The Art of the French Revolution

The art of pre-revolutionary France was decidedly frivolous in its subject matter and deliciously detailed in style. Paintings were commissioned by the wealthy for their grant chateaus and palaces in delicate pastel colors. This period of art was called “rococo,” from the French decorative term rocaille, and was highly ornamental. Common subjects of rococo art include young lovers, pastoral scenes, outdoor games, and then-fashionable portraits. Cherubs are omnipresent in rococo art, and more often than not are accompanied by scrolls, inexplicable clouds of flower petals, and swathes of fabric. One highly recognizable piece of Rococo art is a painting called The Swing by Jean Honor-Fragonard. It depicts a woman in a voluminous pink dress enjoying a ride on a swing, while two men look on cheerfully. The subtle sexual undertones of the painting – it’s implied that the woman isn’t wearing undergarments – made the painting a scandalous success when it debuted.

Rococo decorative art was exceptionally elaborate and very expensively made. Rococo pieces are the pride of decorative arts collections in museums worldwide. The palace of Versailles was decorated in the Rococo style. Versailles is ornately detailed, and can best be described as a palace of luxury overload. Floors are made of intricately tiled panels of marble. Mirrors are several feet tall, and many feature intricate cherub sculptures at the corners. Busts of Roman emperors are prominent as the classical period was very fashionable in the eighteenth century. Even sofas, upholstered in finest floral silk are trimmed by gilded wooden sculptures of leaves. Asymmetry was popular in Rococo designs, which meant that the leaves on one side of the sofa were unlikely to mirror exactly the leaves on the other side.

A shift in the political climate meant a shift in aesthetic preference. After the political upheaval of the French Revolution, the lower classes wanted nothing to do with the oppressively wealthy upper classes and their prissy art preference. The levity of Rococo art was abandoned in favor of emotional, intense imagery with a revolutionary energy about it. This period of art was known as Baroque art, from a French word describing irregularly shaped pearls. An easily recognizable piece of Baroque art is the cover of the recent Coldplay album, whatsthepaintingsname. In this painting, a rather disheveled woman is depicted leading fervent troops to battle. Enemy corpses are being trampled upon as the proud woman raises the French flag. This painting contains all the hallmarks of Baroque painting – excitement on a grand emotional level, with violent undertones.

While there certainly was nothing wrong with the art of the Rococo era, the lower classes understandably found fault with the unequal distribution of wealth in French society. Marie Antoinette famously had little regard for the welfare of her subjects. Rococo art represented to the French revolutionaries all that was wrong with French society at the time. It was no wonder then that the Revolutionaries set about hacking to pieces Rococo portraits of nobility as they stormed the estates of Paris.

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