Lesson: French Revolution and Visual Language of Power

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Global History
  • "Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps," 2005."Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps," 2005.
  • "Passing/Possing (St. Lucy)," 2005."Passing/Possing (St. Lucy)," 2005.


Jacques-Louis David was an instrumental artist during the French Revolution and in Napoleon Bonaparte’s court. Painting in the style called Neo-Classicism, David used classical elements to express ideas of nationalism, courage, and greatness. As a school of painting, Neo-Classicism expressed a visual language of power and authority by claiming a direct lineage to Greco-Roman culture. Influenced by David and other portrait painters, Kehinde Wiley takes cues from this Western European tradition and inserts the people he wants to represent into these historical paintings, typically young black men he meets on the street. Wiley’s artistic practice critiques both the lineage of portrait painters he claims to be artistically descended from, as well as current society. This lesson provided a great connection between the French Revolution and art and social issues of today.


  • Students will be able to discuss and interpret the style and inspiration of Neo-Classical art.
  • Students will be able to examine the works of Jacques-Louis David and identify the major historical influences on his art.
  • Students will be able to compare and contrast the work of Jacques-Louis David and Kehinde Wiley.


History painting is a genre of painting the historical events from classical history, Christian history, mythology, or historical events from the near past. Many times events and figures are idealized.
Opulence is great wealth or affluence.
Aesthetic is the sensitive to or appreciative of art or beauty.
Lineage is a group of people related by descent from a common ancestor.
Neoclassical refers to the 18th- and 19th-century revival in art and architecture of the simple symmetrical styles of ancient Greece and Rome.
Paradox is a statement, proposition, or situation that seems to be absurd or contradictory, but in fact is or may be true.


Laptop and projector (with images of art ready to go)
“What Do You See” worksheet
Journal response worksheet

Slide 1: The Death of Marat by Jacques Louis David, 1793.
Slide 2: Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard by Jacques Louis David, 1801.
Slide 3: Use the image from Slide 2 side by side to Kehinde Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005.
Slide 4: Show the single image of Kehinde Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005.
Slide 5: Passing/Posing (St. Lucy) 2005.

Lesson Strategy

Start with a Do Now using the image of The Death of Marat projected as the students walk in the room. Hand out the “What Do You See?” worksheet for students to fill out quickly based on their immediate observations of the image. Discuss their answers and ideas together and then give them the background/story of the image.

“What Do You See” Worksheet Questions:

  • What do you see in each image?
  • What does the figure seem to be doing? How can you tell?
  • Where are they?
  • Describe the attire and postures of the person/people.
  • What do you think this painting means?
  • What evidence supports your ideas?

The Story Behind the Painting
The Death of Marat by Jacques Louis David was painted in 1793 during the Reign of Terror. It depicts the 1793 assassination of Jean Paul Marat, writer of the left-leaning publication L’Ami Du Peuple (Friend of the People) and a member of the Jacobins Club during the French Revolution. Marat was the man who signed the execution certificate for Louis XVI.

The scene takes place with Marat in his bathtub. He did a lot of his writing in the tub because he had a chronic skin condition that was quite painful. Charlotte Corday, a loyalist to the French monarchy, stabbed Marat while he was in the bathtub. In his hand Marat holds the letter that Corday wrote in order to see Marat to discuss a “very urgent matter.”

This painting like many others by Jacques-Louis David are called history paintings. Capturing recent history David idealizes the scene of Marat’s death. His skin seems smooth, even though we know he had a very bad skin condition. He looks like a Jesus figure, in terms of his posture and serene expression. In fact many revolutionaries, including the artist, saw Marat as a martyr.

Show the image of Napoleon by David and then the image of Napoleon by Wiley. Discuss as a group the symbolism and possible ideas behind each representation of Napoleon.

Slide 2: Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard by Jacques-Louis David, 1801

  • Have students list recognizable objects
  • Define the figure’s posture and the figure’s facial expression
  • What type of emotion does the painting convey? What visual evidence supports that idea?
  • Does this painting present a sense of power or authority? If so, how?

About this Painting and Jacques-Louis David
This painting depicts Napoleon crossing the Alps in ornate and rich clothing and one a magnificent horse. In reality Napoleon crossed the Alps on a donkey and wearing a simple gray coat. He is crossing the Alps in a victorious manner showing his success as the ruler of France. A propaganda masterpiece, this history painting puts Napoleon on the same level as some of the conquerors of antiquity, like Hannibal and Charlemagne, whose names appear in the foreground rocks.

Jacques-Louis David was part of an art movement called Neo-Classicism. Much like the Enlightenment thinkers, David used classical themes from Greek and Roman cultures to visually depict new philosophies of government and power. He was a popular artist during the French Revolution. He fell out of favor after the revolution ended and was imprisoned because of his political affiliations. After being released from prison and under Napoleon’s rule David became the court’s official painter.

Slide 3
Have students compare and contrast the two different paintings of Napolean crossing the Alps, one from 1801 and the painting of the same title from 2005. Have students discuss the similarities and differences. Prompt students with the following questions:

  • What are some similarities between these two images?
  • What are some differences between these two images?
  • When do you think the second painting was painted?

Slide 4
Take a moment just to concentrate on Kehinde Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps. Ask students to answer the following questions.

  • Describe the expression on the person’s face
  • Where might you see this man?
  • What happens to the meaning of the artwork by placing a different person into it?
  • What do you think is artist’s message?

Slide 5 Passing/Posing (St. Lucy) 2005.
Show the final slide. Bring up the following key points to help students summarize the discussion.

  • Start with the “What do you see?” type questions
  • Kehinde Wiley, as an artist, sees himself as similar to painters like Jacques-Louis David, the only difference is he is painting now, using young black men as his subject matter.
  • Do you find this figure powerful? Why or why not?
  • What about the artist’s images suggest that the figures are powerful?
  • The title of this piece is called Passing/Posing (St. Lucy). What do you think the title means?

To wrap up the discussion, have students take out a piece of paper and respond to Kehinde Wiley’s artwork or the in class discussion. Create a writing prompt based on the lesson, such as “Do you think Wiley is inspired by everyday people by the way he paints them? How might you be painted to show your strength?”


Students will be assessed by how much they participate in the discussion, their “What Do You See” worksheets and their written response to the artwork, discussion, or prompt.


New York State: The Arts

Standard 3: Responding to and analyzing works of art. Students will respond critically to a variety of works in the arts, connecting the individual work to other works and to other aspects of human endeavor and thought.

Standard 4: Understanding the cultural contributions of the arts. Students will develop an understanding of the personal and cultural forces that shape artistic communication and how the arts in turn shape the diverse cultures of past and present society.

New York / World History -Standard 2: Students will use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate their understanding of major ideas, eras, themes, developments, and turning points in world history and examine the broad sweep of history from a variety of perspectives.

• Study of the major social, political, cultural, and religious developments in world history involves learning about the important roles and contributions of individuals and groups with a variety of perspectives.

• The skills of analyzing history include the abilities to investigate differing and competing interpretations of the theories of history, to hypothesize about why interpretations change over time, to explain the importance of historical evidence, and to understand the concepts of change and continuity over time.

National Social Studies Standard
Era 7: An Age of Revolutions, 1750-1914

Students will learn:
• The causes and consequences of political revolutions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries
• Patterns of nationalism, state-building, and social reform in Europe and the Americas, 1830-1914

Additional Resources

Jacques Louis David images and information
Image of and information about The Death of Marat by Jacques Louis David
The French revolution and The Death of Marat

Wikipedia information about Jacques Louis David

Image of Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques Louis David

Contemporary Art
Kehinde Wiley

Young Gifted and Black Painter Kehinde Wiley on NPR

Lesson Plan: French Revolution and Visual Language of Power