How 70 years of revolutions changed the face of painting

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The paintings are a roll call in grand canvases of the rulers, thinkers and political activists who transformed Western civilisation in the tumultuous age of revolution.

The new blockbuster show at the Royal Academy in London brings together 145 portraits of the men - they are nearly all men - of the Enlightenment who populate the period between 1760 and 1830. The curators claim every portrait, from the royal families of Europe to revolutionary leaders such as the Frenchman Jean-Paul Marat, whose murder at the hands of Charlotte Corday was depicted in a famous and notoriously propagandist painting by Jacques-Louis David, is included not only for its aesthetic quality but also for the historical significance of the sitter.

"No exhibition has previously explored the essential role of the portrait in the process of commemoration and immortalisation during this tumultuous period, through works by such great masters as [Joshua] Reynolds, [Jacques-Louis] David, [Jean-Auguste] Ingres, [Francisco] Goya, [Thomas] Lawrence, [Eugène] Delacroix, [Antonio] Canova and [Bertel] Thorvaldsen," a spokesman said.

The thesis of the show is that the vast shifts in society during this period are reflected in changes in the way sitters are depicted - and even, to some degree, who is recorded for posterity. Whereas the royal and aristocratic portraits of the ancien régime, the aristocratic social and political system, had reflected stability and venerable tradition, the awakening of a modern democratic spirit led to a more direct approach to portraiture post-1789.

The exhibition opens with the likes King George III, King Louis XVI and Catherine II, Empress of Russia, but ends with a banker's wife, the family of a notary and even a newspaper editor who were the growing - and increasingly confident - bourgeoisie.

In between, it charts the philosophers such as Scotland's David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, of France, whose thinking was instrumental in changing the nature of society.

The inclusion of Americans including George Washington, the first president of the United States, and Samuel Adams, the leader of the Boston Tea Party revolt against British taxes, is a reminder of how the spirit of revolutionary fervour was crucial in the foundation of the modern United States.

MaryAnne Stevens, the Royal Academy's senior curator, said: "The purpose of the exhibition is to explore the impact of the Enlightenment and the subsequent almost cosmic upheavals that were experienced by the western world through the work of a particular painting type - portraiture." The presentation of the sitter changed during the period. Portraits moved away from depending on "additional attributes" - symbols of status or authority - towards a greater focus on the individual, she said.

By the close of this period, the aristocracy, even when restored to power, are depicted against plain backgrounds stripped of their glamour and ornate wealth.

The steady march of the middle classes, such as those who emerged in Britain with the Industrial Revolution, is seen in the increasing numbers who sought to be recorded in portraits - and a more frank portraiture than that of the past.

Among the highlights of the show are four paintings by Goya never before seen in Britain. They include a portrait of Manuela Alvarez Coinas y Thomas de Ferrer and one of her husband, Joaquin Maria de Ferrer, members of the bourgeoisie living in Paris, which have been borrowed from a private collector.

Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution 1760-1830 opens on Saturday and runs until 20 April