Masterpieces of the Age of Revolution

Art in the Age Revolution was largely shaped by historical events (i.e. the French Revolution). This tour shows some of the most notable artworks created during the Age of Revolution and explains the meaning and history of each.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Smarthistory, now available on Google Arts & Culture.

Fragonard Room, Frick Collection, New York

This room was rebuilt to showcase Fragonard’s paintings and the objects and furniture we see were purchased to complement them. Fragonard painted these for Madame du Barry, mistress of the king of France, Louis XV.

Before the revolution, the king held absolute power. These paintings—about the four ages of love—are a good example of the lifestyle of the rich and privileged—what the French revolutionaries would fight against in the next decade.

Fragonard, The Progress of Love: The Pursuit, 1771–72

The first painting depicts a well dressed young woman surprised by a young man who offers a flower. These figures don’t have a care in the world. They are in a lush garden and behind them, water streams from a fountain.

Fragonard, The Progress of Love: The Meeting, 1771–72

Two figures meet in secret. The suitor climbs a ladder but is stopped as the young woman worries they may be caught. Their bodies lean together forming a pyramid that leads up to Venus and Cupid. Nature is abundant—suggesting the couple’s love.

Fragonard, The Progress of Love: The Lover Crowned, 1771–72

The young woman adorns her suitor with a crown of roses. She wears a golden silk dress, and a garland of flowers is thrown across her arm and lap. A musical instrument and some sheet music are close by.

Fragonard, The Progress of Love: Love Letters, 1771–72

Beneath a sculpture of Venus and Cupid, the couple nostalgically reads their love letters. The sheltered life depicted here was increasingly at odds with the world beyond the palace gardens. In Just a few years, the French revolted and beheaded their king.

Versailles, 1664-1710

The enormous Palace of Versailles is less than an hour’s drive from Paris. Versailles was transformed from a relatively small hunting lodge into perhaps the grandest palace in all of Europe by King Louis XIV.

On the walls in this room are portraits of King Louis XIV and XVI. Louis XIV ruled with absolute power and died in the early 18th century. Less than a century later, Louis XVI’s rule was challenged by revolutionaries, leading eventually to his execution.

Louis XIV, king of France (1702) by Hyacinthe RigaudPalace of Versailles

Hyacinthe Rigaud, Louis IV, King of France, 1702

Louis XIV wears his luxurious coronation robes. Louis was not subject to any constitutional limitations, leading him to declare “l’etat, c’est moi” (“I am the state”). He looks down at us as he holds the royal scepter (a symbol of power).

Louis XVI, king of France and Navarre, wearing his grand royal costume (1789) by Antoine-François CalletPalace of Versailles

Callet, Louis XVI, king of France and Navarre

Louis XVI’s portrait follows the same formula but this king would have a different fate. In 1789, nearby, representatives of the people called for a constitution to limit the king’s power. The King refused and a violent revolution was ignited.

Jacques-Germain Soufflot, Pantheon, Paris, 1755-90

Don’t confuse this building with Rome’s ancient Pantheon. “Pantheon” is our modern name for the building, but it was originally built as the Church of Saint Geneviève for King Louis XV.

In 1791, during the French Revolution, the Revolutionary government decreed that the church be converted into a temple honoring great men (the revolutionaries were committed to wresting power not just from the king and nobility, but also from the Church).

The Façade of the Pantheon, Paris

The Pantheon was built in a Neoclassical style. Neoclassical means new classicism, in other words, Neo-Classicism looks back to classical art—the art of ancient Greece (and Rome). The Neoclassical style became associated with democratic values in both France and the United States (think of the Capitol building in Washington).

The inscription

The inscription reads, “To Great Men [from] a Grateful Country.” The Pantheon celebrates the great men (and women) of France though it went back and forth several more times, being a church or a secular monument, depending on who ruled France.

 Images of Napoleon at Versailles

We’re back in Versailles, but now in a room containing three enormous paintings commissioned by the emperor Napoleon and painted by the great artist Jacques Louis David.

Napoleon seized power from the revolutionary government and in 1804 the senate declared him Emperor. At his height, Napoleon’s empire included much of what is today France, Spain, Germany, Poland, Italy, Belgium, and The Netherlands.

Jacques Louis David, Coronation, 1808-22

David depicts Napoleon’s coronation at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and included dozens of portraits. Napoleon is depicted while crowning his wife, Josephine, who is kneeling. The Pope, who sits behind Napoleon, would traditionally crown him as emperor—Instead, Napoleon did this himself.

Antoine-Jean Gros, Battle of Aboukir, 1806

Gros depicts the French defeating the Ottoman army in Egypt. All around Napoleon is the chaos of battle—but Napoleon himself remains calm at the painting’s center. Before photographs captured the horror of war, painters often focused on heroic leaders, as Gros does here.

Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Virginia, 1770-1806

Monticello in Virginia was the home of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States. Jefferson inherited this estate and spent a lifetime redesigning it.

The style is Neoclassical, which was associated with the values of a democratic republic. Neo-Classicism looks back to classical art—the art of ancient Greece (and Rome), and the birth-place of democracy.

A closer look: Jefferson and Neoclassical architecture

Jefferson designed Monticello with balance and symmetry and without any formal training in architecture. Specific classical elements include the deep porch, the dome, the columns, and above those, a frieze with sets of three decorative lines called triglyphs.

Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851

In this room, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, we see almost all landscapes, the first American style of painting focused on the natural beauty of the new Republic. The one exception here is—Washington Crossing the Delaware.

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb LeutzeThe James Monroe Museum

Interestingly, this icon of American art, which makes its appearance in so many American history textbooks, was painted by an artist born in Germany, and it was painted in Dusseldorf more than half a century after the Revolutionary war. Let’s take a closer look at it.

Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851

This painting portrays George Washington leading his army across the Delaware River to attack Germans troops fighting for the British. One of the men rowing is African American. The man at the stern wears the clothing of a Native American.

Gilbert Stuart, Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington, 1796

We’re standing in the East Room of the White House, the home of the President of the United States. In front of us is one of the most iconic images of the first president, George Washington.

This is a replica made by the artist of the original version which is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, also in Washington. Stuart painted dozens of images of Washington—they were in great demand.

Looking closer at the Lansdowne Portrait

Although similar to portraits of kings, Washington holds no scepter or crown. Instead, Washington raises his inspired by classical sculpture. Underneath the table, books cite his past military accomplishments while the quill suggests he is ready to take on new political responsibilities.

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