Modern techniques of propaganda had their beginnings during the Revolutionary period in France when the French public was systematically bombarded by the press and various groups to manipulate its opinion and consolidate a new sense of loyalty and national identity. This included forms that would have popular appeal and reach the masses: newspapers, pamphlets and engravings for mass distribution, cartoons and caricatures, plays, songs and public monuments.
The leaders of the French Revolution, who needed to unite the masses with a new sense of patriotism, realised the power of art in all of its forms to reach and influence the population. New imagery was needed to make the principles of the Republic – such as Liberty and Equality – visible to a largely illiterate public.
The imagery was required not only for ‘high art’ but for application on coins, letterhead, various publications and prints. Even playing cards had to be redesigned to eliminate royal imagery.
Imagery that promoted the ideals of the Revolution included the Republic, represented as a woman draped in Classical clothing and wearing the red Phrygian cap of Liberty. Also depicted as a woman was Equality, holding a level over her head. Fraternity was shown through the fasces, bundles of birch sticks bound with a leather strap. This symbol was derived from ancient Rome to denote strength through unity. Other symbols included the pike as the weapon of the people, the tricolour rosette, the rake – to represent the Third Estate – and the lion to represent power.
As well as depictions of key events of the Revolution, such as the Oath of the Tennis Court, images that emphasised civic virtues and a selfless dedication to la patrie (the homeland) were in demand. These were frequently in the form of allegories from history or Classical mythology rather than the depiction of contemporary subjects.
Festivals were organised that celebrated contemporary ideology and illustrated the principles of the Revolution. Unlike those of the previous regime, the festivals of the Convention emphasised the role of the Revolutionary soldiers and martyrs, rather than the officers. They were civic celebrations that excluded religion, designed for mass participation to create collective attitudes and allegiance.
Pageant dress influenced everyday dress. White muslin became popular for women’s gowns with styling that related to Classical Roman dress, and hairstyles imitated those of Classical statues.
Also in demand were images that represented contemporary events, showed scenes from the exotic places visited by the armies of Napoleon, and landscapes imbued with the forces of nature.
Above: As Napoleon’s position rose from First Consul to that of Emperor, he demanded art that legitimised his power and glorified the Empire. Read more
Napoleon – Master of Propaganda
As a shrewd strategist and politician – a master of managing appearances to manipulate opinion – Napoleon realised the potential of great works of art to instill in hearts and minds the validity and might of the Empire and his authority to lead. Napoleon took the Classical revival of the 1790s, originally used to promote the Republican values of austerity, citizenship, self-sacrifice and duty, and used it to promote his own achievements as Emperor.
Jacques-Louis David undertook a number of patently propagandist commissions for Napoleon: Napoleon at the St Bernard Pass 1801 compared Napoleon to Hannibal and Charlemagne. Napoleon in his Study 1808 depicted the First Consul hard at work in the early hours of morning, for the good of the nation. David also portrayed the coronation in 1804, emphasising the physical splendour of Napoleon and his court, the richness of ceremony and allusions to the grand characters and traditions of the past.
David’s pupil Antoine-Jean Gros accompanied Napoleon’s campaigns and represented his deeds as close to superhuman: General Bonaparte at the Bridge of Arcole on 17 November 1796 1796 showed the Italian Campaign as an effortless triumph; Napoleon visiting the plague victims at Jaffa 1804 paralleled Napoleon with Christ aiding the sick; and Napoleon at the Battle of Eylau 1807 showed the Emperor comforting the dying.