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Politics and Artistic movements in the 18th century

par Laurie Arnaud

From the end of the Napoleonic saga to the advent of the Second Empire

From all times, in the heart of all nations, art and politics have always been linked together: the policy governing aesthetic rules, art supporting or rebelling against leaders. There were times when this correlation was more obvious, this is the case for the first part of the 19th century.

Bonaparte crossing the Grand St Bernard. Jacques Louis David (1748-1825). Oil on canvas. 1801. 260 × 221 cm. Château de Malmaison

Hence, between the Napoleonic epic and the emergence of the national fact, France was living with the rhythm of political upheavals and changes in customs, they had direct impacts on artistic productions. So far the antiquating neoclassicism disappeared with the canvases of David’s last alumni, while the influence of romantics from Germany or England diffused in France a new way of appearing, with feelings.

So far if I tell you,  from the end of the Napoleonic saga to the advent of the Second Empire « Rain, Steam and speed », « The Raft of the Medusa» or« Liberty Leading the People » … what would you react ?

From the march towards the abyss of Napoleon to the emergence of Romanticism

Napoléon Bonaparte in June 1812 marched towards Moscow after having declared the invasion of Imperial Russia. Until December, in the pungent cold of the Russian winter, the Great Army of the Eagle fought for the defense of a continental blockade against the United Kingdom which ihe was no longer able to hold out.

Olécio partenaire de Wukali

Consequently, it’s the campaign of Russia, and here and then he experienced failures and defeats against Czar Alexander Ist. Defeated, the French Emperor retired after the Battle of the Berezina (present-day Minsk province in Belarus). This defeat marked the end of his ambitions for European domination, but above all the beginning of his decline. Expelled from Leipzig in 1813, forced to abdicate in France in 1814, he went into exile in the Island of Elba, an island amid the Mediterranean Sea and not far from his native Corsica.

In his absence, Austrians, Prussians and Russians occupied the country, while Josephine died of pneumonia. Louis XVIII, the last descendant of Louis XV the “Beloved”, took power then: this is the First Restoration. The Bourbons installed a new constitutional regime.

Joséphine de Beauharnais (1805). Pierre-Paul Prud’Hon, (1758-1823). Detail, oil on canvas (2m44 / 1m79). The Louvre

Furthermore was reluctant to accept his departure from power and decided to retrurn to France what he did. Napoleon landed in the South of France at St Tropez on March 1st, 1815 and marched across the country to unite the discontented.

Opposite, Louis XVIII did not see the shadow of a threat, left Paris on March 19th: the regime collapsed the next day, when Napoleon arrived at the Tuileries. A successful coup, the monarchy fled to Ghent in Belgium and the « Hundred Days »began.

With his confidence restored, Napoleon set off for Belgium. Waterloo. Fatal failure in front on the Duke of Wellington. The Grande Armée was routed and Napoleon abdicated for the second time in July 1815. It was the fall of the Empire, almost thirty years after the storming of the Bastille. an original parallel. So that he could no longer “harm the rest of the world”, Napoleon was deported by the British to the Island of Saint Helena, a volcanic and baleful island located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. He was accompanied by some of his followers. There he died in his Longwood house where he was relegated on May 5, 1821 at the age of 51. Long live the emperor !

Jacques-Louis David for sure was an admirer of Napoleon, however a revolutionary activist from the start.

Incidentally with the rank of member of the Institute of France, he moved to the place of First painter and produced, between 1805 and 1807, the now famous Sacre which depicted Napoleon’s coronation in Notre-Dame.

Therefore he became the French artistic leader during the Neoclassicism period starting with the French Revolution, a movement  inspired by the Greek and Roman antiquity that served politics imperial

The lictors bring back to Brutus the bodies of his sons (1789). J-L David (1748-1825). Huile sur toile. 3m23/ 4m22. Le Louvre

Smooth in style, David opted for dark tones and themes inspired by Greco-Roman history. As rigid as it can be, it is of unequaled beauty: just peep at  Oath of the Horatii (1784), The lictors bring back to Brutus the bodies of his sons (1789) Bonaparte crossing the Grand-Saint-Bernard (1801). David saw his master fall when he was at the height of his art, at the epix of his influence. However, a pictorial revolution, German and then English, was about to invade France. Down with conventions!

Reaction to neoclassicism, literary romanticism appeared at the end of the 18th century in Germany with the movement sturm und drang, following in this the publication of the Suffrances of the young Werther of Goethe in 1787. It emerged in England through the poetry of Lord Byron. This artistic and intellectual movement is also rooted in a political context and rivalries between states. One of the key elements will be Greece’s war of independence against Turkey.

About England and Germany

Byron, a young English poet and dandy who left Britain to fight with the Greek insurgents against the Ottomans died near Patras under the walls of the city of Missolonghi. The event is then reported all over Europe. His literary work as well as his personality and memory will be celebrated among all the artistic and intellectual circles and cenacles of the major capitals.

Victory of feeling and emotion against reason, romanticism in painting favors the expression of the self and the themes of nature. Freed from the shackles, vibrant, the romantic work exalts the mysterious, the fantastic, the revolt. The influence of Shakespeare and Goethe are prominent. The Napoleonic saga is in all minds. The interest is now focused on the emotion aroused. Two major artists particularly embody this major turning point in art history.

Turner of course ! London. Turner used brushes, oils and watercolors to paint the light. Colorist and inventive and subtle color chart, he was active from the 1790s. He imposed himself technical challenges, explored the material, the skid of the brush, the unforeseen tasks and the defects of the paper. When Napoleon capitulated to Alexander the 1st, he painted Snowstorm: Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps in 1812, which shows the overwhelming force of nature over man. The scene supposed to represent the soldiers victims of a storm, emerges from the subject, the anecdote, abandoning the historicity, to focus on the representation of a meteorological and natural event. We are not far from the abstraction that will not happen more than a century later. He finished The Eruption of Vesuvius in 1817.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. Tate Britain. London

Caspar David Friedrich is living in the north of Germany, near Dresden. The spiritual work of this unique artist is centered on the romantic feeling par excellence: human solitude opposed to the immensity of nature. Thus, his landscapes and decorations (cemeteries, ruins) are austere and out of time when in the meantime the translucency of the colors gives an aura of mystery. Undoubtedly, the effect is striking in front of Traveller contemplating a sea of clouds, painted in 1818 and The sea of ice in 1824 (it might even look to our contemporary eyes like a current cartoon drawing!) 


Wanderer above the Sea of Fog or Wanderer above the Mist.1818. Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). Hamburger Kunsthalle

Romantic sensibility in the service of the nation and fall of the House of Orleans

It was then when Louis XVIII was occupying the throne in 1815,he instituted the Second Restoration. We can thus see the beginning of the experience of a constitutional monarchy trying to create unity in the country between the bases inherited from the Revolution and those of the Old Regime.

After the episode of the White Terror, from 1816 to 1820, the regime took a more liberal turn, under the leadership of the ministers Richelieu then Decazes. Liberal, really?

Thereby, it was during his reign that the neoclassical current declined, now put in direct competition with romanticism.

Besides, David, because of his past as a regicide revolutionary (he had voted for the death of Louis XVI) and as an imperial artist, fled to Brussels where he remained until his death in 1825.

His students, Gérard, Girodet and Gros were ousted from the national scene by students from the workshop of Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (whom with Eugène Delacroix will follow his teaching). “

Théodore Géricault (1791-1825) also an alumni of Guérin, entered the master’s workshop in 1810. He was the embodiment of the romantic artist, his short and tormented life gave rise to many myths. Attracted by raw forms and rejecting aesthetic conventions, he painted characters with a tragic and eventful fate.

The Raft of The Medusa (1818-1819). Théodore Géricault (1791-1824). Oil on canvas, 4m90/7m16. Musée du Louvre

His Wounded Cuirassier leaving the fight,  (1814) is a disturbing equestrian portrait in life size. Géricault Four years later painted the Raft of the Medusa, which recounts the sinking of a French navy frigate near the coast of Senegal.

Géricault chose a very precise moment: the shipwrecked sailors seeing the saving ship, the Argus, after thirteen days of a drift which will be proved to be a monstrous and catastrophic nightmare. The effect is dramatic, the touch is lively. At the heart of a pyramidal and theatrical structure, the still able-bodied men stand up to call for help. However, if neoclassicism is still present there with the bearded character in the foreground which holds a man already dead, romanticism, like the powerful wind which inflates the sail, is already there and well there, and triumphs.

Géricault exhibited his paintings at the Salon of 1824 alongside with Eugène Delacroix, his fellow workshop worker who, in the same year, exhibited The Massacre at Chios, a frightful slaughter commited by the Turks against the population of this Greek Island with 25.000 casualties. Two contemporary and political themes.

The following year in 1825 Delacroix went to London to soak up English skies and light and exalted himself before Turner’s canvases.

1824. After Louis XVIII death his brother, Charles X replaced him on the throne and surrounded himself with the ultra royalist ministry of de Polignac. Giving Parisians only unsatisfactory answers, those revolted again on July 27th, 28th and 29th, 1830. The riot quickly transformed into a revolutionary insurrection: forty-one years after the storming of the Bastille, these days were named « The Three Glorious ».

Eugène Delacroix was immediately inspired by the event and sketched the first traces of Liberty Leading the People. The scene shows rioters crossing barricades, led by a female figure of Liberty with a naked breast, wearing a Phrygian cap and holding up the tricolor flag with force.

. Delacroix is ​​indeed the quintessential modern artist. A painter of history whose canvases crystallized the controversy between classicism and romanticism, he became a psychologist of human ardor. He painted Dante and Virgile aux enfers in 1822 and the bloody and lyrical Mort de Sardanapale five years later. Delacroix was a familiar of the literary groups and cenacles of the time linked to Victor Hugo, who, moreover, is suspected elsewhere of having “ stolen ” the image of the Newsboy  (to the right of the allegorical representation of Liberty) for his touching character of this «Parisian titi »who became a hero of literature at the heart of this monumental fresco of French literature : Les Misérables.

The Death of Sardanapalus (1827). Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). Oil on canvas, 3m92/4m96. Le Louvre

However, the July Revolution passed and the insurgent deputies were supported by the house of Orleans, the youngest branch of that of Bourbon. On August 9, 1830, the Duke of Orleans was then proclaimed “King of the French” and no longer “King of France”under the name of Louis-Philippe 1er and set up the July Monarchy.

Wanting to be a citizen king listening to his fellow citizens, he did not understand that the French people wanted to enlarge the electoral body (universal suffrage). Yet, he remained eighteen years in power but his liberal policy against the backdrop of a kingdom in deep social, economic and political changes did not hold up. His reign ended with new barricades in 1848. Fearing to suffer the same fate as Louis XVI, he abdicated and also set sail to join England, under the name of Mr Smith.

Can we really discuss about these characters, then romanticism without spending a few last moments with Victor Hugo, the famous prolific French author, scribbler and inspired painter too ? In transparency, his writings reflected the political atmosphere of his time. After having published Hernani in 1830 and  The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in 1831, he came up against Louis-Philippe, according to him the title of King with the “great quantity of small qualities”. The latter will delight cartoonists of the time (notably Honoré Daumier) echoed by newspapers stimulated by the political significance

Meanwhile, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the future Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon and son of Queen Hortense, Napoleon’s sister), seeked to conquer power. Author of a pamphlet which will earn him a conviction in prison “(The extinction of pauperism“),  he will succeed to evade then. Victor Hugo prolific writer and influential, Pair of France, is a time seduced by the character.

During the Revolutionary Days of 1848, Lamartine, a French poet, delivered a speech in front of the Town Hall of Paris on February 25th, 1848, and proclaimed the Second Republic.

Portrait de Victor Hugo par Benjamin Roubaud (1811-1847), « Panthéon charivarique », Le Charivari, 10 décembre 1841, © Maisons de Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo and Napoléon III were not likely ever to get along together. When Badinguet (assumed name that Louis Napoleon had taken to escape from jail in his early years ) came to power through a coup in 1851, Victor Hugo was then forced to leave France and go into exile in Jersey from where he will scrap against « the imposter ». He took action against Napoleon III in particular in Les Châtiments in 1853 and portrayed human misery in Les Misérables in 1862.

Empire, monarchy, republic, empire .. the wheel spins…

Meanwhile in the midst of these turmoils and revolts, there was a pictorial revolution from which romanticism will emerge victorious. Thus the art of David lost strength and vigor, and Napoleon defeated, replaced by a Bourbon, himself replaced by an Orléans. 

The romanticism embodied by Géricault, Delacroix, Hugo, Lamartine, unfolded its influence over three political regimes covering half a century… 

But times changed and naturally got to their ends when new trends were emerging. Naturalism and realism with such artists as Gustave Courbet for painting or Émile Zola for literature. From then onwards, and without interruption until now, the artists have positioned themselves as the pivot of society to help us to better apprehend the world around us.

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