How France’s Violent Revolutions Impacted Some of Its Most Important Artists

On December 2, 1851, a then 19-year-old heard the sounds of a violent coup echoing through the streets of Paris. The thunderous clamor of horses, gunshots, and beating drums moved the artist to leave his home. Walking down the Rue Lafitte—known as the street of art dealers—he came head-to-head with a cavalry charge. Unable to escape, he took shelter in an art dealer’s shop until the immediate danger passed, ultimately finding refuge with a patrol of troops who picked him and allowed him to spend the night at the police station. Outside, President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, his rule challenged by the looming term limits imposed by the Second Republic, took control of the city and dissolved the governing assembly. This was a political gambit that Manet—a fiery republican—had predicted with chagrin in a letter written to his father some time prior. A year later, Bonaparte would re-establish the French Empire, ruling until a disastrous military intervention culminated in his removal from power in 1870. Like Manet, many of the French artists we now herald were embroiled in these revolutionary times, and their experiences and political positions tangibly appear in some of their seminal works. To fail to see this history is, in crucial ways, to fail to see the works themselves.
Looking back, the broader strokes of France’s tumultuous 18th and 19th centuries appear to be governed by a bloody cadence. Monarchies became republics became empires, all of this spurred by revolutions, coups, and counter-revolutions. These successions did not lack for bloodletting. If Manet didn’t understand that fact before 1851, his experiences over those few days would prove an unshakeable lesson in political violence. Emerging from his night spent under protection on December 3rd, as Beth Archer Brombert tells it in Edouard Manet: Rebel in a Frock Coat, Manet watched the executions being conducted in front of the Hôtel Sallandrouze and the next day sketched the dead bodies neatly laid out for identification in the paths of Montmartre cemetery. According to the accounts of a friend, Manet quickly hid that image away, though traces of the brutality he witnessed can be found in his famous Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867), which sees Mexican executioners dressed as French soldiers.
It is a testament to the turbulence of 19th-century France that the events of 1851 appear relatively minor. Carried out by troops and not “the masses,” this takeover was deemed a coup rather than a revolution (though when caught up in the actual events and not looking back at them, one person’s coup can often be another’s revolution—the change in perspective is usually determined by whether or not one is reflecting from the perspective of a guillotine). The artists who lived through these times were political actors, and their experiences proved important to their development as individuals and, subsequently, their contributions to art history. Manet is no exception. His variant of —more political than work by contemporaries like —developed, at least partly, amid the din of gunfire.
Some two decades after Napoleon III assumed the reigns of the Second Empire (Louis-Napoléon had given himself a new moniker to go with his self-promotion to Emperor) the French were crushed by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War. The Empire quickly collapsed and Napoleon III was held captive by the Germans, and then exiled. In Paris, which the Germans subjected to a four-month siege, working class resentment stewed as conditions worsened. Following the armistice signed between the two countries, the troops defending the city—a force separate from the army known as the National Guard, of which Manet was a volunteer—did not disarm, unlike the rest of the military. Tensions between the citizens and the state boiled over. Barricades once again filled the streets of Paris.
Rejecting the authority of the French government, helmed by Adolphe Thiers, an industrial class of Parisians embarked upon one of the most radical leftist projects in European history. Known as the Paris Commune, this short-lived, 10-day experiment attempted to usher in drastic working-class and democratic reforms amid a climate that also fermented feminism. Though delegates were sent out to try and spurr revolution elsewhere, the uprising remained largely isolated to Paris.
Manet left in 1871 before the Commune’s establishment, but he returned in May, just in time to witness its destruction. To regain control, Thiers, whose government had retreated to Versailles, sanctioned the massacre of 20,000-30,000 Communards. The rebellion died with them, and—as is so often the case in the revolutionary history of Paris—it died in the streets. As the barricades fell, “Manet actually saw it,” wrote his friend Théodore Duret. The artist’s allegiance to the Commune, likely too radical for his republican bourgeois taste, is dubious. But he certainly had sympathies for their slaughter. In The Barricade (1871) Manet shows the Commune’s suppression, the haze of smoke and and prostrate bodies depicted with the same manipulation of perspective and form he became famous for. He was more than a flâneur quickly jotting down modern life—Manet’s choice to depict the massacre of revolutionary Parisians by the French state was political with the potential for impact. The government censored The Barricade.
Death of Marat
Jacques-Louis David
Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels
We have mostly walked through revolution with Manet, but other seminal works in art history were the product of French revolutionary violence, long before the Commune. Few are more influential than ’s Death of Marat (1793). Hailed by British art historian T. J. Clark as marking the beginning of Modernism for the way it unabashedly makes the political its subject, the painting shows Jean-Paul Marat, the fierce revolutionary figure, murdered in his bathtub. The painting and the murder were roughly contemporaneous, despite the historical feeling imbued by David’s style.
David painted Marat during the French Revolution, which stretched from 1789 to 1799 and is considered the seminal violent earthquake followed by a series of revolutionary aftershocks (those of 1830, 1832, and 1848 registered on the Richter scale). The Revolution began when French citizens revolted against the monarchy and famously stormed the Bastille—an event still celebrated today—which eventually led to the first French Republic, cries of “liberty, equality, fraternity,” and, some argue, the birth of the modern era. But before the Republic, there was conflict. Following the execution of the king and queen, Marat, a central figure in the Reign of Terror (1793-94), encouraged the execution of those deemed enemies of the Revolution and those with royalist sympathies. One such summary execution galvanised a young woman named Charlotte Corday to gain entry into Marat’s room and kill him as he bathed.
But is it perhaps better to end on the image by of the July Revolution of 1830, which took place over the “Three Glorious Days” during which one constitutional monarchy was replaced by another. For all its violence, the work is as romantic as it is patriotic, with Liberty leading Frenchmen from every social class to victory. Delacroix mixes history with myth and fictional drama with the reality of battle, expressing his feelings not in the streets but on the canvas. As Delacroix wrote, “I have undertaken a modern subject, a barricade, and although I may not have fought for my country, at least I shall have painted for her. It has restored my good spirits.”
Though he witnessed the revolution, Delacroix was outside of it, never taking up arms beyond a paintbrush (though he did defend the Louvre from rioters). Yet his image endures, ceaselessly appropriated by generations of artists’ work depicting revolutionary struggles. And while the legacy of these struggles carries on, the history of France’s many fits of political violence now feel very distant, surfaced today in the form of military parades and tricolors on Bastille Day. But history is more than just a sum of events suited for study or celebration. It is a past experienced by soldiers, citizens, revolutionaries and, of course, the artists who offer us an intimate and imagined glimpse of the often gruesome times in which they lived.

Isaac Kaplan is an Associate Editor at Artsy.