It’s often said that the French Revolution (1789-1799) created the “blueprint” for all revolutions to come. Unlike any event before it, the Revolution drew its strength from ideology — an ideology that turned on the belief that France had created a radical break with its monarchical past, and would now radically re-organize itself along egalitarian and democratic lines. To drive this message home, the revolutionaries produced thousands of pamphlets and political works of art. What’s more, they created a new revolutionary calendar and a series of revolutionary festivals that helped give cultural expression to the idea that France had entered a new political age.
More than a century later, the Russian revolutionaries would use the French blueprint and all cultural tools at their disposal to promote its Marxist ideals. You’ve seen the posters. You’ve watched the films. Maybe you’ve read their texts. But perhaps you’re not as familiar with where revolutionary propaganda all began, in which case you’ll want to rummage through a new archive of 14,000 images from the French Revolution, created by Stanford University and the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF). The new archive contains visual materials that will intrigue scholars as much as history buffs.
Above you can see one image celebrating a founding document of the Revolution — 1789’s Les droits de l’homme et du citoyen (The Rights of Man and Citizen). Immediately below, you can see a depiction of Liberty (a modern version of a Greek goddess) triumphing over past political abuses. And, at the bottom, we have a vivid display of the Revolution’s choice instrument of capital punishment — the guillotine. Plus an image of an “aristocratic hydre” in combat with the people.
The images in the archive can be sorted by theme. If you find one you like, you can choose to download the image in a high-resolution format, ranging from small to extra large. Scholars of the French Revolution won’t want to miss another part of the newly-created archive. It contains the Archives parlementaires, a series of historical documents that record the political events of the Revolution. In the mid 1990s, I spent long stretches of time reading those documents in the great reading room of the old BN.
To explore more image archives, please see our recent post: Where to Find Free Art Images & Books from Great Museums & Libraries.
Note: Some lectures on the French Revolution can be found in Yale’s course European Civilization, 1648-1945, which appears in our collection of 825 Free Online Courses from Top Universities. If you want to get a complete course on the Revolution, see Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon. It’s offered by The Great Courses (and taught by one of my stellar college professors). This post tells you how to get a free course from The Great Courses.