The cheeky art critic column
By Owen Hebbert, Contributor
Death’s attitude is much more that of someone who, when invited to discuss his trade, simply shrugs and says, “You know, people die. Whatever.”
This highly symbolic painting portrays the noble spirit of France between Liberty and Death. For context, it was painted right at the end of the Reign of Terror; a time when just about every idealist had had a go at executing people who disagreed with them, before inevitably being executed in turn. As such, while we might be inclined to believe that the painter is simply describing the state of affairs as he sees them, it is not unreasonable to think that he is actually offering a threatening ultimatum very common at the time. We are invited to side with Liberty as embodied by the French Republic, or else. Precisely the kind of viewpoint that leads one to start admiring the extraordinary potential of a good guillotine.
The artist, Jean-Baptiste Regnault, has portrayed Liberty as being positively cluttered with iconography. Her cloud strains under the weight of the various objets d’art that are intended to leave us no doubt that “Liberty” and “The First Republic” are synonymous. Even France’s spirit has the revolutionary colours showing among the feathers of his wings.
In contrast, Death is far less encumbered. He has a hero’s wreath and his traditional instrument of harvest, and nothing more. Some people have suggested that he also has revolutionary colours in his wings, which would only serve to reinforce my earlier hypothesis. His attitude is much more that of someone who, when invited to discuss his trade, simply shrugs and says, “You know, people die. Whatever.”
Probably my favourite aspects of this painting are the expressions on everyone’s faces. Liberty looks brutally unimpressed. The sarcastic thoughts going through her head as she holds her square and Phrygian cap aloft make it hard to take her all that seriously. She’s like “France! Get the hell back here! You forgot your scarlet cap of liberty again!” Because that’s what he needs right now. Not the scarlet loincloth of liberty. No. The cap.
The French spirit, meanwhile, has the expression of someone who thinks he’s a genius because he just realized that if doors had never been invented, knock-knock jokes wouldn’t be popular at all… because he’s stoned out of his skull.
Death’s expression: “Hey.”