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.