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The king is not enough. The convention too must be killed!

Updated: Oct 30, 2021

Nothing altered the course of art more than French revolution did. The king and the queen and the church loomed over the masses of France like a black cloud for centuries on end. They decided the course money would take. They decided the trend of fashion. They decided the moral. They decided the codes of conduct society must follow.

But the mother of morals and codes of conduct is not nature. It’s the selfish desire of mankind to control a large population that engenders the rule-book. On the other hand, nature has its own whim and own spirit. Mankind, being part of it, must align itself eventually with nature’s ways. There comes the correction in the course of history.

Such was the French revolution.

One Louis after the other took the people of France for granted. The king was not alone but the whole scaffolding of authority consisting of the aristocrats and the church exploited the helpless lot of the working class. This means, most of the population falling outside the elite categories, had no say in the affairs of life in general. They were meant to be followers.

Hence, art too followed the rut defined by the above handful. The same biblical themes were repeated a thousand times with hidden aspects to meet the eternal urge of the artist to express himself.

As I said, nature imposes its dictate one day over the lives of mankind. That is what happened in late 18th Century. The strains resulted from the painful twists and turns employed by the selfish motives of the aristocracy and the church finally broke the patience of the masses.

And there was revolution!

It was not an organized revolution under a single leadership but an unleashing of fury and vengeance. It was, in simple terms, a ferocious attack by the have-nots on the haves. Once unleashed, there was no particular order in the chaotic outburst.

The guillotine appeared.

The king and the queen lost their heads under the sharp edge of the oblique blade that the King himself helped refine as a killing machine some years ago. The doctor, who invented it, vanished from public life when he discovered that his family name had been turned into a synonym of death! The family name of the doctor was Guillotine.

The king and the queen were followed by a procession of aristocrats. All submitted their heads to the guillotine.

But that was the beginning. The pioneers of the revolution headed for the same blade too, one after the other when one disagreed with the other and was defeated in conspiracy by the other. The redness of the bloodbath grew darker and thicker by the passing years.

One day, the rickety young man with an Italian descent became the head of the army and chased the members of the directorate out of the window of the hall where they gathered. And soon he stationed himself in the Versailles, the same palace where the infamous Bourbon family had their good times for centuries. He declared that the revolution ended. The new era arrived.

He was Napoleon Bonaparte!

Well, Napoleon was wrong. The revolution did not end. It went on for several decades more leading to one ruler after the other including his own nephew, Napoleon III.

Overall, the revolution and its defiance for authority went on for not less than a hundred years. The underlying spirit of the Frenchmen and women was to defy the existing order and establish one’s own regime suiting ones’ own interest and spirit.

The microcosm of the pre-revolutionary spirit of following orders was replaced by the attitude of fierce independence. Individuals with intellect did not toe the line of the predecessors. It was the time for carving out a new path for those in the society who believed themselves to be thinkers.

Naturally, art underwent its own share of micro-structural change.

From the aforesaid background, we can easily infer the changes expected in the world of art.

The primary new rule was of course related to the subject matter. The subject could not be anything told by some institution or established convention or protocol. It must be what the individual wanted to depict.

And what an individual wanted to depict could not be the Bible or the king anymore. Neither could it be the rich patron’s wife to be named later as another Mona Lisa. It must be them who captured the sentiment and fancy of the artist.

his radical shift can be seen in the following two paintings depicting the revolution. One was painted in August 1793. artist Jacques-Louis David erected five allegorical scenes to celebrate the first anniversary of the end of Monarchy.

The most notable was the fourth one. In it, the mythical legend, Hercules stood over a model mountain holding a club with which he is about to beat the Hydra, the creature with a woman’s head and a serpent’s body. So, there is no ambiguity of the symbolism here. The good wins over the evil. The good is Hercules. In a way, Hercules symbolizes Robespierre, to be proven blood thirsty later, and the evil is the monarchy. Maybe, the hydra was chosen for many reasons. One reason could be the prevailing perception that the influence of women in the court of the monarchy poisoned the entire system. Hence, the serpentine woman represented the root of the challenge that the big man was about to slay.

Nevertheless, the reality was far from the expectation of the French people. The revolution had just started. It was not the end of anything at all!

I shall not enter the details of the history of the revolution but jump across two decades and focus on another painting done by the artistic genius, Eugene Delcroix. On July 28, 1831, Delcroix exhibited, LIBERTY LEADING THE PEOPLE.

Delcroix painted it, not to celebrate the liberty of 1793, but to depict the toppling of the post Napoleonic Bourbon monarchy. There are certain interesting observations we can make out of it.

The first observation is the absence of any reference to mythical legends like Hercules. To show the image of victory over the evil, it was no more necessary to invoke the characters from the scriptures. On the contrary, the image shows an ensemble of people from various segments of the society.

This top hatted young individual represented a Bourgeois intellectual. Whereas the bare-chested person probably represented a workman. On the other hand, the kid holding two guns represent a street kid.

You can see that the elements to depict a revolution and victory had undergone radical changes. It was now a mix of common folks as well as the rich of the society. Of course, objection was raised about the absence of any lawyer or doctor or a merchant among the characters depicted.

The second observation is more subtle. Look at the spirit of both paintings. In the older one, even Hercules looks restrained by convention and protocol. The whole image appears snugly fitted within the boundaries of custom and rules.

Whereas the painting by Delcroix carries a kind of euphoria, a wild burst of elemental energy as if life is breaking open the shackles of forbiddance. The true spirit of the time.

The third observation is about the woman who symbolized liberty. The bare breasted woman in a fearless gait was a dramatic return of the hero of pre-revolutionary period.

Before the days when the Hercules painting appeared, liberty was represented by the image of a woman, ‘Marianne’. In fact, following was painted by Nanine Vallain, a protégée of Jacks David Louise one year before the Hercules version painted by Jacks Louise himself. It used to be displayed on the wall of the meeting house of the Jacobin club.

But the personification of liberty through woman posed a problem. This is because the public impression was that the royal court was corrupted due to the influence of women on the nobility. Hence, Marianne was not acceptable anymore. A change was necessary. Hence entered Hercules!

But after three decades, in the painting of Delcroix, the woman returned in full glory to personify liberty again. However, this did not go very well initially. The bare breasted woman was considered dirty and base. Common folks rubbing shoulder with young bourgeois in celebrating victory was a matter of concern. As a result, the painting was hidden away from public eye for long sixteen years. It emerged again in the year 1948!

Countless aspects of social transformations emerged through the comparison between the two paintings.

But in a nutshell, it is evident that during the two decades, the restraints, the prevailing order of convention and protocol had fallen off. The same subject matter was no more dealt through biblical elements. More mundane and realistic motifs were coming in vogue.

The artist began to paint what was before the eyes.

The timeless walls of religious boundary had crashed. The hypocritical pretense of the elites to project themselves as ideals was vanquished. Art shook off its fetters of bondage and took flight.

The compulsion to create illusion of an ideal version of reality was no more. Artist could project the truth on canvas. The truth of his own. Thus entered, Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir, Courbet, Pissaro, Gauguin, Van Gogh with Impressionism.

Modern art was born!

This is an excerpt from the book, WHY THEY PAINTED WHAT THEY PAINTED, being written by Saikat Baksi, an author of five English Fictions including a National Bestseller.

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