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Art & Design


Symbols of Revolution

Modern techniques of propaganda had their beginnings during the Revolutionary period in France when the French public was systematically bombarded by the press and various groups to manipulate its opinion and consolidate a new sense of loyalty and national identity. This included forms that would have popular appeal and reach the masses: newspapers, pamphlets and engravings for mass distribution, cartoons and caricatures, plays, songs and public monuments.

The leaders of the French Revolution, who needed to unite the masses with a new sense of patriotism, realised the power of art in all of its forms to reach and influence the population. New imagery was needed to make the principles of the Republic – such as Liberty and Equality – visible to a largely illiterate public.

The imagery was required not only for ‘high art’ but for application on coins, letterhead, various publications and prints. Even playing cards had to be redesigned to eliminate royal imagery.

Imagery that promoted the ideals of the Revolution included the Republic, represented as a woman draped in Classical clothing and wearing the red Phrygian cap of Liberty. Also depicted as a woman was Equality, holding a level over her head. Fraternity was shown through the fasces, bundles of birch sticks bound with a leather strap. This symbol was derived from ancient Rome to denote strength through unity. Other symbols included the pike as the weapon of the people, the tricolour rosette, the rake – to represent the Third Estate – and the lion to represent power.

As well as depictions of key events of the Revolution, such as the Oath of the Tennis Court, images that emphasised civic virtues and a selfless dedication to la patrie (the homeland) were in demand. These were frequently in the form of allegories from history or Classical mythology rather than the depiction of contemporary subjects.

Festivals were organised that celebrated contemporary ideology and illustrated the principles of the Revolution. Unlike those of the previous regime, the festivals of the Convention emphasised the role of the Revolutionary soldiers and martyrs, rather than the officers. They were civic celebrations that excluded religion, designed for mass participation to create collective attitudes and allegiance.

Pageant dress influenced everyday dress. White muslin became popular for women’s gowns with styling that related to Classical Roman dress, and hairstyles imitated those of Classical statues.

Also in demand were images that represented contemporary events, showed scenes from the exotic places visited by the armies of Napoleon, and landscapes imbued with the forces of nature.

Innocent-Louis GOUBAUD
French 1780-1847
Allegory of the glory of His Majesty the Emperor (Dessin allégorique à la gloire de S. M. l’Empereur) 1811
71.1 x 57.5 cm
Fondation Napoléon, Paris
Acquisition, 1992 (inv. 21)
© Fondation Napoléon - Patrice Maurin Berthier
Above: As Napoleon’s position rose from First Consul to that of Emperor, he demanded art that legitimised his power and glorified the Empire. Read more
Above: As Napoleon’s position rose from First Consul to that of Emperor, he demanded art that legitimised his power and glorified the Empire. He commissioned many images of himself as statesman, tireless administrator, military genius and semi-divine monarch. Napoleon’s deeds were turned into the stuff of heroic legend: leading conquering armies across the mountains, and visiting the wounded or plague-stricken. Many portraits immortalised both Napoleon and his extended family. In this image Goubaud shows Napoleon clad in symbols of power. He is dressed in an imperial mantle atop a globe, crowned with a laurel wreath and holding a sceptre topped with the Hand of Justice, the dark clouds of destiny swirling around him. Close

Napoleon – Master of Propaganda

As a shrewd strategist and politician – a master of managing appearances to manipulate opinion – Napoleon realised the potential of great works of art to instill in hearts and minds the validity and might of the Empire and his authority to lead. Napoleon took the Classical revival of the 1790s, originally used to promote the Republican values of austerity, citizenship, self-sacrifice and duty, and used it to promote his own achievements as Emperor.

Jacques-Louis David undertook a number of patently propagandist commissions for Napoleon: Napoleon at the St Bernard Pass 1801 compared Napoleon to Hannibal and Charlemagne. Napoleon in his Study 1808 depicted the First Consul hard at work in the early hours of morning, for the good of the nation. David also portrayed the coronation in 1804, emphasising the physical splendour of Napoleon and his court, the richness of ceremony and allusions to the grand characters and traditions of the past.

David’s pupil Antoine-Jean Gros accompanied Napoleon’s campaigns and represented his deeds as close to superhuman: General Bonaparte at the Bridge of Arcole on 17 November 1796 1796 showed the Italian Campaign as an effortless triumph; Napoleon visiting the plague victims at Jaffa 1804 paralleled Napoleon with Christ aiding the sick; and Napoleon at the Battle of Eylau 1807 showed the Emperor comforting the dying.

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Think, Investigate, Create

Art, Studio Arts and Visual Communication and Design

Look closely at the different images of Napoleon. How is he portrayed? What devices does the artist use to achieve the desired impression?

Research the visual material used to convey political messages at different times in history – for example the posters of the Weimar Republic, Maoist China and America at war. What similarities and differences can you find? Do images still have similar power to influence in contemporary times? What kinds of images are used in today’s ‘propaganda’?  Which media are used by contemporary governments and politicians to communicate with their audience?

In Barak Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, a poster by artist Shepard Fairey featuring Obama’s face and the word ‘hope’ became an iconic image of the campaign. Find out about how this image arose and the issues that were raised from its use. Why do you think the image was so successful?

Create your own poster or media advertisement to promote a cause, political party or candidate.

Imagine you are trying to promote yourself as a leader. What kind of image would you try to create? Which symbols would you use to emphasise your character and credentials? Conduct a photo shoot with yourself as the subject to create images of you as leader.

Educator's Guide