The period covered by the Citizens and Kings exhibition was one of dramatic social and political change. From within an age of despotism and absolute monarchies, of superstition and mysticism, a new world was born.
The development of the Enlightenment – economists, philosophers and scientists using rational, scientific thought and reason as tools to investigate and transform the world – was associated with and spurred forward the development of capitalist production.
These ideas influenced revolutions in Britain’s American colonies in 1776 and in France in 1789. They also shaped the new republics that replaced the old order swept aside by revolution.
Citizens and Kings traces these changes, and uses painting and sculpture to bring to life some of the human beings involved in them.
The exhibition begins with the absolute rulers of the 18th century. With hindsight these “divine” rulers seem more fragile. France’s Louis XVI is painted in 1789 – the year of the outbreak of a revolution that would send him to the guillotine.
However, crowned heads were not swept away for long. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s portrait of Napoleon on the throne after crowning himself emperor in 1804 is a masterpiece of royal portraiture.
Napoleon is seen directly from the front – a device not used in royal portraits since the Middle Ages.
He holds the staff and sceptre of the mediaeval emperor Charlemagne to claim his heritage.
The American and French revolutions changed the way rulers were portrayed. A portrait of George Washington transforms imperial symbols into republican ones – his clothes are simple and he stands in his book-lined study. A table leg is carved with the Roman “fasces”, a bundle of sticks bound together to symbolise the republic.
Samuel Adams – one of the key leaders of the American Revolution – poses like a Roman senator holding a petition protesting at the Boston Massacre of 1770.
Jacques-Louis David has several paintings in the exhibition and they are a highlight. David’s Napoleon is a very different portrait from that of Ingres.
It shows him in his study just before dawn after working all night on the Code Napoleon, the legal system that bore his name. Napoleon is portrayed as a man of the people, rather than an imperial power high above them.
David’s powerful The Death Of Marat is worth the entrance fee on its own. Painted in 1794 after Jean-Paul Marat was murdered while working in his bath, it shows the revolutionary slumped, his right arm hanging and his head wrapped in cloth.
Bleeding from a wound in the chest, he seems like a secular Christ deposed from the cross. David was part of a revolution that eschewed religion, but was relating to an audience that was accustomed to Christian iconography. He deliberately depicts Marat as a martyr.
There are other echoes – Marat’s dying body and the drapery seem sculpted, strangely timeless against a dark plain background, recalling the frozen attitude of classical statues.
It hangs in a room with busts of Enlightenment thinkers – Denis Diderot and Immanuel Kant among them – depicted as classical Romans, complete with togas.
This theme, of revolutionary and Enlightenment figures portrayed as classical Romans, or with Roman symbols, makes concrete Karl Marx’s observation about bourgeois or capitalist revolutions. People make history under circumstances inherited from the past, he wrote, and “just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise”.
So the French Revolution was seen as heir to the Roman republic (and then empire). Marx argued this was because the “true” aims of their revolution were not clear to the bourgeoisie.
Through Roman traditions, bourgeois society’s “gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions, that they needed in order to conceal from themselves the bourgeois limitations of the content of their struggles”.
All the figures shown here are members of that “enlightened” class. There are no revolutionary masses represented and little sense of turbulence, which reinforces the fact that bourgeois victory placed material restrictions on ideals of freedom.
The exhibition’s finale is Ingres’s outstanding portrait of Louis-François Bertin, editor of the liberal Journal Des Debats. Painted in 1832, all the Roman symbolism has gone and Bertin is portrayed as powerful in his own right.
The painter Edouard Manet said of it, “What a masterpiece! Ingres chose Bertin to typify an epoch – he represents him as a Buddha of the prosperous, well-fed, triumphant bourgeoisie.”
That triumph is palpable in this exhibition – but so is the constraint it placed on the Enlightenment vision of a genuinely new world achievable through human reason and action.
Citizens and Kings is at the Royal Academy, London until 20 April, £11, less for concessions.
Go to www.royalacademy.org.uk