Jacques-Louis David: Political Revolutionary & Propagandist


Between the 16th and 17th of January 1792, hundreds of men voted on whether Louis XVI (1754-1793) should live. Among these voters was Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), a renowned artist whose paintings figure in collections and museums around the world. Yet, a portion of his life outside his works is unknown to the general public. During the French Revolution, between the years 1789 and 1794, David served on the General Committee of General Security and the Monuments Commission. Along assuming these roles, David distinguished himself from his contemporaries as he employed his artistic talent in providing propaganda pieces to anchor republican values and secure the new regime: the French Republic. However, David's authenticity as a revolutionary has been subjected to numerous debates. Indeed, the artist also served Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) in the aftermath of the Revolution as a court painter which charged him with the reputation of being a political chameleon. Although it is true that David collaborated with Napoleon, his actions and thoughts during the Revolution leave little doubts about the sincerity of his devotion to the movement. Leaving Napoleon aside, this article focuses on David's political involvement and contribution during the tumultuous years of the Revolution.

David's prominence as an artist predated the Revolution as he found himself in the presence of the aristocracy, including the king's cousin, Duke d'Orléans (Dowd, 1959). These aristocratic relationships brought David financial success through commissions and potential access to the royal family. However, that all changed when past debts and mishandling of state finances created a financial crisis in France. The financial crisis created a fraying bond between the monarchy and its people. To the majority of the citizens, including David, the monarchy neglected its duty to care for its subjects and did not help to remove itself from a multitude of connected scandals (Korshak, 1987). Even as part of the entourage of the extended royal family, David wished to see the monarchy make the necessary reforms for the good of France (Dowd, 1959). When he felt that there was no progress in the required changes by the monarchy, he entered the political sphere and triumphantly appealed to the different groups of the Revolution, such as the Paris Commune, the Jacobin Club, and the National Convention (Dowd, 1959). His interest in these groups allowed David to create friendships with the leaders of the Revolution, such as Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794).


The Death of Socrates (1787)


David's responsibilities as a political leader varied throughout the Revolution. His prominent status as a politician bore fruit due to his election as part of the National Convention in 1792. David joined one of the most radical political groups in the Revolution: the Jacobins; a group who made up a significant portion of the larger radical group called The Mountain (Dowd, 1959). Due to Robespierre’s power, the Jacobins positioned themselves as the head of multiple committees. In his prominent political functionary role, David became a member of the Committee of General Security in 1793 (Dowd, 1952). As part of the panel, David was one of the leading figures of the policing arm of the ‘Reign of Terror.’ The committee’s main goal was to investigate, arrest, imprison, and bring anyone suspected of counter-revolutionary ideals or actions to trial (Dowd, 1952). The policing aspect of the Terror defined the fear of the general population. There was a good reason for fear as one simple mistake could make you marked as a counter-revolutionary. The number of people arrested as such climbed into the hundreds of thousands. David's signature was found on a minimum of 300 arrest orders (Wilson, 1998). He even signed the warrants for prominent members of society, including Louis XV’s (1710-1774) last royal mistress Madame du Barry (1743-1793) (Dowd, 1952). With the role as a member of the policing branch of the Terror, some of David’s contemporaries thought of the potential overreach. Most of his adversaries were royalist sympathisers, who circulated rumours that he used his political power to arrest other artists due to jealousy. However, there has not been enough evidence to substantiate the claims (Dowd, 1952). David’s role as a member of the Committee of General Security helped propel his career as a politician. For a short time, he served as the 33rd President of the National Convention. Yet it was not the only political position he received during the Revolution.


Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass (1801)


Due to mounting pressure from their subjects, the royal family moved from Versailles to Paris in 1789. The move was a foundational moment in the early stages of the Revolution. The act brought the king from his Versailles residence, where the monarchs ruled France from the time of King Louis XIV (1638-1715), back to Paris, the historical capital of France. For the revolutionary leaders, the move was a logical one as it allowed them to keep an eye on the king. With the royal family back in the historic city, public opinion of their existence improved. The people's opinions of the royal family varied between city and rural areas, but with the king in Paris, the immediate public opinion revolved around that of the Parisians. To the royal family's own doing, Parisian opinion changed when Louis and his family attempted to flee France. This 1791 act, known as the 'Flight to Varennes,' led Parisians to disdain the monarchy and its symbolism. What they stood for was the old antiquated system of past French ideals; the revolutionaries took notice and agreed. For the revolutionaries, if the monarchy needed to disappear, the symbols of past France needed to be removed (Idzerda, 1954). The identity of the monarchy found itself around Paris, and the revolutionaries sought to eradicate monuments and icons of past kings. The National Convention tried to find any symbols or markers of the past deemed worthy of keeping safe, for this purpose they created the Monuments Commission for necessary preservation (Idzerda, 1954). The Monuments Commission did not hesitate to review all aspects of former French ideals, including church offices, which was one of the leading entities of the Bourbon dynasty. As David was a staunch revolutionary and one of the defining painters of the Revolution, he found himself on this commission (Idzerda, 1954). His keen insight dictated what past symbolic functions were deemed worthy enough to keep.


The Death of Young Bara (1794)


With his influence as a painter, David wanted to further the ideas of the Revolution. In a speech given at the National Convention in 1793, he stated, "Each of us is accountable to the fatherland for the talents which he has received," and "The true patriot ought to seize avidly upon every means of enlightening his fellow citizens and of constantly presenting to their eyes the sublime traits of heroism and of virtue" (David, 1793, as cited in Dowd, 1951). David demonstrated his message by providing nationalistic ideals within his paintings. For him, the fatherland and the enlightenment of its people needed heroes and images to propagate its principles. Painting was the method David chose to implement his 'sublime traits,' and he committed many paintings to the nationalistic cause of the Revolution. The earliest one of note is The Tennis Court Oath. While never finished, a sketch of the painting is left to provide what David's intentions were for the grand moment. The act itself was a pledge taken by members of the Third Estate in 1789 not to adjourn the Estates General, the general assembly that Louis summoned due to the financial crisis, until there was a drafted constitution for France (Demeure, 2022). On the first anniversary of the event, David declared to mark the momentous event (Dowd 1951). The event marked the start of the national movement for a constitutional monarchy, which ultimately, after the death of Louis, became the First French Republic.


The Tennis Court Oath


David’s role as a painter went beyond supporting nationalistic ideals in paintings such as The Tennis Court Oath. His paintings also showed national heroes who became martyrs of the French Revolution such as Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793). Marat was a revolutionary writer and Jacobin who had a strong enthusiasm for the revolutionary cause. In his time of prominence, he demanded executions of counterrevolutionaries for the sake of public tranquility (Wilson, 1998). In 1793 Charlotte Corday (1768-1793), a sympathiser of a group deemed counter-revolutionaries, murdered Marat in his bath. To revolutionary leaders such as Robespierre, they saw it suitable to make Marat a martyr for the nation. To show his martyrdom, Robespierre entrusted David with painting the image of a murdered Marat to elicit a specific emotion from the masses. With the fall of the Catholic Church's importance during the French Revolution, Robespierre wanted to show a quasi-religious and tragic functioning for the image (Weston 1996). In the painting, among many others in his collection, David embraced the idea of tragedy to support his vision (Ledbury, 2004). Showing Marat's tragic end through his painting intensified the moral outrage and nationalistic fervor the assassination caused (Wilson, 1998). David's propaganda elicited the necessary effect that Robespierre wished for in the painting. David's painting turned unruly mobs into patriots willing to die for the Revolution (Wilson, 1998).


The Death of Marat (1793)


After the Thermidorian Reaction, which marked the end of the Reign of Terror with Robespierre's death, David's life changed drastically. Due to his friendship with Robespierre, he was arrested and thrown in jail as a terrorist (Dowd, 1959). Ultimately released, he found himself as the court painter of Napoleon which led to him being labeled a turncoat. What people forget about David is his revolutionary verbiage. David stated to Robespierre after a meeting in 1794, "My friend, if you drink the hemlock, so will I" (Wilson, 1998). His willingness to follow his friends showed his conviction for the Revolution. While he did not become a martyr like Marat, his status as a revolutionary in both his political and cultural functions should become a standard part of his memory.


Bibliographical Sources:


Demeure, B. (2022) From the French Revolution to Napoleon I: The New Figures of the Propaganda of the French State. The Journal of Psychohistory, 50, (1) 24-39.


Dowd, D. L. (1951) Art as National Propaganda in the French Revolution. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 15, (5) 532-546, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2746076.


Dowd, D. L. (1952) Jacques-Louis David, Artist Member of the Committee of General Security. The American Historical Review, 57, (4) 871-892, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1844239.


Dowd, D. L. (1959) The French Revolution and the Painters. French Historical Studies, 1, (2) 127-148, https://www.jstor.org/stable/286252.


Idzerda, S. J. (1954) Iconoclasm during the French Revolution. The American Historical Review, 60, (1) 13-26, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1842743.


Korshak, Y. (1987) Paris and Helen by Jacques-Louis David: Choice and Judgement on the Eve of the French Revolution. The Art Bulletin, 69, (1) 102-116, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3051086.


Ledbury, M. (2004) Visions of Tragedy: Jean-François Ducis and Jacques-Louis David. Eighteenth-Century Studies, 37, (4) 553-580, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25098089.


Weston, H. (1996) Jacques-Louis David's "La Mort de Joseph Bara": A Tale of Revolutionary Myths and Modern Fantasies. Paragraph, 19, (3) 234-250, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43263499.


Wilson, E. B. (1998) Jacques-Louis David. Smithsonian, 29, (5) 80-91, https://tinyurl.com/2s435yst.


Image Sources


David, J.-L. (1801) Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass [Painting]. Château de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison.


David, J.-L. (1794) Self Portrait. [Painting]. Louvre Museum, Paris.


David, J.-L. (1787) The Death of Socrates. [Painting]. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.


David, J.-L. (1793)The Death of Marat. [Painting]. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.


David, J.-L. (1794) The Death of Young Bara [Painting]. Calvet Museum, Avignon.


David, J.-L. The Tennis Court Oath. [Sketch].



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Nathan Hepp

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