Museum Home Past Exhibitions A Revolutionary Age: Drawing in Europe, 1770–1820

January 18–May 1, 2005 at the Getty Center

A.-A. Bernard / David
Portrait of André-Antoine Bernard
Jacques-Louis David, 1795

This exhibition examines the artistic movements linked with the spirit of revolution and the Enlightenment in the 18th century.

The 1700s witnessed some of the greatest intellectual, political, and social upheavals in European history. Thinkers questioned received wisdom and challenged the authority of church and state. Their ideas sowed the seeds for the American and French Revolutions.

Artists participated in these sweeping changes by creating their own revolution. Jacques-Louis David and his followers championed the Neoclassical style, painting carefully staged scenes featuring heroic and tragic subjects from ancient Roman history. Other artists portrayed the less rational side of humanity, focusing on violent subjects and dramatic compositions in a style that came to be known as Romanticism.

Europe's changing political winds affected both artists and patrons. Jacques-Louis David and André-Antoine Bernard (shown above) were officials in the French revolutionary government that was overthrown in 1794, and they were imprisoned with many other deputies. David drew profile portraits of his fellow inmates, adopting a portrait format associated with ancient coins. Bernard's tightly folded arms suggest both defiance and forced inaction.

Lictors & Bodies / David
The Lictors Carrying Away the Bodies of the Sons of Brutus
Jacques-Louis David, 1787

Stories of Revolution

In the 18th century, ancient Greece and Rome were seen as the height of moral and social achievement. Artists often used stories from ancient times to comment on contemporary politics.

Roman consul Brutus had his sons executed for treason after discovering that they had plotted to overthrow his government. Jacques-Louis David depicted this tragic choice between patriotism and family loyalty by placing Brutus alone in the dark foreground (left), while a shaft of light links the grief-stricken women (right) with the group carrying the sons' bodies into the house.

When David exhibited the painting based on this drawing in 1789, audiences drew a parallel between this ancient subject and current events of the unfolding French Revolution.

Fright of Astyanax / West
The Fright of Astyanax (Hector Bidding Farewell to Andromache)
Benjamin West, 1797

With their obvious parallels to contemporary warfare, stories of the Trojan War from Homer's Iliad were popular artistic themes in the 1790s.

American artist Benjamin West made this drawing as a gift for Tadeus Kosciuszko, a Polish general who had served with distinction in the American revolutionary war. The subject of the Trojan hero Hector taking leave of his family was particularly appropriate for the wounded general, who had fought valiantly though unsuccessfully for Poland's independence from Russia in 1794.

Napoleon at Eylau / Gros
Napoleon at the Battlefield of Eylau
Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, 1807

Artists Draw Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte dominated European politics from the late 1790s through 1815. Some artists glorified the charismatic leader. Others condemned his militarism and imperialism.

Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, a student of Jacques-Louis David, was one of Napoleon's favorite painters. He was awarded a commission to paint Napoleon surveying the aftermath of the battle at Eylau in February 1807. Gros had the challenge of glorifying Napoleon's military leadership while acknowledging that the bloody battle was a costly victory. The artist accomplished this by showing Napoleon on horseback directing efforts to tend to the wounded soldiers.

Contemptuous / Goya y Lucientes
Contemptuous of the Insults
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, about 1816–1820

Not all artists had a positive view of Napoleon. The French emperor's invasion and occupation of Spain from 1808 to 1813 had a particularly profound effect on the art of Spanish artist Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes.

This satire portrays a confrontation between a bourgeois Spaniard and two shrunken French soldiers. The title refers to the Spanish contempt for Napoleon's troops. The Spanish people resisted the French occupation with guerilla warfare and eventually expelled the French forces with the help of the English army.

Classical Nudes / Géricault
Classical Nudes
Théodore Géricault, about 1814–1815
learn_more See more drawings by Théodore Géricault

The Birth of Romanticism

Many artists of the early 19th century rejected Neoclassicism and developed a new style, known as Romanticism, that focused on heightened emotion and the irrational side of human nature.

Like many other artists of his generation, Théodore Géricault was inspired by ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, which revealed the body's potential for passionate expression. Géricault ignored the Neoclassical insistence on perfectly proportioned bodies, however, and developed a Romantic style that expressed tension and violent emotions.

In the drawing above, the two muscular figures are based on classical statues that the artist could have studied in the Louvre, but they are invented compositions rather than copies.

Three Young Artists / Boilly
Three Young Artists in a Studio
Louis-Léopold Boilly, about 1820

This scene of artists in their studio conveys the artistic passion of Romanticism. The three young men, possibly the artist's sons, are dressed in contemporary clothing and are presented as a cohesive group, united in their artistic goals.

In this drawing, Louis-Leopold Boilly seems to suggest that the next generation of painters will look to their own time for their subjects instead of to the classical past.

The exhibition is located at the Getty Center, Museum, East Pavilion.