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Revolution to Empire


It is a revolt ... No Sire, it is a revolution.

Duc de Liancourt informing King Louis XVI of the fall of the Bastille,
14 July 1789

The National Assembly – Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

The Third Estate and the people of France generally loved their King, believing that he upheld the best interests of his people, and blamed instead the nobility and clergy for their problems. However, King Louis’ continued inaction on the matter of civil rights caused public opinion to turn. The three Estates debated separately over reform, reaching little consensus. Finally the Third Estate asked the First and Second Estates to join them in a single assembly. The Commons not only demanded greater power but also usurped the power of the other two Estates and confronted the King. On 17 June 1789, without royal authority, the National Assembly was declared. An aura of optimism and euphoria prevailed; the people had created their own ideology based not on class systems but on freedom and equality in which all men could follow their own destiny through ability rather than privilege.

The Tennis Court Oath

On 20 June, when the National Assembly met to discuss reforms, the doors of the meeting rooms were locked. The King declared the National Assembly illegal and held over the meeting until 23 June. In an unprecedented move, the National Assembly – armed with a new sense of purpose and power – convened in an adjacent tennis-court hall. Defiantly the Assembly took an oath declaring its right to assemble to establish and consolidate a new constitution.

The King Takes Action

On 23 June, the King tried to annul the National Assembly and announced a number of concessions regarding taxes and duties, censorship and imprisonment. The National Assembly refused to be summarily dismissed, rejecting royal authority and reaffirming its right to assemble. Soldiers hired to prevent the Assembly supported their fellow ‘citizens’ and by 27 June the King was forced to concede.


Despite the King’s order to allow the Estates to meet as a whole, continued unrest ravaged Paris. More than 15,000 royal troops gathered around the outskirts of the city. Food shortages forced the Parisians to attack customs barriers to allow food to enter. The King dismissed Jacques Necker, his popular finance minister, blaming him for the failure of the Estates-General, prompting riots throughout the city and rallies against the King.

On 14 July 1789 the crowds became uncontrollable. Seeking to arm themselves against the King’s forces they set their sights on the weapons cached in the prison fortress of the Bastille. Negotiations with the prison governor failed and violence erupted. The Bastille – a symbol of the despotism of the old regime – was overpowered.

The storming of the Bastille prison and the arrest of its governor, Bernard-René de Launay, 14 July 1789 (Prise de la Bastille et arrestation du gouverneur M. de Launay, le 14 juillet 1789) (1789)
oil on canvas
57.0 x 73.0 cm
Versailles, musée national du château (MV 5517)
© RMN (Château de Versailles) - Gérard Blot
Above: The Bastille, used by the kings of France as a state prison for political dissenters, was seen by the people as a symbol of tyranny. By July 1789, only seven prisoners remained. Read more
Above: The Bastille, used by the kings of France as a state prison for political dissenters, was seen by the people as a symbol of tyranny. By July 1789, only seven prisoners remained. On the morning of 14 July, a crowd of more than 900 angry Parisians gathered outside the Bastille seeking to procure arms to defend themselves against royal troops. Two representatives were sent into the Bastille to negotiate with Governor Bernard-René de Launay for the handover of guns and gunpowder. After hours of unresolved negotiations the crowd grew restless. In a swell of emotion and outrage the Bastille was attacked. Eighty-three men were killed, fifteen wounded. Governor de Launay, having failed to comply with the wishes of the crowd, was taken prisoner, later to be killed. His bloody head was one of the first to be placed on a spike and paraded as a trophy in the streets of Paris. This image of the uprising on 14 July 1789 portrays the energy and drama of Governor de Launay’s arrest. The tiny figures of the crowd encircling the figure of the captured de Launay accentuate the looming fortress of the Bastille, an obvious but by then defunct symbol of oppression. Close
  • Pierre-Nicolas LEGRAND de SÉRANT
    French (1758) -1829
    Joseph Cange, clerk of the Saint-Lazare Prison, Paris (Joseph Cange, commissionaire de la prison Saint-Lazare à Paris) 1794
    oil on canvas
    70.0 x 56.0 cm
    Musée de la Révolution française, Vizille, Isère
    Purchased in 1989 with the aid of the State and the Région Rhône-Alpes (Region museums acquisition funds) (MRF 1989-11)
  • Jean François SABLET
    Daniel Kervégan, Mayor of Nantes (1794)
    (Portrait d'un révolutionnaire)
    oil on wood panel
    (64.5 x 54.9 cm)
    National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
    Purchased with funds donated by Andrew Sisson, 2010
Above: Sablet realistically captures the age, character and quiet dignity of this elderly figure whose identity is unknown. Research suggests he may be Daniel de Kervégan, mayor of Nantes. Despite the humbleness of the manner of its execution, only well-to-do individuals could afford to have their portraits painted.The dark, muted colours of the background contrast with the tricolore of bright red waistcoat and blue and white cravat, accentuating the Revolutionary sash. Sablet‘s painting of patriotic subjects such as this reflected his own commitment to the Republic. 

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VCE History – Revolutions

Look closely at the painting The storming of the Bastille prison and the arrest of its governor, Bernard-René de Launay, 14 July 1789. Do you believe the event has been depicted realistically, or has it been idealised? Discuss. What techniques does the artist use to capture the spirit of the event? Find other paintings or images of the storming of the Bastille. Compare and contrast the differences between the images. Why are these differences significant? Why was the capture of this building important to the Revolutionaries?

Jean-François Sablet’s Portrait of a revolutionary (1794) depicts a typical sans-culotte of Revolutionary France. Find out who the sans-culottes were and how they represented the values of the Revolution. How did they emerge as significant reformers?  Describe how the artist has captured the values of the sans-culottes.

Create a Revolutionary uniform for modern times.

Educator's Guide