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Of Gods and Monsters: Classical Iconography in the French Revolution

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    Photo by Donald Tetto

by Amy Tims

The French Revolution produced a large quantity of imagery, from caricature to monuments; much of this imagery was derived from the classical world. Minerva-like figures personified virtues and France, Hercules stood for and guarded the people, and Marie-Antoinette was shown as a hideous Gorgon. However, the classical origins of such images are very rarely, if at all, discussed by historians of the Revolution; the extant literature is primarily concerned with the political culture of the Revolution and/or the gender ramifications of the images.

Using the King Creativity Fund money, I was able to go to Paris to examine primary source material in a manner not available to me here. At the Carnavalet Museum, I looked at Revolutionary artifacts displayed in both chronological order and surrounded by contemporary artifacts. I saw details of the paintings of Jacques-Louis David, one of the most prominent Revolutionary artists, displayed at the Louvre. Then, I visited Versailles to examine the pre-Revolutionary paintings that surrounded the royal family; often, these paintings also utilized classical images and scenes, demonstrating a continuity that is often unmentioned.

By analyzing iconographic trends in their classical and Revolutionary contexts, I seek to understand underlying reasons for specific iconographic choices; I also explore the Revolutionary implications of the accepted classical connotations of such images. For example, David proposed the use of Hercules to represent the Revolution at a time when women, perhaps inspired by the prevalence of goddess-figure iconography, were getting too rowdy for official, masculine tastes. In addition to being an indisputably male figure, Hercules was also associated with Athena, the Greek goddess of reason – a very important virtue to the Enlightened Revolutionary. Thus, multiple things were implied with a single image, a multiplicity of meaning which is depended upon an explication of the classical origins of the image.