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Neoclassical Art, The Age of Revolution, and Napoleon


The French Revolution was the bloody birth of modern democracy and it came with art that celebrated liberty, equality, and brotherhood. Jacques-Louis David painted the Revolution and the reign of Napoleon with the necessary political correctness.

Complete Video Script

[124] While Enlightened thinkers and artists were forging the future, Europe's political order remained dangerously stuck in the past. Kings and nobles clung stubbornly to their power. The world was changing, but the conservative elites were not…in fact, they were digging in. Common people were demanding a voice, and revolution was in the air.

[125] Meanwhile, back at the heart of the Old Regime — Versailles — the royals ignored cries for change. The queen, Marie Antoinette, retreated ever deeper into her fanciful gardens…to this petite peasant hamlet — a charming farm with a dairy, a water mill, and domesticated animals…a fairytale escape of carefree country pleasures.

[126] In spite of rising tensions, artists still captured nobles at play. The queen lived in her wealthy bubble while, all around her, the long-suffering peasants struggled and starved.

[127, The French Revolution, 1789] Finally, in 1789, the common citizens of France rose up and attacked. They over-threw the king and queen and marched them to the guillotine. As the crowd gathered, one managed the blade, one caught the blood, and one raised the head of Marie Antoinette. Vive la révolution!

[128, Oath of the Tennis Court, 1791, David, Louvre Museum, Paris] As the Revolution raged, the fast-moving events were chronicled by artists — effectively the journalists of the day — in the politically correct style for the age…Neoclassical.

[129, Jacques-Louis David, 1748–1825] The leading painter, Jacques-Louis David, was a Revolutionary himself. Celebrating patriotism and self-sacrifice, he compared his follow patriots to heroes of antiquity. He painted the Revolution's turning points. When his friend and Revolutionary leader was assassinated — knifed while taking a bath — David portrayed him as a tragic martyr to the cause.

[130] Soon, the reins of the runaway Revolution were in the capable hands of a charismatic young soldier — a leader who kept his eyes on the horizon and a hand in his coat — Napoleon Bonaparte.

[131, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1800, David, Louvre Museum, Paris] As Napoleon rose to power, artists idealized him like a Roman conqueror, as he led France's Revolutionary army across Europe, toppling royal families and instituting reforms.

[132, Coronation of Napoleon, 1807, David] At the peak of his power, Napoleon staged a ceremony to be crowned not king but "Emperor" of a New Rome. This canvas by David, the biggest in the Louvre, is a fine example of how the victor gets to tell the story the way he wants it told. Napoleon's mother was painted in a prime spot — even though she wasn't there at all. The pope himself traveled from Rome to Paris to crown Napoleon. But Napoleon took charge — crowning his wife Josephine, and then himself. The pope was painted looking a little neglected. And Napoleon was now the most powerful man in all of Europe.

[133, Fontainebleau, outside Paris] Ironically, Napoleon — the man who'd fought the Old Regime — now moved into the same lavish mansion that housed its kings. He enjoyed the same sweeping staircases, opulent Baroque ballroom, and giddy apartments. The revolutionary hero that once battled pampered tyrants had become one himself.

[134, Napoleon's Tomb, 1861, Les Invalides, Paris] Ultimately, Napoleon's megalomania got the best of him. All of Europe ganged up on France, defeated Napoleon and, again, great art and architecture told the story. Napoleon was later buried in a grand tomb surrounded by art that, to this day, glorifies his reign.

[135, Arc de Triomphe, 1836, Paris] Though the Revolution was eventually over, the revolutionary spirit lived on — celebrated with triumphal arches, stirring reliefs, and heroic statues. Europe had been changed forever, pointing society toward an unknown but exciting future.

[136, Pantheon, Paris] The art and architecture of this period represents Europe's joys, struggles, and growing pains in its long march to, as the French say, "liberte, égalité, fraternité."