Simon Schama’s CITIZENS

by Simon Schama, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1989, more than 200 illustrations, $29.95.

(Originally published in Art New England, 1989.)

Simon Schama’s wonderful new book about the French Revolution is especially fascinating to people who care about art because it is in many ways a book about the power of images. In CITIZENS, images and ideas dramatically change the way people see themselves and make decisions that transform the world.

Schama shows that the Revolution was born in the last decade of the ancien régime from a new world of images:

“In this new world, heart was to be preferred to head; emotion to reason; nature to culture; spontaneity to calculation; simplicity to the ornate; innocence to experience; soul to intellect; the domestic to the fashionable. The key word was sensibilité – the intuitive capacity for intense feeling.”

Some of this new world was designed by women for women. Dressmaker Rose Bertin “encouraged Marie-Antoinette to abandon the stiffness (both material and figurative) of formal court dress for the loose, simple gowns of white lawn, cotton, and muslin that she came to favor.” Artist Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun invented a new kind of informal portrait, showing women who wear shawls and straw bonnets strewn with flowers, and who often are embracing their children.

The cult of sensibility that began with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and first found expression in the “tear-soaked canvases of Greuze” soon became “the standard voice of the Revolution.” Revolutionary language was filled with “appeals to the soul, to tender humanity, Truth, Virtue, Nature, and the idyll of family life.” As the Revolution progressed, sensibilité gradually hardened to a republican ideal of Virtue that grew ever more implacable, darkened by “the neoclassical fixation with the patriotic death.” This transformation was heralded by “the stern masculine determination of patriotism” in Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of Horatii. Schama shows how the “body language” invented in the painting – the gesture of the outstretched arm – was “appropriated” by the Revolution for the Tennis Court Oath.

David was a major force in the Revolution’s program of republican instruction and moral regeneration. He designed revolutionary festivals and funerals as spectacles combining music, theater, fireworks, and oceans of flowers. By the time David painted Marat Assassinated, terror and violence were the order of the day. David’s Marat is a revolutionary saint in a pool of blood: “The blood of the martyr is there in abundance, rendered with shocking clarity. Marat bathes in it. Everywhere deep red and dead white are set together: blood staining the purity of the sheet, smeared on Corday’s letter; coating the knife, the handle of which David has altered from wood to ivory, the better to sustain the contrast.”

CITIZENS is a spectacular story, vividly imagined and beautifully told. Schama’s narrative brings back to life some of the men and women who lived and died two hundred years ago. As he told me in a recent interview,

“Just because they were real doesn’t mean they have to be permanently dead.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

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