The Changing Styles of Art in 18th Century France

The 18th century in the world of art in France marks a transitional phase between the baroque-rococo style that characterized the 17th century and the neo-classicism that marks the beginning of modern art in the 19th. Emmet Kennedy explains this shift in terms of a ‘quest for simplicity’ deriving from the prevailing spirit of rationalism in the age of the Enlightenment. There was, he argues, an emphasis on geometry and mimesis in art which was to have a lasting impact on the development of artistic styles from the 19th century onwards.

Classical models of painting, sculpture and architecture seem to have been the chief source of inspiration for the art of 18th century France. Mona Ozouf, in her book ‘Festivals and the French Revolution’, critically examines the classical content of the art styles of the Revolution. The imitation of the architecture, sculpture and painting of Rome and Greece seem to indicate an evocation of a Golden Age which also conformed to what was expected of the Revolution: an ideal Republic cleansed of despotism in which every citizen enjoyed personal liberty and was protected from arbitrary rule. Ozouf argues that the evocation of antiquity in the art of the French Revolution reflects the concern of the men of the Revolution to present it as a signal event, a founding moment, a moment of institution comparable to the achievements of the great legislators of Athens, Sparta and Rome. It also helped to imbue the ideals of the Revolution with a certain sanctity, which Ozouf links to her larger argument about the sacralizing role of public festivals during the Revolution.

In Lynn Hunt’s study of the emergence of a modern politics in the revolutionary years, it is argued that the French Revolution marks the expansion of politics into every sphere of human life---a politicization of human activity and forms of expression. She analyzes the art and symbolism of the French Revolution as charged with political meaning and as the revolutionary expression of a revolutionary political consciousness.

PAINTING

For Kennedy, the artistic counterpart of the Enlightenment was the new emphasis on geometry, order, balance and proportion, resulting in the gradual substitution of the ornate, ‘frivolous’ rococo by the neo-classical school of art. In neo-classicism, the artist deals with archetypes, usually preferring mythological figures to the real. The art of the period is characterized by the apotheosis of the individual, raising a character to superhuman ideality, representing a universal principle. The neo-classical school had been established well before the French Revolution, to which the works of artists such as Comte Joseph-Marie Vien, Jean-Francois Peyron and Gabriel-Francois Doyen bear testimony. Classical subjects were portrayed with a definite stylistic code---simplicity, austerity, chiaroscuro---and the paintings usually contained a vague moral and patriotic purpose. Kennedy contends that the school was more or less artistically stagnant before the advent of Jacques-Louis David, being largely imitative both in the selection of its themes and in the interpretation of these themes. He argues that while the artistic tradition itself existed well before the French Revolution, it underwent a transformation during the last two decades of the 18th century, acquiring popular acclaim and eventually establishing itself as the reigning school of the 19th century.

The transformative figure in the elevation of the neo-classical school, undoubtedly, was Jacques Louis David who rose to prominence after his painting “The Oath of the Horatii” captured the imagination of the salon public. A recurrent theme in the earlier paintings of David, including “The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons”, “The Death of Socrates” and “The Oath of the Horatii” is the conflict between the love of the fatherland and individual sentiment, usually centred on the family and represented by the female figures. His paintings gained acclaim because of their glorification of staunch virtue and patriotism at a time when the French were beginning to take their nation and its future very seriously. In the works of David, the Republic was raised above family attachment and personal interests.

After David’s release from prison in 1795, his works show a clear departure from the style of the Oath of the Horatii. In the “Intervention of the Sabine Women”, the women now appear as peacemakers and take centre-stage. The themes of masculine struggle and conflict and the ethic of sacrifice are muted in the post-Jacobin period. Kennedy points out that his later paintings, including “Napoleon Crossing Mount St. Bernard” and “The Coronation of Napoleon” are certainly paintings of power but not of conflict and combat.

Nonetheless, the shift in artistic styles in the 18th century that David represented was here to stay.  In terms of style, from the 1770s onwards there had been a conscious rejection of the rococo style. The art of the last three decades of the 18th century was anti-rococo but also in a sense, anti-popular in its rejection of sensuality in favour of stoic virtue.

Towards the end of the 18th century, with the restoration of the academies, the neo-classicist school became a dominant school in its turn. The works of newer artists were rejected by the Academy of Painting and Sculpture and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts became a rigid bastion of classicist tradition. On the other hand however, the art world of France had changed beyond recognition by 1785 and this was a change which outlasted the 18th century.   
One of the most significant developments of the latter half of the century was the emergence of a new relationship between the artist and the public---works of art were no longer produced exclusively for the academies or the aristocracy. As in the world of politics, the public had acquired the dominant voice. An artist, if he acquired a following, could now upstage the academies and go public through the salons and deliver a controversial message without being stifled by tradition.

ARCHITECTURE

The neo-classical sensibility in 18th century France also manifested itself in architecture, and perhaps most significantly in the designs of Etienne-Louis Boullee. Inspired by the simplicity as well as the grandeur and immensity of nature, Boullee attempted to make his buildings show their utilitarian purposes. Thus a tomb would show eternal repose while libraries and museums should stress communication. Amongst the most magnificent of his works was his design for a national assembly. The sheer size of his architecture, Kennedy contends, suggests the mass democratic culture ushered in by the Revolution. His other designs such as those for a library and an opera house are centralized structures---circular in plan, they have a single point of focus. Boullee was fascinated by geometrical forms---cylinders, cubes, cones, spheres, obelisks, etc. His design for Newton’s Cenotaph for instance is a gigantic stone sphere.
Boullee’s pre-eminence might be attributed to his enthusiasm for public architecture which he held to be the noblest form of design. The emphasis on public monuments parallels the recognition given to the public both in the civic themes of non classical paintings as well as in the political sphere, in the parlements, after 1760.
While the architecture of the Revolution rarely went beyond design and conception, the plans drawn by various architects of the period share certain similarities---public purpose, massive dimensions and elementary geometrical forms, all of which are first found in the designs of Boullee.

Kennedy argues that the architecture of Boullee reflects the popular spirit of the times---the stress on simple geometrical shapes without hierarchical articulation of parts, best expressed democracy.

SCULPTURE

In sculpture, the works of Houdon best exemplify the spirit of neo-classicism. His sculptures are characterized by a close faithfulness to nature. His bust of Mirabeau for instance depicts him with pockmarks, although capturing both his corpulence and powerful character.
 Houdon’s heroes of antiquity were men like Cicero and gods such as Apollo and Diana. Kennedy argues that he sought replicas of these characters among his contemporaries and found them in those who were distinguished by their talent, courage and brilliance. Houdon’s gallery constitutes a sort of pantheon of the revolution; he sculpted busts of everyone from Voltaire to Napoleon. Many of his subjects were great heroes of the revolution---an indication of his patriotic spirit. However, Houdon could not reconcile himself to the radicalism of the Jacobin era. Houdon’s neoclassicism belonged to an era of monarchichal reform rather than to the Jacobin republic. There is no doubt however, given the subjects of his sculptures that he belongs solidly to the revolutionary generation.


THE IMAGERY OF THE REVOLUTION

In her book, ‘Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution’, Lynn Hunt analyzes the popular symbols used to represent the Revolution in the art of the period. These symbols appear in all their abstract glory in the festivals of the Revolution. In Revolutionary France, the Masonic level became the symbol of equality, the Roman fasces the symbol of union, the Roman laurel represented civic virtue, the Egyptian eye the emblem of vigilance and so on. A variety of female deities representing reason, equality, pity, sensibility, etc also appeared in the symbolism of the French Revolution. The most popular and most successful of these symbols, however was the goddess of Liberty who was chosen for the seal of the Republic in 1792.
Hunt notes that Liberty was not an entirely new figure in French iconography. First depicted by Moreau as a young woman dressed in Roman style with a liberty cap on top of her pike, she soon came to represent the new republic in collective memory and was referred to as Marianne. The approximation of Liberty to the queens of traditional popular religious festivals through the revolutionary festivals helped the symbol to gain acceptance in popular thought. Hunt suggests that the choice of Liberty as the symbol of the Revolution was in a sense the substitution of the Virgin Mary, the central symbol of the Catholic Church, representing a secularization of public life. In support of this argument, Hunt observes that the sobriquet Marianne is semantically close to Mary. That the opponents of the Revolution sought to juxtapose the Black Virgin against Liberty also indicates that the symbol was intended to perform a certain role in popular culture.
Hunt also argues that Liberty served as an adequate replacement for the king as the central symbol of the government and its legitimacy. Liberty was an abstract symbol with no resonance with the French monarchical past. 
The seal of 1792 shows Marianne standing determinedly holding the lance of popular revolution, capped by the Phrygian bonnet of liberation. In 1793, she was to appear in an appropriately more radical pose---marching ahead, bare-breasted and fierce in countenance.
However with the seizure of power by the Jacobins in October 1793, attempts were made to cast the Republic in a more radical mould. Initially the Convention decreed that the seal and coins of the Republic should henceforth carry as their emblem the ark of the constitution and the fasces. By November the deputies had chosen a giant Hercules as the emblem of the radical Republic. David proposed the construction of a huge statue to represent the French people. That Hercules was the archetype for the statue seal is clear from the iconography of the original sketch---the figure holds the distinctive club and a lionskin lies beside him.

The Hercules figure made its first public appearance in August 1793 in a morality play created by David to present the turning points of the Revolution and celebrate the defeat of federalism and the downfall of the Girondins. The statue of Liberty memorializing the execution of the king in January 1793 was followed by a colossus (representing the French people) using its club to smash the hydra of federalism.  The placement of Hercules after Liberty indicated that while the latter was important, it was representative only of a particular moment rather than the revolution in its entirety, a moment that had now passed. Hercules represented a higher stage in the development of the Revolution---one characterized by the force and the unity of the people rather than the wisdom of its representatives. In the ‘Hercules station’ of the play, there was no role for the delegates of the departments. In contrast at the Statue of Liberty the delegates put the torch to the symbols of the monarchy, re-enacting symbolically the execution of Louis XVI.


It is interesting to note that in the plans for the statue representing the people, the colossus was to be depicted holding miniature figures of Liberty and Equality pressed close together, indicating that they depended entirely on the genius and virtue of the people. Hercules now appeared as a protective brother safeguarding the sister figures of Liberty and Equality. Hunt adds another dimension to the symbolism of Hercules, arguing for the development of a distinctly masculine image of the Revolution through the marginalization of women in political activity. In October 1793, the new radical Republic outlawed all women’s clubs. Hunt contends that the Jacobins felt that women were threatening to take Marianne as a female metaphor for their own active political participation. Marianne therefore, had to be replaced with a dominant male figure making the male the only active figure. The masculinity of Hercules reflected on the deputies themselves, rehabilitating a virile representation of sovereignty.

In the choice of Hercules as the emblem of the Revolution the radicals were also reinterpreting one of the favourite signs of the French monarchy, transforming it from a symbol of the power of individual kings to one of collective, popular power. 
Hercules reflected the aspirations of the Jacobins---the alliance of the radical deputies with the popular classes of Paris. The people had now replaced the king.
 However the Hercules symbol was also a reformulation of the manner in which political authority was articulated. The Hercules figure was an image-representation of the way in which the people’s representatives interpreted the people themselves. This interpretive element, Hunt argues, threatened to reinforce precisely the relationship of political authority that the radicals sought to abolish. Even though Hercules was derived from elite culture, he was intended to represent the people. Lynn Hunt notes that Hercules never appears as an intelligent giant. Invariably, he was presented as a force of nature, a dumb brute. The contribution of the giant is not in the realm of ideas but rather as soldier or worker. Most importantly he represented those who worked with their hands---the sans-culottes. Although the radicals tried to reinterpret manual work as a source of pride and dignity, the giant remained a symbol of dumb force who was made to speak through the words of David inscribed upon his body. Hercules as the symbol of the people is a character who is incapable of reason and requires the deputies to think on his behalf. The choice of Hercules therefore reflects a new relationship between the people and the deputies during the Jacobin Terror.  Significantly, representations of Hercules after 1793 are characterized by grace and composure rather than the raw violence and brutality of the earlier period---an indication that Hercules had been domesticated, the people tamed.

The Convention of 1795 ushered in new changes in the popular iconography of the French Revolution. After the fall of the radicals, the deputies turned increasingly to more abstract symbols. The new emblems of the republic were the liberty cap and the Masonic level. The seal of the Council of Five Hundred was an oval with a liberty cap, rays of the sun and a compass and balance. The people no longer appeared directly in the imagery of the Revolution.  While Hercules continued to appear occasionally, he now figured as a life size brother to Liberty and Equality. His appearance was older, more conciliatory, even paternal. A similar change occurred in the depiction of Marianne who now appears leaning languorously against the table of the Constitution of the Year III looking off to the side contemplatively rather than confronting the beholder.

During the Jacobin period the art of the French Revolution contained a direct evocation of the people. The people were exhorted to view themselves as the central figures and as the propelling motor of the Revolution. The people however could be hard to control. The deputies existed therefore to rein in the naturally violent inclinations of the people, to explain to them the merits of the law and guide them in the right path. However by attempting to represent the people with all the ambivalence that such a representation entailed, the radicals opened up new questions about the nature and scope of a representative government. These were questions that could potentially destabilize the regime and the attempts of the Republic to close the fissures created during the Jacobin phase  and pretend that they had never existed by marginalizing the people in the new imagery of the Revolution indicates the seriousness of the issues in contention.
                                            


The 18th century in France therefore was distinguished by the permeation of politics into every sphere of human activity---social, domestic and cultural. The art of the period, without making serious stylistic departures from the past soon evolved into a powerful means of political expression. The popularity of public art opened up new avenues for rising artists to convey a powerful and controversial message and the popular iconography of the Revolution offered ready channels through which political ideas could be expressed and conveyed. The forms of representation associated with the French Revolution, including the liberty caps, the Masonic level, the pyramid, etc outlasted the Revolution itself and became politically charged symbols with a strong resonance in popular consciousness, much like the ideals of the Revolution themselves. The end of the 18th century, as Lynn Hunt argues saw the institutionalization of a new, revolutionary politics and with it a revolutionary political culture. The art of the 18th century---its cartoons, popular symbols, paintings, architecture, etc became an important source of inspiration for the political culture of the modern age.