Prominent in the winds of doctrine that blew over eighteenth- century France was the notion that the arts were a result of luxury and vice, that they flourished only in decadent, over-civilized societies and provided opiates for the subjects of tyrannical rulers. Disputes over the truth or falsity of such ideas before the Revolution remained largely academic, but the implications of such a philosophy of art obviously would be disastrous if Frenchmen ever decided to create a republican regime which prided itself upon a Reign of Virtue, a return to simplicity, and to nature. Such a regime was the dream of many revolutionaries in 1793-94. Its adherents sometimes refused to distinguish between “royal” and “republican” art: they would abolish the arts altogether.

In a discourse before the Convention in October, 1793, Michel-Edme Petit succinctly expressed the new vogue. He claimed that any inclusion of the fine arts in the education of children would “corrupt morals” and he pointed to the lax morals of artists as proof. Any enjoyment from the fine arts, he contended, “would enervate the spirit, render it incapable of courage, of enduring privations; it would make men insensible to the charms of moderate means and simplicity which are so indispensable in a republic.” Soon after Petit’s speech, a deputation from Sevres visited the Convention complaining of ornate church decorations and priestly vestments because such display was not in keeping with “the simplicity and modesty of the sans-culotte Jesus.” In November, 1793, the Committee of Public Instruction received word from the citizens of Rochefort that all “monuments of superstition” as well as all religious books in the city had been devoured in a bonfire lasting twenty-two hours. On the same day that the committee heard from Rochefort, they also received a letter from the librarian of the city of Marseilles asking for advice (or consolation); the librarian had been told by his townsmen to burn all his books because they were either “useless or evil.” And one anonymous pamphleteer pointed out that the epochs most favorable to the arts had been those of the emperor Augustus, Pope Leo X, and Louis XIV; on the other hand, the Spartans had “banished all luxury.” What must a good republican conclude?

Almost inevitably, the reaction against the art of the pre-revolutionary era reflected upon those artists still alive during the Revolution who had formerly produced paintings or sculpture glorifying royal or religious patrons. The Conventionnel A.C. Thibaudeau reproached French artists because they had not memorialized the great events of the Revolution. Most artists, he said, had “centuries of baseness and adulation” on their record, for during a despotic regime they “had hastened to deify despotism and present it to the people in its most seductive forms.” Such insinuations had been in the air since the first years of the Revolution. Perhaps as a consequence, we find that no group seemed more anxious to join the iconoclastic crusade than the artists themselves.

Stanley J. Idzerda, “Iconoclasm during the French Revolution” (1954)

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