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ART LIFE IN FRANCE : 1789 - 1814

ART LIFE IN FRANCE : 1789 - 1814

The French Revolution profoundly transformed the conditions in which art was both produced and received in Paris. The entire institutional framework was shaken up. A new understanding of the function of art in society emerged, and the role and status of the artist were also radically redefined. From the very beginning of the Revolution, the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture came under attack as an institution of privilege. The offensive was led by the lower-rank academicians who organized themselves into a Commune des Arts. As a result of the Commune's repeated demands, the Académie was abolished in August 1793. In its place, an alternative, non-hierarchical association of all artists committed to the revolutionary cause was founded under the name Société Républicaine des Arts.

In 1791, under pressure from the anti-academic opposition, the biennial Salon exhibition was removed from the auspices of the Académie and opened to all artists. This democratization of access dramatically increased the number of participants in the Salon, allowing as many as 21 women artists, hitherto hampered by restrictions of the Académie's membership, to show their work. Equally democratic was the new institution of the concours (open art competition), adopted during the Revolution as the basis of state patronage. During the Terror, the revolutionary government announced a whole series of concours in painting, sculpture and architecture in an effort to mobilize artists for the republican cause. In addition to having politicized art, these competitions were responsible for introducing contemporary events as subjects for the large-scale history paintings and public monuments. Even if-as Jacques Louis David's unfinished fragment of the Tennis Court Oath (1790; Versailles, Château) indicates-the actual execution of such time-consuming and costly works proved difficult in the unstable revolutionary situation, the new idea of public art devoted to contemporary history was of crucial future importance. The principle of open competition, together with the additional system of state prizes for the arts, served as a model for art administration in France throughout the 19th century.

The museum was another lasting institutional innovation brought about by the Revolution. A public display of the Old Master works from the royal collections was inaugurated in the Grande Galerie of the Louvre on 10 August 1793, on the anniversary of the fall of the monarchy. This timing underscored the republican character of the institution, which aimed to transform the former property of the Crown into a national patrimony. Another function of the museum was to replace the Académie as the principal artistic training ground. Under the Directory (1795-9), the museum collections were significantly expanded by the masterpieces looted by Napoleon during his military campaigns in Flanders and Italy. The museum became a tool for establishing French cultural hegemony, a function that it retained under the Consulate and the Empire.

Coexisting with the desire to construct and preserve national patrimony was the revolutionary impulse to destroy all cultural signs of the past. Acts of vandalism intensified after the fall of the monarchy: it was argued that the memory of the ancient régime could not be eradicated without eliminating its emblems and symbols. Among the Parisian monuments that suffered from devastation were the tombs of French kings in Saint-Denis Abbey, the sculptures of the west portals of Notre-Dame and the royal statue on the Place des Victoires.

Cultural preservation and destruction were both products of the republican discourse on the social utility of art. Having inherited the Enlightenment's belief in the formative effect of images, the revolutionaries put the arts in the service of the vast project of 'regeneration' of French society. In addition to encouraging artists to commemorate the Revolution and to glorify liberty and patriotism, the republican government promoted images of such domestic virtues as conjugal love and motherly affection.

In the process of harnessing art to social purpose, the public role of the artist gained importance, as epitomized by David. Under Jacobin rule, David produced such potent revolutionary icons as the Death of Marat (1793; Brussels, Museum. A. Anc.). He was also practically in charge of orchestrating mass symbolic behavior in his role as the organizer of republican festivals. While emphasizing the necessity of civic commitment, the Revolution also conferred on artists the 'dignity' of emancipated professionals. Yet difficulties in the artists' situation also became evident in the 1790s. In addition to the task of having to invent new language to depict the unprecedented revolutionary situation, artists confronted the difficulty of trying to match the slow pace of creation with the rapid pace of political events. Moreover, with the scarcity of private patronage and the frequent lack of promised government support, many artists experienced severe economic problems. Partly to address these, and partly to institutionalize the artists' autonomous position, David initiated a new mode of public art display: in 1799 he organized an independent exhibition of his painting, the Intervention of the Sabine Women (Paris, Louvre), for which he charged admission. This display set a precedent for the future alternative exhibitions of the 19th-century avant-garde artists. The professional situation of women artists worsened after October 1793 when, following the official ban on women's political clubs, female artists were excluded from the Société Républicaine des Arts. Under the Directory, no women were nominated for membership of the Institut National, when it was created in 1795 as a republican version of the Académie.

During the Consulate and the First Empire (1799-1814), the art institutions inherited from the Revolution became part of the legitimization apparatus created by Napoleon I. In 1804, to glorify his regime and to 'preserve the superiority of France in the new century', Napoleon instituted the Decennial Prizes to be awarded for the best work produced by the French school each decade. The first award was made in 1810. The jury consisted of the members of the Institut National, which had emerged as the supreme arbiter of French art life. Napoleon I also granted artists such important privileges as access to the prestigious Légion d'honneur and exemption from military conscription. During the Empire, the title of Premier Peintre was re-instituted and conferred on David.

In this period, the Dravidian school prevailed at the Salon exhibitions, with vast canvases commissioned by Napoleon I to commemorate his military campaigns. Antoine-Jean Gros's large-scale representations of the glory and horror of the Napoleonic wars, such as the Victims of the Plague at Jaffa (1804; Paris, Louvre; for illustration see Gros, Antoine-jean), were at once highly successful and were also very influential on the following generation of French Romantic painters. Napoleonic rule produced other proto-Romantic iconographies. Anne-Louis Girodet's Burial of Atala (exh. Salon 1808; Paris, Louvre), based on François René Chateaubriand's novel, exemplified the wave of Christian revival in art and literature following the Concordat (1802). Executed c. 1801 for the château of Malmaison, commissions to Girodet and François Gérard on themes from James Macpherson's 'works of Ossian' suited Bonaparte's personal literary taste. The Empress Josephine's patronage, meanwhile, contributed to a vogue for the Troubadour style, represented by the work of Pierre Revoil and Fleury Richard (e.g. Francis I and his Sister, exh. Salon 1804; Arenenberg, Napoleonmus.).

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