The Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was abolished by government fiat in August, 1793, and was almost immediately replaced by an official group (dominated by David and his students) called the “Commune of Arts.” At first it seemed that the Commune of Arts would be merely a more egalitarian version of the old Royal Academy, while it carried on the academy’s teaching and judging functions. But the hostile pressure upon a group of men who had so obviously “prostituted” themselves so short a time ago was too great, particularly when injury was added to insult by suggestions that art of any kind  was useless or evil. By January of 1794, the members of the Commune of Arts decided that “any conflict between the God of genius and the God of patriotism must cease.” The hotheads in the Commune planned a ceremony in which a portrait of the dauphin was to be dragged to the foot of a liberty tree, mutilated by each member of the Commune and then burned. Those in the Commune who opposed such activity were assumed to be infected with “moderantisme” or “counterrevolutionary” tendencies.

In the spring of 1794, the Commune of Arts began to take action against contemporary painters and engravers whose works contained “obscenities which revolted republican morals,” and they planned to bring a list of proscribed works to the Committee of Public Safety. Within a week of this action, the well-known painter, L. L. Boilly, appeared before the Commune to “abjure his former errors” as a painter of subjects of doubtful morality. Boilly asked for mercy on the ground that he was first to denounce his own conduct. He assured his rapt listeners that in the future he would use his brush “in a more worthy manner.” What more could virtuous republicans ask?

Notwithstanding all these iconoclastic plans, legislation, and activity, the dilemma remained in force, even though it never seemed to be recognized explicitly by the revolutionaries. The dialectic, the tension, between iconoclasm and the need to preserve the heritage of the arts (to say nothing of the need to provide an environment in which artists would feel encouraged to create republican symbols without fear of reprisal at the next shift in the republican credo) remained a fact even during the most destructive periods during 1793-94. Attempts were made to draw a line between “luxury” and “art”; questions were raised concerning the necessary cause-and-effect relationship between the morals of society and its art, and some courageous Frenchmen began to hint that the primrose path of iconoclasm lead to the hell of barbarism.

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


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