this incredibly symbolic building aided the embodiment of the attacks that would later take place on the state of France itself. During the summer of the fall of the Bastille, commoners and partisans alike formed a National Assembly in an effort to debate the institution of a new constitution that would favor more appropriate rights for the French people. Growing paranoia caused the gangs of Parisians to lay siege to the Bastille in an effort to liberate the weaponry they believed to be held within, so that they may be able to stand a chance of possible attacks by the loyalist army. Their efforts forced the prison open, several thousand pounds of gunpowder were seized, several partisans were killed, and later the prison was eventually torn down—this day was a huge success for the revolutionaries and it caused the movement to spread quickly throughout the rest of the country.
It is important to note within the painting itself, we can see the details of what is going on within the scene—we can clearly see, in the center of the painting, the arrest of Bernard René Jourdan, marquis de Launay, the French governor of the Bastille itself. After a long ensuing battle, those within the Bastille had no source of drinkable water and their food rations were incredibly limited; de Launay attempted to negotiate his surrender, under the conditions that no one else within the Bastille would be harmed. These conditions, of course, were rejected, but he surrendered eventually anyway whereupon his weapons were seized from him, and he was to be taken to the Hôtel de Ville. Unfortunately, en route to the Hôtel de Ville, he was assaulted by a furious mob, who beat, stabbed, and shot him. As if that hadn’t been enough, his head was then taken, speared on a pike, carried through the streets four hours, then eventually thrown into the Seine river the next day.
Visual Element of the Line
Despite this painting having been created with watercolor, we see an exceptional amount of line art within it, in order to convey edges, distance, height—in particular, we can see the Bastille itself, with horizontal and vertical lines specifically denoting architectural distance and height, but because it is also in a state of being torn down, we also see jagged lines, which denotes turmoil and anxiety. These emotions are clearly conveyed within this battle scene and for good reason! It is a depiction of historical violence and mob reaction to greater political strife.
It is important to note that many of these lines are freehand in nature, while others are mechanical, some are continuous others are broken, and there is the appearance of both thick and thin lines as well. The spectrum of emotion derived simply from the linework alone covers all of the emotions one might expect just being in the scene that Houël presents to us here. Now knowing the history behind this particular piece makes it easier to understand the emotions conveyed throughout.
Visual Element of Tone as Form, Depth and Distance
When studied, even in a cursory manner, we can see that Houël’s use of tone provides the Bastille it’s architectural form, with the light source coming from the upper-middle left side of the painting, the light casts down to create shade on the right side of the Bastille as well as a gradient effect on the turret to create a more cylindrical shape. We also can see depth, as we look down the street as it disappears behind rubble and smoke past the Bastille, the tone introduces depth of field and distance to illustrate just how large this scene really is.
Visual Element of Color as Mood and Symbol
It seems as though I have a penchant for selecting works of art that hold to a more neutral palette, but this palette is incredibly appropriate for this scene. We see an array of browns, from light to dark, as a representation of hardship within the lives of those who are fighting for their rights. Any reds or blues are exceedingly muted, so as to not overwhelm the symbolic message of the neutral tones.
We also see greys and near black colors, which are symbolic of death, destruction, and even fear. Within a war setting, plumes of smoke can only signal destruction and inevitable themes of death or loss of life.
If I were to seek out paintings like this, it would be at an art museum where historical pieces were more apt to be on display. I know when I visited the Louvre, I saw the painting Le Premier Consul franchissant les Alpes au col du Grand Saint-Bernard (Napoleon Crossing the Alps) by Jacques-Louis David and that is the kind of setting in which I would expect to see this painting by Houël. This is definitely not a piece that I would personally own, or even want to view on a regular basis, but that is not to say it isn’t incredibly well done, or historically necessary; I am not a fan of paintings of war or discord, because it reminds me too often of how human beings can never seem to get along. I consider this pretty strange since I am a horror writer and I regularly write about death.
La Mort de Marat (1793)
Jacques-Louis David created this macabre oil on canvas painting in the neoclassical style, as a tribute to his friend Jean-Paul Marat a controversial journalist who met his grisly end at the hands of a woman.
After the siege of the Bastille, there was a monumental change in French media and press coverage—in fact, it was when the free press was initially established. This meant that newspapers and journalists alike were finally able to freely express facts and personal opinions without having to get approval from the King. By the time 1790 rolled around, there was a dramatic uptick in the number of papers that France had circulating and some of them even had a partisan twist! Papers such as L’ami du Peuple (The Friend of the People) took this novel partisan stance and dangerously took an adversarial stance against the people still in power. Jean-Paul Marat right), having been one of the main writers for L’ami du Peuple, was eventually assassinated as a result of his highly opinionated pieces.
I attack the cheats without fear, I unmask the hypocrites, and I denounce the traitors.Jean-Paul Marat
Marat’s words held so much power that they eventually led to his death, as well as several other citizens of France. Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d’Armont, the daughter of an impoverished aristocrat and royalist sympathizer believed Marat to be an unholy enemy of the state of France and subsequently began to plot his assassination. She initially planned to carry out his murder at the Bastille Day parade on July 14, but upon the cancelation of the festivities, she was forced to revise her plan. On July 13, she came to Marat with a petition to sign, in which she promised to betray the Caen Girondists; Marat, who was working in his bath due to a persistent skin disease, went to sign the petition, only to be stabbed by Corday after she pulled a knife from her bodice. Marat died quickly and Corday sat in wait for the police to arrest her for her crimes, four days later she was taken to the guillotine.
Jacques-Louis David portrays his friend and colleague in this bathtub full of blood, Cordays petition in one hand, and his quill in the other—an image of a martyr for the freedom of speech and a true symbol for the French Revolution.
The Petition that Marat holds in his hand reads:
Du 13. juillet, 1793
Marie Anne Charlotte Corday au Citoyen Marat. Il suffit que je sois bien malheureuse pour avoir droit a votre bienveillance.
July 13, 1793
Marie Anne Charlotte Corday to the citizen Marat. Given that I am unhappy, I have a right to your help.
Visual Element of Tone as Contrast of Light and Dark
There is such a wonderful contrast in this painting that lends to an atmosphere of grief, sorrow, and loss. David highlighted the body of Marat in such a way that he almost looks angelic in his death. The depth of the shadows is not so dark that it creates a harsh contrast, instead it’s just enough to illustrate the mood in which it was painted.
Visual Element of Tone as Form
David was more than kind to his friend, using clean tones to paint him as flawless as he did, he neglected to paint any detail of Marat’s skin condition. In using tone to create form, David created the illusion of musculature in Marat’s lifeless form, a kindness to the victim of assassination.
While it may at first look out of place in a museum of other art from the French Revolution, the history behind its creation and its subsequent use as a piece of propaganda against monarch rule earns it the right to be amongst the paintings of battles, sieges, and other portrayed violence. There is something about this painting that really grabs me by the center of my being—perhaps it is the sympathetic viewpoint that the painting alludes to, Marat the martyr of free speech, the revolutionary who fought with his words. I had a small draw to it before I knew the history behind the painting and now that I have a better understanding of the context of why it was painted, I feel as if it is something I would want to have in my own home. I know it is a morbid image, a murdered man, soaking in his own blood, but at the same time, it is such a powerful image to stand up for what you believe in.
L’Assassinat de Marat (1860)
Despite the French Revolution ending during the previous century, and the Neoclassical movement within art having ended just a decade before this oil on canvas painting was created by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, this piece ties in quite nicely to this particular showcase of artwork. Baudry was one of several artists that continued to work in the classical style, despite the movement having ended within the trending art community. I have included it here because it furthers the narrative of La Mort de Marat (1793).
Seen in this piece is Charlotte Corday, Marat’s assassin standing just a few feet from Marat after having plunged the knife into his chest. It is, in a sense, almost as if Baudry took David’s work, stepped to the left side of the scene, and revealed what David had hidden from the audience. I think it’s rather interesting in this respect, but as it is not officially within the era I did not include it to analyze it as I did the previous works in this article.
“Charlotte Corday Assassinates French Revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Feb. 2010, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/charlotte-corday-assassinates-marat.
Covington, Richard. “Marie Antoinette.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Nov. 2006, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/marie-antoinette-134629573/.
History.com Editors. “French Revolution.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009, http://www.history.com/topics/france/french-revolution.
The National Gallery, London. “Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun.” The National Gallery, http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/international-womens-day-elisabeth-louise-vigee-le-brun.
“Painting of the Storming of the Bastille, 1789.” The British Library, The British Library, 9 Apr. 2014, http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/painting-of-the-storming-of-the-bastille-1789.
Petersen, Britni. “The Death of Marat: A Symbol of the French Revolution: Comm455/History of Journalism.” Comm455History Of Journalism RSS, 1 Oct. 2009, historyofjournalism.onmason.com/2009/10/01/the-death-of-marat-a-symbol-of-the-french-revolution/.
Richman-Abdou, Kelly. “’The Death of Marat’: A Powerful Painting of One of the French Revolution’s Most Famous Murders.” My Modern Met, 9 Sept. 2019, mymodernmet.com/jacques-louis-david-death-of-marat/.
White, Katie. “’The Death of Marat’ Defined the French Revolution. Here Are 3 Things You Might Not Know About Jacques Louis David’s Masterpiece.” Artnet News, 15 July 2020, news.artnet.com/exhibitions/jacques-louis-david-death-of-marat-3-facts-1894240.