UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex David and neo-classicism

The focus of this exercise is Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Tennis Court Oath 20th June 1789, and in particular how David invests the event with political and moral significance.

My strong preference is to study original works rather than photographs in books or on the internet – not feasible in this instance since one particular work is specified. I set out searching on the internet to find the best, largest, highest quality image of the painting available. I have found multiple versions, sketches and preparatory work, but no single definitive painting.

The actual historical event occurred on 20th June 1789, just weeks before the storming of the Bastille on the morning of 14th July 1789. At the time in France the First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate the nobility, the Third Estate the rest. All had been called together to Versailles by King Louis XVI to discuss the nation’s financial problems and taxes. Discussions stalled on initial questions of power and decision making of the various parties. The 577 delegates of the Third Estate declared themselves a National Assembly, representing all the people of France. A few days later, finding themselves locked out of their usual meeting hall, they met in a nearby indoor tennis court. There all bar one of them took an Oath not to separate until they had drafted a new Constitution of France. David’s image shows the moment when the Assembly President, Bailly, reads out the Oath and (almost) all in the room surge to pledge their oath, declaring the independence of the Assembly.

Jacques Louis David was not at that meeting, but was actively involved in later events of the French Revolution. Just over a year later, on 28th October 1790 he was invited by the Club des Jacobins (one of the most radical groups) to execute a painting of the Oath and a subscription was established to pay for it (de Nanteuill, 1990, p. 23). David made numerous sketches and studies, including a full, detailed pen and ink sketch, 66 x 101.2 cm. This was completed in May 1791 and exhibited in September at the Salon. A huge canvas was prepared, some sketching done and the heads of a number of deputies painted. A cut-down section 358 x 648 cm remains, and I have found suggestions the planned original was 701 x 1006 cm (Wendt, 2008, p. 2) or 792 x 1097 (University of South Carolina, n.d). I have found reference to the project being abandoned in September 1792 (Roberts, 1989. p.58) and 1801 ((de Nanteuill, 1990. p. 23), also (Brookner, 1980, p.97)). With the wisdom of hindsight it makes sense that it would be near impossible to complete such a massive undertaking. With the wildly swinging politics and allegiances the time, many of the delegates were discredited or dead by the time the project was given up.

The best image I have found of the full drawing is at This site is edited by Réunion des musées nationaux, a national public institution under the French Ministry of Culture and Communication. An image of the remaining fragment of the incomplete oil on canvas work is at the same link.

There is a completed oil painting held at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris – It’s 65 x 88.7 cm and is dated by the museum “after 1791”.

A study for the work is held at the Fogg Museum at Harvard – It also has a number of other sketches on the subject, previously attributed to Jacques-Louis David but now given to Jean-Pierre Norblin de la Gourdaine. There is also a location sketch by David of the actual tennis court – a photograph is at, but I haven’t found where it is held.

From the small image in the course notes I think the analysis is meant to be based on the oil painting at the Musée Carnavalet. It seems to be latest in date, the complete intended scene, and has colour – certainly a tool for expressing political and moral significance. However the image I’ve found on the internet is small and to my eyes low quality.
david_tennis_court_oath_comparisonAbove is a comparison of the heads of the same figure, showing the difference. On the left is the full drawing from In the centre is the oil painting from I’m sure this is later than the sketch – it would make a reasonable progression in developing the work, plus I think I can see in the snippet below a leg “sans culottes” (that is, wearing trousers rather than breeches, a significant political element later in the revolution), a detail not in the drawing. The incomplete painting on the right would be closest to the artist’s final intention and is a good size, but there isn’t really enough to analyse.

I have decided to base my work on the larger and clearer reproduction of the pen and ink sketch at

Above is a rough tracing of the sketch. I believe the major elements of political and moral significance that David wanted to capture are the oath itself, the unity of those there, the representation and inclusion of all people of France, the intensity of emotion and purity of purpose, the energy and commitment of those taking the oath and the righteousness of the moment with even nature supporting their actions.

* The absolute centre of the painting is the Assembly’s President Bailly standing on his chair and reading out the Oath (marked “2” above). The sills of the windows above form lines pointing to him and the centre. On the coloured version of the image it’s clearer that Bailly is back-lit by a beam of light.

* The initial impression is that all the crowd of delegates are looking at Bailly and raising an arm toward him as they participate in the oath. This reinforces the action of the moment – the Oath – and the participation and unity of the delegates. However there are many variations among the individuals, bringing energy, spontaneity, movement and a sense of realism and literal history to the work as well as emphasizing the individual commitment and choice.

tennis_court_surgeI see it as a surge of energy with Bailly and the Oath the primary focus, and have tried to mix a few photos to give that sense of the surge of waves (energy) crashing and converging on a rock in a tumultuous sea and that spray of enthusiasm and emotion. Looking at my result leads to thoughts of under-currents and dangerous tides, uncontrollable forces.

* On the right (marked “8”) is the one delegate, Martin Dauch, who objected and would not vote against the wishes of his king. Dauch is huddled in his chair, drawn back, motionless, determined, arms defensively crossed, body in stark opposition to the overwhelming majority. However even this dissension is put to use to emphasize the unity and free choice of the gathering. While one delegate looks back and has taken hold of Dauch’s arm a second delegate leans forward protectively over Dauch, holding back the first delegate and raising a finger to silence him – each must make their own decision. The Assembly is not a mob, they respect the individual’s choice, but the overwhelming choice is to take the Oath.

* In the centre of the image, just below Bailly and marked “1” three members of the clergy embrace. Roberts (1989, p. 52) identifies them as representing secular, regular and Protestant clergy “whose fraternal embrace (and compositional symmetry) symbolize the creation of a new society, free of former divisions”. The three men are Dom Gerle, Grégoire and Rabaut Sanit-Etienne (Roberts, notes to figure 16). This illustrates that David was willing to change history even while illustrating it, in order to enhance the unity shown. Dom Gerle was not actually there at the Oath (Roberts, 1989, p. 52).

* Further pairs or groups are seen embracing across the picture (marked in blue on the graphic above), underlining the fraternal joy of the moment.

* In addition to the delegates the proceedings are watched by a wide representation of the general populace, including women, children and soldiers of the National Guard. All of France is shown supporting the Oath.

* The scene is presented as if on a stage, increasing the sense of drama and helping to make the viewer feel a part of the action and emotion. As previously noted the delegates are ranged around the central figure and the high windows reinforce that central focus. This is probably another example of David’s artistic license, based on differences to an engraving produced by Flouest who was drawing while at the occasion (Roberts, 1989, p. 52). This shows the action turned through 90 degrees, with the high window behind the delegates who are more spaciously ranged in rows of chairs. The change allows David to crowd the action, increasing intensity while the blank wall behind and the high windows direct the attention.

* Right of centre (marked “3”) is Robespierre, leaning back, hands to his chest, bursting with emotion. De Nanteuill see this as symbolising “revolutionary purity and passion’ (de Nanteuill, 1990, p. 74). David intended “1,000 to 1,100 figures in the most energetic attitudes” (quote from (de Nanteuill, 1990, p.23). This huge array, many recognisable to the contemporary viewer, would further emphasize the massive support for the Oath.

* Some further quotes from David, ideas jotted in notebooks, show his deliberate intention to capture the range and depth of emotion and commitment of the participants: “remember to show the deputies moved to tears and holding their hands to their eyes”; “remember the dust that the movement of the action must have raised”; “some [delegates are] serious and frowning, some laughing as if filled with delight, some respectful, some looking fiercely patriotic”; “Mirabeau, great energy, strength, vehemence, [Emmanuel] Sieyès, depth, [Antoine] Barnave, calm” (Schnapper, 1982, pp 112-113).

* The clothing of the figures was as current at the time, not harking back to Classical dress. However many of the poses of individual figures have Classical roots, a subtle link to borrow authority from the past and giving some grandeur and monumentality to the occasion. The delegates, and David as painter, knew that they were creating history. “If Roman events were taking place in modern France, there was no longer any need for classical disguise: the day of the republic had dawned” (Brookner, 1980, p. 96).

* At top left, strong winds blow the curtains, suggesting nature itself supports the Oath with winds of change. Through the window can be seen a bolt of lightening striking Versailles (the royal chapel, itself “a symbol of monarchical power and the divine right of kings (Roberts, 1989, p. 53) – apparently based on the historical event, and acting here as both symbol and prophecy.

I haven’t yet written up my notes about the Enlightenment and its impact on art and architecture. I think this painting exemplifies Diderot’s attribution of “political, social and moral ends to painting” (de Nanteuill, 1990, p. 10). However I found it interesting to turn back to Rembrandt’s The Night Watch of 1642, 150 years earlier (see an image at This shows another group of militaristic men, set on a stage, made up of individual portraits. It’s not a specific event, but is presented as “a grand historical spectacle” (Honour and Fielding, 2009,p. 593). The composition is I think more complex, taking the eye on a zigzag rather than David’s intense central focus. The individuals are in modern dress, and the painting moves beyond a simple depiction of a group of people to a celebration of the Dutch republic. Both works have propaganda value, when they were painted and today. I have two quotes which for me capture the major difference in responding to the pictures. Of David’s work “… for the last forty years of the eighteenth century it was the duty of painters to hold the mirror up not to nature but to the ideal and to show physically perfect specimens performing morally perfect actions with little subjective comment from the artist” (Brookner, 1980, p. 27). Of Rembrandt’s: “It portrays not only what the Dutch, but all democracies ought to hold dear – the courage of flawed human beings to come together while acknowledging one another’s individuality and difference. It is an icon of tolerance, diversity and the magic golden light that makes a society work” (Jones, 2013).


Brookner, A (1980) Jacques-Louis David. London: Chatto & Windus

de Nanteuill, L. (1990) Jacques-Louis David. London: Thames and Hudson

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King

Jones, J. (2013) Time to revisit Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, a glowing symbol of democracy The Guardian [online] 6 May 2013. Available from: (Accessed 2 October 2013)

Roberts, W. (1989) Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist: Art, Politics, and the French Revolution. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Schnapper, A. (1982) David. Cited in Roberts, W. (1989) Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist: Art, Politics, and the French Revolution. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, p. 51.

University of South Carolina [n.d.] [online] Available from (Accessed 29-Sept-2013)

Wendt, MK (2008) Jacques-Louis David: Artistic Interpretation in Tumultuous Times Anistoriton Journal [online] 11(2) Available from (Accessed 27-Sept-2013)

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex David and neo-classicism
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project three: Depicting history – neo-classicism, Romanicism and realism
Exercise: David and neo-classicism

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