The Political Artist: David, Delacroix and Courbet

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The Political Artist: David, Delacroix and Courbet

<p>French nineteenth century artists were both commentators upon, and personally involved in contemporary political upheaval. Examine three major artists – Jacques-Louis David, Eugene Delacroix and


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French nineteenth century artists were both commentators upon, and personally involved in contemporary political upheaval. Examine three major artists – Jacques-Louis David, Eugene Delacroix and Gustave Courbet – who perceived their artistic output as linked to a broader civic and social role within society.


  • Anita Brookner, Jacques-Louis David (Thames & Hudson, 1987).
  • Jacques-Louis David: new perspectives, ed. Dorothy Johnson (University of Delaware Press, 2006).
  • Barthélémy Jobert, Delacroix (Princeton University Press, 2018).
  • Delacroix, ed., Sebastian Allard and Côme Fabre (Yale University Press, 2018).
  • Jeffrey Howe, Courbet: Mapping Realism (McMullen Museum Of Art, Boston College, 2013).
  • Simon Lee, Delacroix (Phaidon, 2015).
  • John Merriman, Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune (Basic Books, 2014).
  • Linda Nochlin, Courbet (Thames and Hudson, 2007).
  • The Journal of Eugene Delacroix, trans. Lucy Norton (Phaidon: 1995, first published 1893).
  • Warren Roberts, Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist: Art, Politics, and the French Revolution (The University of North Carolina Press, 1989).
  • James Rubin, Courbet (Phaidon, 1997).


  • The “Political Artist” in Europe prior to the French Revolution: Aristotle stated in his Politics that man is by nature a political animal. We will see how civic identity is expressed in both his works on Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics and how these views can be seen to inform the communal role of the arts for Aristotle, embodied in Greek Tragedy, as the highest form of the arts in his work the Poetics. We will look at the cultural role of the arts expressed within Renaissance treatise on painting and how this was seen to be encapsulated in the genre of history painting. We will examine the continuity and evolution of these views from the early-modern period up until the French Revolution. We will conclude by addressing the political realities for artists in relation to ecclesiastical and civic patronage.
  • Jacques-Louis David – the French Revolution, the Terror and the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte: We will examine the enigmatic painter Jacques-Louis David, who played a complex and evolving role within a period of immense turmoil and social upheaval in France. His high-minded enthusiasm for the new Republic that replaced the monarchy was viewed by some as verging on the fanatical. Yet his post-Revolutionary work, The Intervention of the Sabine Women was seen as a call for peace and an end to the chaos and violence that had characterised the Terror. Furthermore, this painting would draw him to the attention of Napoleon, resulting in David and his pupils becoming pivotal figures in propagating the visual image of Napoleon as first consul and then Emperor of the French.
  • Eugene Delacroix – the Greek war of Independence and the July Revolution of 1830: In the 1820s, Eugene Delacroix focused the genre of history painting on the depiction of very recent events. The 1822 massacre of Chios saw the death of 20,000 Greeks by the Ottoman Turks. In support for the Greek war of Independence, a mere two years after this barbaric event, Delacroix exhibited a painting by the same name in the Paris Salon of 1824. This was followed in 1826, by the work, Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi; depicting a woman, symbolic of Greece, kneeling on the ruins of the city that had been sieged by the Ottoman’s in the very same year, resulting in the deaths of most of its inhabitants. Finally, in 1830, Delacroix painted an image that has come to embody revolution in the public psyche: Liberty Leading the People which depicted the July Revolution of the same year. Despite his choice of subjects, Delacroix was politically conservative. An artist seen as embodying the energy of Romanticism, he was often publically reserved – even aloof. In this lecture we will attempt to address the variability’s within his character, and relate it back to the broader artistic aims of his work.
  • Gustave Courbet and the Paris Commune of 1871: In this final class we will look at the role that social and political ideals had upon the painter Gustave Courbet. His 1850 work, The Stonebreakers exhibited at the Paris Salon of the same year, depicted two peasants eking out an existence cutting stones on the side of a road. The work was meant to encapsulate the poverty and inequality inherent within contemporary life, leading to the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Prudhon to call it an icon of peasant life. Examining Courbet’s works from the 1850s onwards, we will see how his artistic aims would later serve his political involvements in the Paris Commune of 1871.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Gain an understanding of how the cultural function of the visual arts has been historically connected to communitarian social ideals. How this was first given written expression in the works of Aristotle, and how this continued to inform European art until c.1900.
  2. Understand the visual culture of the nineteenth century from the perspective of its perceived cultural utility and how this extended into the political sphere.
  3. Relate stylistic trends within the visual arts of the nineteenth century to other broad cultural, social and political movements of the time.
  4. Gain an understanding of how to visually analyse works of art.