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What You Need to Know About The Image of The French Revolution
A closer look 09 May 2022

What You Need to Know About The Image of The French Revolution

french revolution images
Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830

Paintings, drawings and engravings, the relics of the French Revolution are numerous. They have been passed down and glorified for more than two centuries, preserving the representation of a sovereign people. The participants in the revolution were ready to do anything to kill the monarchic state, a sentiment that’s clear in works from this period. But which are the most recognized images? And what do they say about history and its interpretation? Between myth and testimony, here is all you need to know about French Revolution images!

French Revolution images depicting a violent but indivisible people

From the storming of the Bastille to the massacre at the Salpêtrière, many paintings depict extreme and rampant violence. The various works of art show the French people as a wild, dense crowd.  These unstoppable bodies in perpetual movement form, together, a uniform and powerful force. Ready to defy the limits of the canvas on which they are painted, the figures crowd together and seem to overlap in space. On closer inspection, however, the crowd is made up of two distinct populations. First, the revolutionaries, almost systematically pointing their weapons to the sky as a sign of future victory and determination. On the other side are the aristocracy, mostly on the ground, disarmed, powerless and imploring. These very dense images accentuate the representation of an insurgent populous rising up against the established power.

french revolution images
Unknown artist, Storming of the Bastille and arrest of the governor M. De Launay, 1789
© Photo RMN-Grand Palais

The place of women in French Revolution images

The female image is very present in the paintings of the French Revolution. We see her both as a figure of the people and as an icon or symbol of liberty. In paintings of historical conflicts, women seem to be on the same par as men. Storming the Bastille, attending executions, assemblies or trials, she takes part in the struggle. Several women would become emblematic figures of the relentless fight for freedom. This is the case for Olympe de Gouge, Théroigne de Méricourt, Lucile Desmoulins, Madame Roland and Charlotte Corday. The portraits of these women play a central role in the construction of feminine and feminist models.

But the female figure became an even stronger symbol. There are many paintings where a woman is depicted as an allegory of the Republic or freedom. Famous paintings such as Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix and Allegorical Figure of the French Republic by Baron Antoine Jean Gros are good examples. The woman symbolizes both the mother country that protects and the warrior ready to defend her country.

But despite this notable and plural presence in these representations, women struggled to keep their revolutionary place. Having taken part in the popular battles until then, they were later excluded from political life from 1793 onwards. At the same time, however, several laws were passed to improve the situation of women and to reduce the weight of male domination. But this victory was short-lived: from 1804 onwards, the Napoleonic code cancelled every measure taken. Women would have to fight even harder to achieve the status and rights equal to those of men.

french revolution images
Baron Antoine Jean Gros, Allegorical Figure of the French Republic, 1794

A king-eating people: The myth of the sovereign people

Thanks to French Revolution images, a rich collective and national imagination was born. This includes the myth of the “king-eating people.”  An insubordinate and determined people, who finally achieve the unthinkable: to bring down the power. Always represented as a block, this group will be mainly illustrated in two ways: Either as the form of an effervescent and unchained mishmash, ready to do anything to defend its rights; Or they are personified most often in the guise of a character from Greek mythology. Ancient heroes then become popular figures, symbols of the Revolution, of power to the people and of justice. These two types of representations still play an important role in the national collective consciousness. They serve as models and allow future generations to identify with this collective and popular victory.

the king-eating people
Unknown artist, The king-eating people, 1789 © Carnavalet museum

Images and imaginary, a never-ending dialogue?

The paintings, sculptures and drawings of French Revolution images are often perceived as historical testimonies. But their influence has also been multiplied under the effect of a collective imagination perpetuating a glorified representation of the people. Thus, the images of the Revolution made way for the construction of the national myth of the sovereign people. An ambivalent figure, this idealized representation serves today to legitimize opposite ideologies, from one extreme to the other on the political chessboard.