European Enlightenment; Revolution and Romantic Rebellion;

Neo-classicism and the French Revolution in Painting

Location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

The period of the mid-eighteenth century is known as the Age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment ushered in a dazzling Modern era, a period of transition made possible as a result of the Industrial Revolution, which began in the mid-1700s. The indoctrination of ‘Enlightenment’ (1750-1789) is accredited to British philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704), and the physicist and mathematician, Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Both men argued that based on philosophy and science (empiricism), data and observation, we could progress humanity, improving the overall quality of life. During this age of transition, the advent of scientific discoveries such as electricity, oxygen combustion, chemistry, and natural science helped launch the Industrial Revolution as it created mills, factories, mines and steam engines for boats and trains, allowing for the transportation of goods and people across greater distances.

It is in the age of Englightenment and reason that philosophers and intellectuals like Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot searched for higher truths, seeking freedom from government, monarchy, and social inequities that began to rise with the Industrial Revolution. Individual thought and rights among the population of France and other European monarchies grew and spread; this movement lead to the French Civil War of 1789, between the monarchy and aristocracy against the lower working classes. The people did not want to be enslaved by the monarch and church but rather set up a democracy and government that would work in favour of the working class society. Once the monarchy was overthrown, French politics and society shifted in attitude. The self-ordained general turned emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, led a campaign to conquer the rest of the world. The Napoleonic war started almost immediately after Napoleon crowned himself in 1804, and lasted until 1815 when he was defeated in the Battle of Waterloo.

In the age of Englightenment, there were two styles of painting that emerged from the study of Roman art in the mid-18th century. The first is Neoclassicism (“new Classicism”) which was a rediscovery of the ancient Roman and Greek civilizations, to acculturate from the past the ideals of harmony, peace, science, math, philosophy, etc… that these ancient civilizations had established thousands of years ago. This style of painting was concerned with historical events, moral values of the ancient times and embracing acts of virtue, good deeds and rationality. Artists of this period would incorporate these ideals into a contemporary genre scene or into a major contemporary event whilst making it look and feel like classical antiquity. This style was also regularized by King Louis XIV who felt that art was too important to be left exclusively in the hands of artists. Thus, he created the French Academy, a school dedicated to teaching artists the absolute style and form acceptable for display, credit and notoriety. The five acceptable themes of art were history, portraiture, landscape, still-life and genre.

The second style that evolved from this movement was called Romanticism because it evoked very powerful emotions, stirred the imagination and believed in nature’s own ability to display passion and further unleashed emotion. A Romantic artist is one who feels and captures its essence on canvas. Subject matter could vary but was always able to question the viewer, to evoke and draw out from within. These style of paintings could also be a rapportage of contemporary people and events. The Romantic style had been an undercurrent to Neoclassical paintings from 1750s to 1800s and only became mainstream and a recognizable style in the beginning of the 1800s, when it seemed that the age of Englightenment had failed and only resulted in turmoil and tension. In hindsight, is it all too surprising that it should end this way, just as it had for the ancient civilizations? Romantic paintings were further highlighted at this time by an important and distinguished painter, Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) and his patron, Napoleon Bonaparte. To be a Romantic was to have license to abandon logic and empiricism and to follow one’s instincts. Moreover, Romanticism was an attitude and lifestyle.

The Louvre, 2012, Paris. Copyright GraceArmani.com        The Louvre, 2012, Paris. Copyright GraceArmani.com

Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1783-1784 (see photo above, left).

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was a French middle class painter who was sympathetic to the cause of the “have-nots” and so of the revolution. He was given a scholarship from the head of the French Academy, King Louis XVI to study abroad in Rome, Italy. David studied Roman art and architecture from 1775 to 1781 in the heart of Rome, Italy. David’s political sympathies grew while he was in Rome as he got news of what was brewing back in his country and home. The Oath of Horatii was commissioned by the overseer of the French Academy, Charles-Claude d’Angiviller. David began the painting in 1783 and it was completed in 1784, five years before the French Revolution began.

The theme of the painting is a historical account from seventh century Rome regarding a border dispute between Rome and Alba. As the painting depicts, the three armor-clad Roman figures on the left are caught in an emotionally tense moment of swearing their oath and allegiance to their country. These three men are set to battle against three men from Alba to put to rest the border dispute once and for all. The three Roman men are the Horatii brothers taking an oath of death just before they accept their swords from their father, the figure in the middle. These men are depicted as stoic, heroic, self-less, fearless and courageous. Meanwhile, the three women on the right are faint and defeated, as they mourn for the events about to unfold. The older woman in the background shields two young children, symbolic of protecting their childhood innocence. The two young women in the foreground are crumpled in their seats as they weep, helpless of their situation and the fate of their three brothers. However, the plot thickens as one of the young women happens to be engaged to one of the three men from Alba. The three men from Alba are the three brothers from the Curiatii family. The other young woman is from Alba, a sister of one of the Curiatii men, and wife to one of the Horatii brothers. The dimensional story telling is enhanced by the juxtaposition of the curvilinear female figures who are drained of energy, weak, feminine and delicate. This emphasizes and aggrandizes the tall, virile, stoic Horatii men who will fight to protect their land and families; their honour, protection and self-sacrifice plays on themes reminiscent of the biblical story of David and Goliath.

The composition is quite shallow and the space is made smaller by the baseless Tuscan columns, planarity (placement of objects and figures parallel to picture plane) of the figures to the three Roman arches in the background. David’s attention to detail, particularly of seventh century Roman architecture, design, dress (costume) and the morale of the Horatii family is evident, even down to the worn marble floors and furniture. The chiaroscuro is reminiscent of Caravaggio’s naturalism and tenebrism of light (whose works David would have studied in Rome), which adds to the stoic drama of the scene. David’s use of colours is of importance as the most bold and intense colours are red, white and blue, the colours of the French flag. The underlying theme and symbol is the number three: three men, three women, three Roman arches, three prominent colours. The theme of three is a reference to the Holy Trinity (Father, Spirit, Son) and of the French Revolution (Liberty, Equality, Justic). Due to his stature as an academic painter, David was unable to paint scenes that did not fall under the absolute guide set by the King of France without upsetting the Academy and the aristocracy so he symbolically portrayed his socio-political views as slight undercurrents of his paintings to attack the politics, government and society of France at the time.

The Louvre, 2012, Paris. Copyright GraceArmani.comThe Louvre, 2012, Paris. Copyright GraceArmani.com

Antoine Jean-Gros, Napoleon in the Pesthouse of Jaffa, 11 March 1799, 1804. (see photo above)

Antoine Jean-Gros (1771-1835) entered David’s studio in 1785 as a student; he was one of David’s best pupils, next to Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). David sent Gros to Rome during the French Revolution but the Italians denied Gros entry into the country so he traveled with Napoleon when they met in Milan by chance. Napoleon was so impressed by Gros’ work that he commissioned works of art from Gros. Gros painted large-scale paintings of Napoleon’s battles from the Napoleonic wars as well as various battle scenes from the campaigns as Napoleon’s glorious and ingenious propaganda and self-promotion. Napoleon was an excellent military strategist and general who was highly conscious of his public image so the paintings helped to control (perhaps manipulate) his public image to reinforce his political power and social position. In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself emperor, the same year this painting was commissioned and completed by Gros. Napoleon was careful to show all of his commissions at the Salons to gain maximum public and media exposure for his career.

In this scene, Napoleon and his French army have travelled to a far off land during the North African campaign. The portrayed background is of the exotic environment and landscape of the city of Jaffa, which looks to have been conquered with the placement of the French flag. Jaffa (then a city in Palestine, today in Tel-Aviv, Israel), is the city where the French army is in actuality decimated, not because of the gruesome battles but by the Bubonic plague. The French soldiers never imagined their triumphant campaign and war journey would lead them to die of the plague in a foreign and exotic country, far from their family and country. Those dying of the plague are placed throughout the foreground and middleground, cast in Death’s shadow. The light cast on the scene is muted and tinged yellow/green, throwing a sickly light onto the dying and exposed bodies, which further enhances their ailments and predicament. Though there are Arab attendants throughout the scene, helping and tending to the sick and dying French soldiers so selflessly with care (the true saviours), the spotlight is on Napoleon in the center of the foreground, caught in a stoic and courageous act of touching the infected wound of his soldier with his bare and exposed left hand. Figures in mid-motion surrounding Napoleon try to stop him, including the Arab man on his knees, pleading him not to touch the diseased man. Gros strategically places Napoleon’s commander behind him, who is seen holding a handkerchief to his face because of the stench of rotting flesh in the heat and the fear of contracting the plague himself. Despite Napoleon’s gesture, his intent, self-sacrifice and stoic heroism is questioned by the dynamism of infected figures placed around the edges of the painting in their moment of death. The dark hooded figure sitting in the shadow on the left is reminiscent of Rodin’s The Thinker looks directly at the viwer with piercing black eyes asking, “Why am I here? What is it that I am dying for and why? Especially so far away from home.” The death of the French army was senseless and wasted, as it was not for the unified glory of the Republic of France but for Napoleon’s ego. To further stress this, Napoleon had his own soldiers poisoned before leaving Jaffa to prevent further spread of the plague and to put them out of their misery, presumably.

The painting is impressive in size at 23 feet wide. It was commissioned to promote Napoleon’s bravery, leadership, empathy and humanitarianism, especially after the scandal that took place in Jaffa. In Romantic fashion, Napoleon in the Pesthouse at Jaffa evokes strong emotions and possibly some visceral physical side effects from studying the sickly green cast of light and shadow, the greener pallor of the dying bodies, and the overall dark and miserable mood of the subject matter and composition.