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Monuments of the French Revolution


The period of the French Revolution of 1789 to 1799 is a historical marker that has been instrumental in shaping the world as it is known today. The turbulent times gave an end to the absolute monarchy in France that has been taking place for centuries. Moreover, it enabled a shift in the country’s political system while also influencing the remainder of the world, which lead to a new global political scenario. Following the end of the Revolution, the creation of historical monuments was a crucial step toward the liberation of French social and political thought. The new political culture found its expression not only in the abolition of the old traditions and their related symbols but also in the emergence of new practices and symbolic language that presents a new system of values, opinions, and thoughts of the population. There was a need to unite the population based on their cultural identity by offering a unique perspective, which would be opposite to the traditional one, that was to be transferred through art. Therefore, the fall of one monument would be correlated with the establishment of a new one, thus shaping a new symbolic practice. In particular, three key ways were describing the transition from the old to the new. First, there was the destruction of the symbols signifying the previous political regime. Second, there was a complete reconsideration of the public regarding the programmatic and symbolic traditions inherent to the previous system. Finally, there was a new degree of privatization intended for individual use. This paper aims to discuss the French Revolution’s monuments as related to their role in the unification of the French population after the bloody battles.

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The Flawed Great Men

In 1774, when Comte d’Angiviller assumed the position of Director General of Royal Buildings, he intended to revive the French population’s patriotic sentiments (McClellan, 1990). This was set to be accomplished through the commissioning of history paintings of great French men, no women to be included. The paintings were considered to be instrumental in forming a representative framework of the French works of that time that would be exhibited in the Grand Gallery of the Louvre museum (McClellan, 1990). In such an exquisite setting, the art would have vindicated the recent claims regarding French superiority in the visual arts. However, the Revolution prevented the plan from taking full effect, with only some of the paintings having been made. Today, most of them remain unknown to the general public and overlooked by art historians.

The importance of understanding the difference between the traditional approach toward commissioning art and the post-revolutionary method lies in either elevating or diminishing the role of the Crown. In the Great Men (Grands Hommes) exhibition initiated by d’Angiviller, the common denominator connecting most of the men illustrated in paintings was their loyal service to the Crown (McClellan, 1990). Thus, the men were not only seen as just the benefactors of their country and humanity in general but also as the king’s model subjects. Together, the Great Men represented a particular vision of past French history and society in which “the unifying principle, reconciling differences of rank, estate, genius, and religion, was allegiance to the king” (McClellan, 1990, p. 177). Thus, the exact men chosen to be included in the series of artworks were the models for emulation. Their devotion to the French monarch and the nation specifically mattered as much as their achievements. The dedication to the King of France fell above one’s accomplishments, which explained the choice of the ‘great men’ for the collection and its subsequent exhibition in the main gallery of the country.

The Grand Hommes statues that have been commissioned by D’Angiviller were used to make timely political points after 1777 (McClellan, 1990). In 1779, the two statues of progressive parliamentarians emerged, of d’Aguessau and Montesquieu, both of whom were prominent figures in the dialogue in support and opposition of the Parliament (McClellan, 1990). Even though their writings were at times radical, their presence in the Great Men collection served as a means of rendering them the emblems of the Monarchial right, neutralizing them as sources of any oppositional discourse. Also, the 1777 salon exhibited the painting by F-A Vincent of Matthieu Molé as illustrated calming the mob during the Fronde (McClellan, 1990). Molé was another parliamentary hero the views of whom may often go in another direction from the royal narrative. However, the audience was expected to recall a different characterization of Molé as formulated by Montesquieu having the spirit of the laws, the magistrate model, the type of parliamentary spirit that could reconcile love and order and respect for royal authority. As a part of the Grand Hommes collection, Molé was to be perceived as the voice of moderation, as someone who would balance his devotion to the French throne with his duties as a citizen and a public figure. Later, Mole was sculpted by Etienne Gois for the Salon of 1785 to be included in the Great Men exhibition in the Louvre (McClellan, 1990).

The Role of the Louvre

In itself, the Louvre played a critical part in the shaping of the political messages during and after the revolution. The opening of the museum was considered to be a “feast of national unity,” such that could show to both friends and opponents of the young republic that the new freedom was based on the traditions of the Enlightenment and progress as well as the desire to reach happiness for the community. The Louvre was set to represent an example of how the construction of destruction intertwines, such as the conversion of the works of art that used to have the old regime and now belonged to the nation (Reichardt, Schmidt & Thamer, 2005). It is essential to note that access to the Grande Galerie of the museum was highly restricted under the rule of the ancient regime, with only highly-ranked representatives of the French society, foreign envoys, and state visitors allowed. However, the free access acquired with the help of the revolution signified breaking free from the established rule. In itself, the Louvre became a monument for celebrating the emancipation of the population and their unity in the light of the liberation movement.

The objects and the historical monuments that the revolutionaries perceived to be contaminated with the vices of the old regime had to undergo a process of appropriation through rededication. The transfer of the works of art was intended for ensuring that the objects considered to be the waste of the king become a national inheritance or that they are returned to the national property. The process of appropriating and cleaning art objects and works was carried out in multiple communities, including the capital of the country, which signified an act of distancing the population from the tradition and facilitating the reinterpretation of notable artworks. The act aligned with the festival of unity and fraternization, or the Festival of Republican Reunion, on August 10th, 1793 (Ozouf, 1988). In both structure and implementation, the summer festival was an instructional and educational event that allowed for the staging of different events and acts aimed at the unification of the French people.

La Fontaine de la Régénération

Among the prominent monuments of the French Revolution was La Fontaine de la Régénération, which was the monument erected in 1973 at the former site of the Bastille in Paris, during a festival intended to commemorate the anniversary of August 10, 1972. It features the statue of an Egyptian goddess Isis surrounded by two lions, with water springing from her breasts. The account of the monument is available from the engraving by Isidore-Stanislas Helman of 1796, from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Reichardt, Schmidt & Thamer, 2005). The engraving depicts the Festival of Reunion of August 10, 1793; the monument is shown sitting on the site of the Bastille prison, the fall of which signified the beginning of the Revolution. Even though Helman’s engraving shows the monument made out of marble or stone, it was, in fact, quickly constructed out of papier-maché. The scene was printed as a part of the series commemorating the events of the French Revolution.

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The Panthéon: The People’s Temple

The Panthéon located in Paris is an important historical monument of the Revolution that acquired a special meaning in the new era. By the time the construction of the building was finished, the military events have already started. Even though it was intended to be a church dedicated to the patron saint of Paris, Saint Genevieve, the National Constituent Assembly made a vote to transform it into a mausoleum to hold the remains of distinguished French people, following the example of the ancient Pantheon of Rome. Within the process of appropriating and redefying the monuments of the past, the Panthéon received the name “the Temple of the Nation,” to hold the remains of noble men and represent the altar of liberation and independence (Reichardt, Schmidt & Thamer, 2005). On July 21, 1791, the ashes of Voltaire were placed in the Temple of the Nation, followed by the remains of several distinguished revolutionaries, such as the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and scientist Jean-Paul Marat.

Although, it is notable that the quick shifts in power during the revolutionary period did have some implications for the monument. The two men who were previously seen as revolutionaries, Mirabeau and Marat, were declared enemies, and their remains were removed. This signified the lack of stability in the political realm meant that the decisions made earlier could be reconsidered, which is a challenge for establishing a cohesive point of view in the cultural and political domains. After some time in 1795, the new government of the French Convention made a decree that no one should be placed in the Pantheon who had not been deceased for at least ten years. After the Revolution, when the church initially dedicated to Saint Genevieve was transformed into a mausoleum, the Assembly approve some of the architectural changes to make the interior more solemn and fit with the purpose of the building.

Napoleon’s Depictions

Napoleon in Triumph is a statue by François Frédéric Lemot, which is now housed in the Pasian Louvre, used to stand atop the Arc du Carrousel, commissioned to be monumented by the imperial decrease in 1806 (Reichardt, Schmidt & Thamer, 2005). The importance of the statue is associated with the different representation of Napoleon compared to other works. The favorable representation of Napoleon makes the sculpture an essential contributor to the collection of French Revolution monuments. He was one of the main figures in the Revolution, with his influence and experience in the realm of politics and military affairs making him the frontrunner of the collective resistance against the monarchy of France, even though he did not participate in the formative years of the Revolution.

In the sculpture, Napoleon’s body is slender and tall in proportion, while the perfected facial features like him of the ancient emperor of Rome. The drapery of his clothing is adorned with a bee motif symbolizing the Empire as bees were viewed to be the oldest symbol of French kings. The symbol is believed to be adopted by King Childeric I, the founder of the Merovingian dynasty. Napoleon used the symbols of the ancient French and Roman dynasties to establish a high degree of personal authority. In addition, Napoleon is depicted wearing the chain of the Légion d’Honneur, which is made of eagles being linked to each other with rings, and the chain was probably the first one that the goldsmith made for the ceremony of coronation. The Légion d’Honneur’s plaque is shaped into a star with five doubled rays and hands from the central medallion, which is composed of the Napoleonic “N”, adorned with a laurel wreath and an imperial crown. The sculpture has many symbols and iconographic elements that were intended to link Napoleon to the oldest French dynasties. However, it avoided any references to the Bourbon dynasty, which was overcome by the revolutionaries and, as a result, brought Napoleon power as the first Emperor of France.

The portrait of Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David is one of the most well-known paintings of the French Revolutionary. Completed in 1812, the large oil on canvas painting is currently located at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The painting shows Napoleon standing in his study, wearing the uniform of a colonel of the Imperial Guard Foot Grenadiers as well as the Légion d’Honneur plaque as well as the Order of the Iron Crown to adorn his uniform. The Emperor is depicted in a seemingly effortless surrounding of his study, with desks and the floor piled with pens, books, rolled papers, and dossiers. Such a setting, along with Napoleon’s cuffs that are unbuttoned, messy hair, and wrinkled stockings, was intended to suggest that he was tired from a long night of work. The candles on the painting have burned down almost to the bottom while the clock shows the time 4:13 AM, implying that Napoleon spent his night writing laws, such as the Code Napoleon since the word ‘code’ can be seen as the prominent one on the rolled papers located on the desk.

In contrast to the kings of France who used to be painted in regal adornments and impeccable in their presentation, Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Napoleon pursued a different aim. The artist’s idea was to depict the Emperor in his civil image, rather than heroic or military, as done in Canova’s Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker or David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. Even though the sword that is effortlessly laid on the chair reminds us of the Emperor’s military successes, the painting is unique because it shows Napoleon as a real person and not the Roman God. The heraldic bees and fleurs-de-lys that decorate the furniture signify the stability of the imperial dynasty, which Napoleon aimed to elevate within his position as the French leader.


The far-reaching social and political changes brought by the French Revolution encouraged a new societal structure. In such a system, the new sovereign and his people would no longer be defined by their status or habitus but rather by official functional signs that represent their roles in an egalitarian society. The appropriation of tradition and the monuments inherent to the old rule was an eclectic process with its highs and lows, as in the example of the Panthéon becoming The Temple of the Nation. A traditional symbolic language was rationalized and placed in a new context, although it had undergone some frequent changes throughout the revolution. This would influence not only the political culture in France but also the symbolic language inherent to the revolution, which revealed the common and separate characteristics of the premodern tradition but also allowed for the use of old symbolic forms in the new negotiation context.

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The monuments of the French Revolution were not all necessarily put in place after the events of the battle. Instead, the old symbolic forms of the royal aspect of history had to be re-evaluated and reused to fit the narrative of social liberation in the country. For example, while the Panthéon was initially commissioned to be a church in honor of the Patron Saint of Paris, its later transformation into a sacred place to hold the noble people of France was refreshing, although challenging. The shift in the way that the country leader was depicted in art is also important to mention. While Roman Emperor-style statues of Napoleon remained, Jacques-Louis David’s representation was a new look on him as a person, making him ‘down-to-earth’ and closer to his people. In the same way as the opening of the Louvre to the general public signified the act of liberation and the step toward an egalitarian society in France, depicting Napoleon with disheveled hair and tired from a long night of work was inviting the discussion about equality. Nevertheless, it is important to consider that the Napoleonic conquest politics did take a toll on the country in the future, and the true changes in the social structure came much later.

Overall, the French Revolution brought a new wave of thinking about the objects of art and how they incorporate into the social and political narrative of a given time. Even though many of them were not created purposefully to fit the revolutionary ideas, their national value was re-established as an illustration of the cultural wealth and identity of France, regardless of their history of alignment with the ancient regime.


McClellan, A. (1990). “D’Angiviller’s ‘Great Men’ of France and the politics of the Parlements.” Art History, 13(2), 175-192.

Ozouf, M. (1988). Festivals and the French Revolution. Harvard University Press.

Reichardt, R., Schmidt, R., & Thamer, H-U. (2005). Symbolische politik und politische zeichensysteme im zeitalter der Französischen Revolutionen (1789-1848). Harteinband.

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