Discover French painting in one of the most turbulent periods of history, from the Revolution of 1789 until the July Revolution of 1830
From propaganda paintings of key events to portraits of Napoleon, discover how painters found new ways to capture and explain these extraordinary times.
On this three-week course, art historian Simon Lee will show how the paintings of Boilly and his contemporaries such as David, Géricault and Delacroix responded to the unprecedented upheavals in French society from the Revolution to the Empire of Napoleon, and from the return of the Bourbon kings to their overthrow by the July Monarchy.
Week one: Thursday 4 April
‘Vive les Arts’: David from the French Revolution to the rise of Napoleon
How and why did David, painter to the King, convert so completely to the cause of the French Revolution, becoming the supreme artist of the most politically radical nation on earth? And how as a champion of the Revolution and close friend of Robespierre, did he escape execution in 1794 and go on to become a favoured portraitist of Napoleon?
We consider David’s key paintings of the Revolution and the early years of Napoleon, including 'The Death of Marat' and 'Napoleon crossing the Alps' in the context of his roller-coaster career and the turbulent times in which he was living. We'll also compare his first portraits of Napoleon with those by his contemporaries, Gros and Ingres.
After the break, we'll consider the rise of Leopold-Louis Boilly during the revolutionary period including both his witty scenes of social observation, his meticulous illusions designed to trick the eye, as well as his Revolutionary works, such as 'The Triumph of Marat' (1794).
Week two: Thursday 11 April
Napoleon’s Empire: warfare, conquest, and propaganda
Napoleon’s Empire was a ‘boom’ time for artists. Both commissioned and speculative works were produced to commemorate the Imperial Court and the Emperor’s exploits.
From subtle propaganda to grandiose declarations of allegiance we continue our exploration of painting’s role in making the myth of Napoleon and examine key works of the period by David, Boilly, and Gros.
Find out which painting prompted Napoleon to raise his hat in compliment, which works had to be reworked after the Emperor’s divorce from Josephine, and the lengths some artists went to curry the Emperor’s favour.
Week three: Thursday 18 April
Restoration and the rise of Romanticism
In the years that followed Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, and the return of the Bourbon dynasty, artists sought a new and more directly emotional art to capture the intensity of modern life.
We consider the Romantic painters Géricault and Delacroix, who evoked the raw emotions of a society that had lived through all of the drama and bloodshed of the Revolution, the elation of Napoleon’s victories and the disappointment of his ultimate failure.
We will conclude this final session by studying the iconic 'Liberty Leading the People', a commemoration of the French people who, in the uprising of July 1830, overthrew the much-hated King Charles X.
Simon Lee is an Honorary Fellow in the History of Art at the University of Reading. He has written widely on French and Spanish art of the 18th and 19th centuries including books on David and Delacroix for Phaidon.