Jacque Louis David: Painter and Propagandist

TIME ALLOTMENT: Two 45-minute class sessions


This lesson asks students to examine how Jacque-Louis David employed oil painting as a medium for a modern form of political propaganda for the French Revolution. David is one of the great artists of western art. His neoclassical paintings, such as Oath of the Horatii and Brutus's Sons, are famous worldwide. He was also a radical Jacobin who approved of the condemnation of thousands of victims to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. On July 13, 1793 David's close friend and fellow-Jacobin, John-Paul Marat, was stabbed to death in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday, a disgruntled revolutionary. The assassination shocked France and was a particularly hard blow to David. The Jacobin-dominated National Convention urged David to paint a commemoration of the event. The result was The Death of Marat, which to this day remains one of the most powerful paintings ever made. It is also a powerful piece of political propaganda. The students will examine and understand how The Death of Marat upheld the ideals of the French Revolution and David's own radical views, reflected the events and circumstances of his time, and displayed his great artistic talent. The students will then place this painting within the historical context of earlier forms of art as propaganda.


AP Art History


Students will be able to understand:
  • artwork and the historical circumstances under which it was created
  • the formal components of an artwork help act together to reveal its meaning
  • an artworks can serve as a medium for political propaganda
  • certain artworks over different times and places have served as various forms of propaganda

National Standards: The National Arts and Education Network, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. http://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/teach/standards.cfm

Standard 4

  1. differentiate among a variety of historical and cultural contexts in term of characteristics and purposes of works of art
  2. describe the function and explore the, meaning of specific art objects within varied cultures, times, and places
  3. analyze common characteristics of visual arts evident across time among cultural/ethnic groups to formulate analyses, evaluations, and interpretations of meaning
Standard 5

  1. identify intentions of those creating artworks, explore the implications of various purposes, and justify their analyses of purpose in particular works
  2. describe meanings of artworks of artworks by analyzing how specific works are created and how they relate to historical and cultural contexts
  3. reflect analytically on various interpretations as a means for understanding and evaluating works visual art
Standard 6

  1. compare characteristics of visual arts within a particular historical period or style with ideas, issues, or themes in the humanities or sciences
Simon Schama, The Power of Art: David
Quicktime - High
Quicktime - Low
Windows Media - High
Windows Media - Low
Music CD:Al Stewart, Time Passages (optional)
Web Site:The Metropolitan Museum of Art Timeline of Art History
The Timeline of Art History is a chronological, geographical, and thematic exploration of the history of art from around the world, as illustrated especially by the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection.

  • Power Point, slide or overhead projector image of The Death of Marat (multiple versions can be found online.)
  • Question Activity Sheet (download here)
  • Online Research Sheet (download here)
  • Chart Activity Sheet on the formal elements of The Death of Marat. (download here)
  • Answers to Chart Activity (download here)
  • Computers with Internet access.

Preview the entire episode on David from The Power of Art or examine the Web resources on the program Web site at www.thirteen.org/powerofart.

Preview all of the video clips and Web sites used in the lesson to make certain that they are appropriate for your students, currently available, and accessible form your classroom.

Prepare to stream the video clips from your classroom. QuickTime is needed to view the video clips. If your classroom computer does not have it, download QuickTime for free at www.Quicktime.com.

Download and make copies of the Question Activity Sheet, Online Research Sheet, and the Chart Activity Sheet.

Optional: Prepare to play CD or tape of “Lonely Palace of Versailles” from Al Stewart's CD, Time Passages. It is suggested to play the CD in the room as the students do their work. This song looks back on the French Revolution and mentions Marat.

It is strongly recommended to view all of The Power of Art so as to place David within the context of Schama's overall theme for the series. A copy of Simon Schama's book by the same title is also recommended as a helpful reference.

The following books are recommended for solid background knowledge:

Hibbert, Christopher, The Days of the French Revolution. (Harper Perennial, New York, 1999)

Levy, Michael, Rococo to Revolution: Major Trends in Eighteenth Century Painting. (Thames and Hudson, New York, 1985)

Schama, Simon, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. (Vintage, New York, 1990)

When using media, provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, a specific task to complete and/or information to identify before, during, or after viewing video segments, Web sites, or other multimedia elements.


Objective: Simon Schama's general views on David and The Death of Marat
  1. Prepare students for watching the two minute segment on David from The Power of Art: David. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to determine what Simon Schama's own views are on David the man and David the artist. Ask the students to listen carefully to Schama's observations as they view the film.

  2. Immediately after viewing, distribute the Question Activity Sheet containing the following questions:
    • What seems to be Schama's general assessment of The Death of Marat?
    • Are Schama's views on Jacque Louis David as a man and as an artist the same or different? Explain.
    • Briefly describe your own immediate reaction to this painting.

  3. Ask the students to write their answers to the questions on their activity sheet and to be prepared to share them with the class.

  4. Have students share their responses with the class. The teacher should write the answers on the black/white/smart board.
    Possible student answers based on the video segment may include:
    • The Death of Marat was poetic and perfect
    • The Death of Marat was designed to make people who saw the painting virtuous citizens.
    • No, Schama disliked David as a person but loved him as an artist.
    • No, Schama thought David was a monster.
    • Schama thought David as an artist created a tragic, perfect work.

Objective: Analyzing the Formal Elements of The Death of Marat.
  1. Ask the students: How do the formal elements of the Death of Marat combine to give a powerful message to the viewer? Have the students view a PowerPoint, slide or overhead image of The Death of Marat on a large screen. This image is shown throughout the duration of the activity.

  2. Divide the students into pairs. While in pairs, have the students work together to define the terms "composition" and "iconography." Have each group share their definitions with the class. Write the correct student definition on the black/white/smart board for reference.

  3. Iconography - the study of symbolic, often religious, meaning of objects, persons, or events depicted in works of art.

    Composition - The unified arrangement of artistic parts and/or the spatial property resulting from the arrangement of parts in relation to each other and to the whole.

  4. Divide the student pairs into groups of 3-4. Distribute the Chart Activity Sheet to your students. Have the students analyze the formal elements of the painting: composition, color, light/shade and iconography.

  5. Ask each group member to share her or his formal analysis of the image with the other group members.

  6. Ask each group to negotiate which observations to list in their charts and then ask each group member to complete their own chart.

    Note: Students must include specific examples from the painting to support the specific observations they list about the four elements.

  7. Review their answers and discuss the charts using the Chart Activity Sheet Answer Key to guide your discussion.

  1. Distribute to the class the Question Activity Sheet.

  2. Have students answer the following review questions on the Question Activity Sheet that contains an image of The Death of Marat.
    • What was David's purpose for making this painting? Did he succeed?
    • Which formal elements do you believe are the most effective for David's intention?

  3. Have students share their responses with the class.
    Possible student answers include:
    • He wanted to help the church with moral re-education and to create virtuous citizens.
    • No, it had the opposite effect.
    • David's use of iconography -- for example the peaceful look on Marat's face.
    • The wood box makes Marat more a man of the common people so he seems for like the viewer -- more accessible.
    • The overall lighting of the painting makes the scene seem more tragic.


Objective: Propaganda Throughout the History of Art

  1. Ask the students: How has visual art been used as a tool of propaganda throughout history? Have a brief introductory class discussion.
    Possible discussion questions to help start a class dialogue are:
    What is the definition of propaganda?
    Propaganda is a type of message aimed at influencing the opinions or behavior of people.
    What are some common forms of visual art propaganda?
    Wanted Posters
    War Posters ("I Want You," Rosie the Riveter etc.)
    WWII Comic Books
  2. Take the class to your school's Computer Lab or download, print and distribute to the class the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) Timeline of Art History webpage at www.metmuseum.org/toah/splash.htm?HomePageLink=toah_1 .

  3. Have the students review the MET Timeline of Art History. If using the Web site have students click on “Subject” or “Artist” which are found under the “Index By” column on the left side of the page in order to research artworks.

  4. Ask the students to browse for any two artworks created before or after the French Revolution which represent some form of propaganda such as: displaying the deeds of a ruler, recruitment to a religion or a cause; the wealth or achievements of the state; an ideology or political view. Each of the two artworks should be from a different time and place.
  5. Distribute the Online Research Reference Sheet. Have the students provide information on their chosen artworks by completing the Reference Activity Sheet: chosen artwork, artist (if known), brief description of the artwork; country or civilization; historical period; why are these artworks interesting to you or why did you choose these particular artworks.

  6. Have the students print an image of their chosen artworks before signing off the computer.
Alternatives: Have the students find images in software such as the CD-Rom discs which come with art history textbooks by Jansen, Gardner and Stokstad. They may also browse for images in their textbooks or research in the school library.

Optional: For mood, play the song "Lonely Palace of Versailles" from Al Stewart's CD, Time Passages, in the room as the students do their work. This song looks back on the French Revolution and mentions Marat.

  1. Have each student briefly present in front of the room the artworks which they have chosen from the Day Two Learning Activity. They should explain in detail why they chose those artworks.

  2. As a homework assignment: have students write a 2-3 page essay in which they compare and contrast their chosen artwork with The Death of Marat. Ask them to answer the following questions in their essay:
    • Defend or refute Schama's views on David and The Death of Marat.
    • Examine the artworks chosen online as evidence to support their essay assignments including: historical background, intentions of the artist (or of the commission if the artist is unknown), and the formal elements of the artwork
    • Have a clear and precise conclusion on propaganda in the visual arts in general and the place of The Death of Marat and their chosen artwork within that conclusion.

  3. Set a due date for a student class presentation of the essays.

Interdisciplinary Assignment: AP Art History and AP English

  1. Homework Project: have the students read a classic novel related to the Reign of Terror. Suggested titles are: A. Red and the Black by Stendhal B. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens Have students evaluate the relevance of the novel to the actual French Revolution by answering these assigned questions:

    • What was the Reign of Terror?

    • In your view, does the novel accurately reflect the Reign of Terror?

    • What do you believe are the author's intentions in writing the novel?

    • How might the novel be a form of propaganda for the author's own views on the Reign of Terror?

    • Using this novel and The Death of Marat as models, how does literature compare to the visual arts as effective tools of propaganda?

    Set a due date which allows a reasonable amount of time for the students to finish the novel and answer the questions.


Propaganda can be found in every community. Ask your students to create a list, a photo journal or a diary of the types of propaganda they see in their local communities.

Power of Art Back to Lesson Plans