Jean-Baptiste Regnault - Freedom or Death

by Alexandra Tuschka


"Freedom or Death" - this painting title expresses, as it were, the valid motto of the French Revolution. In 1793/94, when the Frenchman Regnault took on this subject, the great political upheaval had already been in full swing for several years. This motif was commissioned under the so-called "Reign of Terror" of the Jacobins and is one of the few propaganda works of the Revolution executed in oil.

A naked youth hovers in the middle ground of the picture above the globe, which is only indicated by a bluish area. He is seen frontally, looking questioningly at the viewer, the flame of passion for the idea of revolution can be seen at his head. The white wings, in turn, are softly colored with red and blue. Together with the white of the wings, they make up the colors of the "Tricolore", the young French flag, and to this day stand for "liberty, equality and fraternity". Arms outstretched, the central figure refers to the two others flanking him on either side. Here we see two personifications. On the right - not difficult to recognize - Death with the scythe on a dull brown-black cloud. The scythe as his attribute is oversized and easy to see, in his hand the figure holds a laurel wreath. Since ancient times, this has been a symbol of victory and power. On the left again, a beautiful woman in ancient garb sits on a throne, here "freedom" is represented. She holds aloft the Phrygian cap, also called the Jacobin cap. This was used in a broader sense as a symbol of popular rule. These symbols are cleverly combined here and recur in numerous contemporary posters, writings and paintings.


In the other hand, the lady holds a protractor, a tool originally used in construction, which in the course of the French Revolution became a sign of justice and measured action. At her feet is a bundle of rods (not to be confused with a lictor's bundle, which has an axe sticking out the side). In this case, there are probably 83 rods tied into the colors of the tricolor; they stood for the 83 departments created when the country was divided in 1789. Thus, the bundle of rods stands as a symbol of united forces of the French people and their sovereignty. In accordance with their original function as identifying marks of Roman lictors, the lictor and the fasces stand for military readiness.

The figure in the center represents the spirit of the Republic. Regnault will have borrowed the appearance and composition from a fresco by Raphael in the Villa Farnesina between 1770 and 1775 during his trip to Rome. Raphael shows Mercury, the messenger of the gods. In Regnault's work, on the other hand, the figure takes on something questioning and makes strong contact with us as viewers. The other two figures also look at us. Together with the title of the painting, it seems as if he wants to put us in front of the decision - "What do you choose - freedom or death?". The arms of the young man could act similar to a scale in this regard. The slight diagonal then suggested that death weighs heavier. Do they all expect a decision? But let's be honest? Who would position himself on the right side in view of this work? The viewer's decision seems entirely superfluous.


One must read the picture differently: we are not put before the choice whether we choose freedom or death, but before the possible exits of the political participation. Thus one - joins the revolution - either attains to freedom, or one dies. In death, however, the victor's wreath still waits. With exact view we recognize now also that the black wings of the death are to be seen also with the colors of the Tricolore. One dies thus in the sense of the revolution and thus an honorable victory. Interpreted in this way, the use of the Mercury figure is also plausibly integrated. Thus, the youth does not ask us what we choose, but he brings, as it were the ancient messenger, the possible exits towards us. The wings of the central figure enclose both sides, as it were.


This spiritual attitude is also expressed in the well-known words of Marat, who said: "No one detests bloodshed more than I do, but to prevent blood from flowing in torrents, I urge you to shed a few drops." (Aug. 10, 2792) In this sense, the great sacrifice of the dead is a condition of freedom and cannot be separated. The viewer is asked to be ready for both.


The rather small dimensions of the Hamburg painting, 60 x 49 cm, may seem surprising, given that it is such a forceful work of propaganda. However, they are quickly explained, as this work is a copy of the original, which is now lost and three times as large.


Jean-Baptiste Regnault - Freedom or Death

Oil on canvas, 1794/95, 60 x 49 cm, Kunsthalle, Hamburg


Raphael - Mercury

Fresco, between 1517 and 1518, Villa Farnenisa, Rome

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