Art Against the Regime

Art has always been a medium in which to convey ideas, and 18th century artists of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution decidedly used their trade as a way to illustrate the ideals - and whip up support - for revolution.

BAl124526 The Able Doctor, or American Swallowing the Bitter Draught, engraving by Paul Revere for 'Royal American Magazine,' June 1774/ Private Collection

 

The Case for Independence

Artists in the 18th century American colonies, were highly involved in the political process and helped to define our national identity. Perhaps the most famous example of this is engraver and silversmith, Paul Revere. In addition to his famous ride to warn the colonies of Massachussetts of the advancing British troops, his now iconic engraving of the Boston Massacre was a not-so-accurate interpretation of the event but nonetheless kindled anti-British sentiment and manifested the revolution into a recognizable, visible concept. Revere and other artists also sparked the first of our nation's political satire with anti-British cartoons such as America Swallowing the Bitter Draught (left) and Noddle Island from 1767.

Celebrating Colonial Patriotism

Another artist/patriot was John Trumbull. As a soldier and aide to General Washington, he rendered heroic paintings of battles such as Bunker Hill and the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis. His painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence was an exercise in preserving the image of the Nation's founders rather than an accurate accounting of the events of the Second Continental Congress. The painting now decorates the back of the $2 bill and hangs in the Capitol Rotunda as one of our country's most enduring symbols.

Much of the art of the time (and continuing long into the 19th century) was highly symbolic, materializing events such as Washington Crossing the Delaware, the Boston Tea Party and the legend of Betsy Ross sewing the first flag (right) into images that celebrated colonial partriotism and an emerging national identity.

SSI41222 Betsy Ross (oil on canvas) by Jean Leon Jerome Ferris (1863-1930)/ Private Collection

 

Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite!

Like artists in the newly independent American colonies, French artists continued to portray the ideals of the revolution into the 19th century. The struggle for a constitution in France continued until 1848 when the French Second Republic was created. In addition to David, artists such as Delacroix and Gericault painted many symbolic images heavily laden with anti-government sentiment. Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa, an epic accounting of a shipwreck in which the captain left the crew and passengers to die, but many have speculated that it is symbolic of negligent goverment. And perhaps the most symbolic of all the paintings of this era is Liberty Leading the People (left) by Eugene Delacroix. The Nation of France is depicted as Liberty personified as a goddess-like figure but also as a woman of the people, holding the flag high surrounded by citizens from a mixture of social classes. Included in Delacroix painting are symbols of the 1789 revolution, honoring the collective struggles of that period.

XIR3692 Liberty Leading the People, 28 July 1830 (oil on canvas) Ferdinand Victor Eugene Delacroix/ Louvre, Paris, France

 

XIR2291(detail) The Death of Marat in 1793 (oil on canvas) by Jacques Louis David (1748-1825)/ Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium

 

A Martyr for the Cause

Artists of the time captured on canvas the atmosphere of socio-political upheaval that resonated throughout Europe, and France in particular. Perhaps the most iconic painter of the early days of the French Revolution is Jacques-Louis David. His sketch of the Tennis Court Oath of June 20th 1789 captured the  moment when the National Assembly first met to take an oath to fight for a constitution - a revolutionary act in and of itself. Another Neoclassic masterpiece was David's La Mort de Marat  (The Death of Marat, left). Part memorial to his murdered friend, an outspoken journalist and politician, and part carefully idealized picture of a hero of the revolution 'writing for the good of the people' until his last breath.

 


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