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Political Messages in Historical Artworks

Throughout art history, artists were often inspired by a common idea that dominated a specific period. Whether it was a renewed interest in classicism, drama, or even artistic frivolity in rebellion to the strict rules of previous periods. However, certain social and political events were enough to compel an artist to create something in attempt to bring these events to a wider audience, but were often viewed as controversial due to the message they portrayed. Regardless of this, these pieces were highly influential and show that art can be a powerful and often positive force during time of great unrest and tragedy.

So, we have a small list of controversial works that were created during a period when many artists were focusing on more emotional and individualistic works.

"Death of Marat" by Jacques-Louis David - Photo by Wikipedia

One of the most famous images of the French Revolution, this painting features revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat after his murder by Charlotte Corday, who blamed him for the September Massacre. It was painted months after his death and was done in an idealized style, which alludes to the fact that David shared common views with Marat. Considered one of the first modernist paintings, it has been very influential and inspired movies, album covers, and even a mission in a popular video game.

"The Third of May 1808" by Francisco Goya - Photo by Wikipedia

One of the most important Spanish artists of the late 18th Century, Goya was exceptionally talented and at one point was a court painter to Charles IV. During the late 1700’s, an undiagnosed illness left Goya deaf. It has also been suggested that he might have been suffering from paranoid dementia. The piece seen here, painted in 1814, is considered one of his most extreme pieces. It features Napoleon’s army lining up Spanish rebel forces for execution. There are no stylized elements or glorification as seen in other works in this list. It’s worth noting that this piece was painted around the same time of his Disasters of War etchings, which are often regarded as a from of visual protest by Goya.

"The Raft of Medusa" by Théodore Géricault - Photo by Wikipedia

Inspired by the shipwreck of the French Naval Frigate Méduse, this piece depicts a tragic event in which 147 survivors of the wreck set out for rescue on a makeshift raft. All but 15 died before rescue and endured dehydration, starvation, and there were also reports of cannibalism. Géricault was so inspired by the event, it’s said he not only created many preliminary studies, but also interviewed survivors, built a replica of the raft in his studio, and even visited a morgue to study cadavers. The painting was very popular and received both praise and condemnation, and it also proved to be a political headache for the French Government at the time.

"Liberty Leading the People" by Eugène Delacroix - Photo by Wikipedia

Created as a tribute of the July Revolution of 1830, this painting is considered a notable work of Romanticism and to this day is used an as international symbol of freedom. The woman in the foreground personifies the concept of liberty and is seen leading the people while holding the flag of revolution, which is still France’s National Flag. While not considered an activist painting, it is often referred to as political propaganda in the fact that it is anti-monarchist.

"Gargantua" by Honoré Daumier - Photo by Wikipedia

Daumier was a painter, sculptor, caricaturist, and is most famously known for the piece seen here. Created during his time as a staff artist at the comic journal La Caricature, this lithograph depicts Louis Philippe I as Gargantua. It was responsible for Daumier being sent to prison for 6 months. In the piece, the king sits on his throne and is being fed bags of coins which have been taken from the poor. It remarks on the idea that the king not only gave himself a hefty salary, but that the government spent too much money on itself.

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