The demands of public life in France were very different after the French Revolution of 1789. A new egalitarian political order had to find an identity connection with artistic practice and vice versa. In the Paris Salon of 1791 –first of the revolutionary period-, Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was not involved with a large painting of historical theme in the traditional way as it had been with his now famous works The Oath of the Horatii (1784) or The Death of Socrates (1787).
By contrast and establishing a unique connection with the demands of his context, David sent a drawing, with a beautiful fini, but finally an unfinished work or, better said, the project of a work. It was The Tennis Court Oath (1791). This work presented a major event for the revolutionary and civic life from just two years ago: the time in which the delegates of the Third Estate were assumed to be representative of a larger political body, and swear to keep in permanent assembly until they produced one constitution for a France that should set behind it all notions of the ancien régime.
It is interesting that the work was commissioned by an unofficial political group self-called «Society of Friends of the Constitution». In addition, it was expected that the final work -a huge canvas on which the figures in the foreground would have life-size- “would be paid for 3,000 subscribers that would later receive an engraving of the painting. The final destination of the work was the lobby of the National Assembly itself” –as Thomas Crow explains.
Of this -more than the simple curious story-, we want to emphasize to the reader’s eyes the fact that the work, given the way the event is presented, the way it was intended to be funded, and the final destination display it pointed to what Crow called “the execution of public will.” Thus, David ventured in a field so very different from that of the divine will or the will of the sovereign which had distinguished the great works of art before. When he stepped in the grounds of public will, he managed to create a sense of unity in a very large percentage of society and set himself free from the shackles imposed by traditional forms of power emanating from the Church and the Monarchical State.
Addressing to the National Assembly, David explained that:
“Before, artists used to not having subjects for their works and they had no choice but to repeat themselves. But now the subjects remain without artists. No history of any people gives me nothing as big or as sublime as the Tennis Court Oath I should paint. No, I will not have to invoke the gods of myths to ask them for inspiration. French nation! I desire to spread your glory. People of the Universe, present and future, I am willing to teach you this great lesson. Sacred humanity, I desire to remind you your rights through a unique example in the annals of History. Oh, woe to the artist whose spirit does not swell when causes so powerful embrace them!”
Clearly, with this work, David gave a strong response to the nodal problem of the art of his time. When he tied up the grandeur of traditional history painting and the aspirations of the new public and citizen realm, he stood as the main connector between art and immediacy of the present, who built a different story to that of the emblematic figures of the hackneyed timeless allegories of the great traditional historical painting. Michael Burleigh states that The Tennis Court Oath meant a contract with the future not with the past.
His political commitment was sincere. David was a political activist and a fervent citizen. Luc de Nanteuil tells us that David was swept away by the revolutionary whirlwind started in 1789, the year he meet Maximilen Robespierre (1758-1794), being absolutely fascinated by his passionate republicanism. This political furor even led him to break with the Academy and form the «Commune des Arts» with a group of dissident artists of this institution.
David ended up distanced from his wife (one ardent royalist) and when Robespierre took power in France, David was his master of ceremonies. In 1791, at the suggestion of Robespierre, he organized the ceremony of relocation of the remains of Voltaire to the Pantheon, which involved a military procession accompanied by children, while an effigy of the French scholar was flanked by a girl dressed in allegory of the Fine Arts and, of course, by men of letters and academics. Later on, in 1793, David propose the erection of a statue made of all the bronze cannons captured from the enemies of France. The pedestal would be made with fragments of stone sculptures torn from the facade of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. The poet André Chénier (1762-1794), who two years earlier praised the painter, reproach him for being part of the madness that embodied l’incorruptible.
Les Feuillants Convent served David as the perfect set to receive all National Assembly deputies to be portrayed for The Tennis Court Oath. Nevertheless, by 1793 –as you can imagine- he was really busy, too busy to pay enough the attention to this huge project. To make things worse, one by one, an important number of those deputies were declared enemies of the Revolution by Roberpierre’s Reign of Terror and ended in prison when not decapitated. Therefore, David could never finish his master work just as the French Revolution never fully accomplished its goals back then.
[Original Writing ©]