The French Revolution is credited for its violent end to the French monarchy, what it should also be credited with is the stylistic revival among French painters at the time. The era’s patriotism and republic ideal galvanized artists like Jacques-Louis David and prompted them to explore a new perspective in what would become known as Neoclassicism.
“The artist must be a philosopher. Socrates the skilled sculptor, Jean-Jacques the good musician, and the immortal Poussin, tracing on the canvas the sublime lessons of philosophy, are so many proofs that an artistic genius should have no other guide except the torch of reason.” – Jacques-Louis David
The latter half and conclusion of the bloody French Revolution brought about colossal changes to France politically, economically, and culturally. This pivotal period gave rise to stylistic movements and Roman inspiration that contained deeply rooted patriotism and the republican ideal with every stroke of the paint brush.
The renowned French painter, Jacques-Louis David spearheaded the artistic advancement early on with his depictions of revolutionary figureheads and martyrs. For instance, arguably the most famous painting of the French Revolution was David’s portrayal of the notorious revolutionary martyr, Jean-Paul Marat’s lifeless body after being assassinated by the Girondin sympathizer Charlotte Corday.
Marat’s assassination, boosted by David’s martyrized interpretation, transformed the rebel writer into a saint-like symbol; for a political leader had never been honored in a painting like a religious figure before. The people’s response could be compared to the Christian’s veneration of Jesus Christ.
Marat’s immortalization on David’s canvas marked the beginning of a cultural evolution where artists went from painting historical, religious, and mythological impressions to painting contemporary political subjects.
Before David became the pioneer of Neoclassicism, he was an art student traveling around Europe and visiting ancient architectural marvels like the ruins of Herculaneum and the Doric temples at Paestum.
Despite David’s supposed contempt for the seduction of antiquity, he became inspired by Neoclassical doctrines that had appeared in during the height of ancient Rome. Influenced by the archaic styles of Greece and Rome, David found his artistic calling in painting emphasized austere linear designs of classical themes. He valued the clarity, universality harmony and idealism the imagery invoked.
David’s first painting which replicated this new style was the Oath of the Horatti. It immediately became a sensation and was regarded as a manifesto for the artistic revival – what we now know as Neoclassicism. David’s introduction of French culture to Neoclassicism subconsciously symbolized an end to the corrupt, decaying aristocracy for the people. Little did the French working-class know, this painting would define the antecedent for the return of patriotic morals.
The previous dominate style, Rococo was characterized by elaborate ornamental interior design: light, airy elegant natural curve-like forms, and playful pastel color palettes were immediately threatened by the emerging revival.
David, now a cultural messiah, continued to create his famed work in this new style. By the time the simmering upheaval began to boil over into a revolution David had traded in his paintbrush for bayonet. He became a member if the extremist group led by Maximilien Robespierre and became the template for the modern “politically committed artist.” He became known as “the Robespierre of the brush,” because of his successful abolishment of the old regime’s system for training artists.
While Robespierre was dismantling the corrupt French government, David was breaking the chains of his fellow artists. It was during this time that he attracted a legion of young painters from across Europe, discarded his student’s artistic regime training and re-educated them to comprehend that the fundamental basis of art was the contour. David taught future master painters like François Gérard, Antoine-Jean Gros and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
The French Revolution occurred around the time David’s students reached maturity. The political upset was profound and everyone in France – including promising artists – experienced great change in both their environment and themselves.
Some artists of this period joined the revolutionary movements, others abandoned France and the rest tried to cope or survive in a world that was no longer stable. To deal with the trauma, they turned to their passion for painting and admiration for their teacher and created Neoclassical masterpieces that inspired architecture and stylistic design to this day.