13 The Triumph of the French People

Jacques-Louis David (1748 – 1825)

Le Triomphe du Peuple Française (The Triumph of the French People) , 1794


Publisher unrecorded

The design of this complex political allegory by Jacques-Louis David, without doubt the most celebrated artist of the French Revolution, was originally intended to decorate the curtain of the Théatre des Arts. However, his ambitious plan was never realised – if it had not already been abandoned, the fall of Robespierre in July 1794 would certainly have rendered it impolitic for a post-terror regime – and like so many other revolutionary projects it remained on paper only.

The focal point of this crowded print, whose large cast of characters progress across the picture plane creating a frieze-like effect, is the figure of the triumphant French people embodied by a crowned figure of Hercules. He is carried aloft on a richly ornamented chariot similar to those designed by David for inclusion in the revolutionary processions that he orchestrated on behalf of the government. Typically, David has drawn directly on classical sources when composing this image, and both the chariot and its occupant are direct quotations from an antique source – a Roman sculpted sardonyx known as the Gemma Augustaea.

Hercules shares the float with the allegorical figures Liberty and Equality, who rest between his knees, and with the embodiments of (from left to right), Commerce, Science, Art, and Abundance, identifiable by the attributes they bear. All four, the print suggests, flourish under the protection of the triumphant French people. Running before the chariot, which crushes emblems of feudalism, royalty, and superstition beneath its wheels are two sans-culottes attacking the figures of fallen kings who stumble at their approach: hovering above them is a winged figure personifying victory. A crowd of republican heroes, both ancient and modern, follows the chariot, among them, the Gracchie brothers, Brutus, and William Tell and, from the pantheon of French revolutionary martyrs, Marat, Le Peletier and Chalier. Each one carries the weapon used to kill him or exhibits his wounds. Chalier holds a guillotine blade aloft, and a particularly startling inclusion is the figure of Jean-Paul Marat, who breaks away from the procession, lunging towards the viewer to whom he exposes his fatal stab wound. Here David draws on age-old conventions for the depiction of Christian saints, conventions that would have seemed especially pertinent given that the revolutionary martyrs were themselves the subjects of huge cults.

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