I don’t really want to write a treatise and feel that is where I am heading but in some respect some of the information although easily available if you want to crack open a few books is there, the information that has led to some of these thoughts.
When I went to art school back in the 80’s as an older student there was little discussion about the content in paintings in our art history classes, suffice to say there was the usual mention of the subject matter but no real delving into the meat and potatoes as it were. Take David for example, I think we are all familiar with a variety of his paintings like The Oath of the Horatii 1785, Socrates at the Moment of Grasping the Hemlock 1787, Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons 1789, Marat at his Last Bath 1793 and The Intervention of the Sabine Women 1799. The painting of Marat is his most overt propagandistic painting of this grouping but when you put the other paintings above within the historical context of their time other meanings become evident.
The Oath as a call to Nationalist fervor, Socrates commissioned by a French jurist whose life ended at the guillotine, Lictors about the sacrifice that must be made to maintain the nascent Roman republic and the Sabine Women interceding in a battle to prevent further bloodshed between two royal houses; each of the paintings corresponding to current events and address those issues metaphorically.
Historical events in French history play a large part in the development of the Academy and also in our conception of the role and placement of art. We all know of Napoleon as a historical figure but very little about his rise to power, the reasons for the wars that led him to conquer most of Western Europe and his subsequent downfall at Waterloo. After his successful coup d`état and subsequent crowning as Emperor there is a lot of hagiography, see David Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass 1800, Ingres Napoleon on the Imperial Throne 1806, Gros Napoleon in the Plague House at Jaffa 1804 and finally although it may not be a painting of Napoleon it plays into the mythos of the Napoleonic thema, Géricault The Charging Light Cavalryman 1812.
During this time Neo-Classicism as practiced by David and his heirs is also dominant but like all movements it loses momentum, meaning and purpose over time. Often art or philosophical movements are treated as if they are completely independent of their antecedents, take Romanticism for instance, I was taught that it was opposed to Classicism but it actually is an outgrowth out of it, an evolutionary response to deadened practice. What are the images of Napoleon if not romanticized? Napoleon did not ride over the Saint-Bernard Pass on a rearing charger but on the back of a donkey.
With the Bourbon Restoration of 1815 the tricolour flag is replaced by the royal white flag and subject matter is now Royalist in flavor and as Thomas Crow states “the ease with which such opportunistic transformations could be effected did as much as anything to drain the moral authority from the Davidian figural canon”*, with former students of David now using the Neo-Classical style to validate the Bourbon’s such as François Gérard’s Entry of Henri IV into Paris 1817. David incidentally went into a self-imposed exile in Brussels where he died in 1825. There are a few renegades, notably Géricault with The Raft of the Medusa 1819 and its indictment of corruption and Delacroix who in the 1820’s paints The Massacre at Chios.
*Nineteenth Century Art- A Critical History, Thames and Hudson, page 67 Classicism in Crisis; Gros to Delacroix, Thomas Crow