Tennis Court Oath (Annotated)
Jacques-Louis David, The Tennis Court Oath (1791), Musée National du Château, Versailles . Image source: CGFA.


1. At the center of the image, three figures embrace: the Protestant Jean-Paul Rabaut Saint-Etienne (1743-1793, center), the Carthusian monk Dom Christophe-Antoine Gerle (1743-1801, left), and the patriot Abbé Henri-Baptiste Grégoire (1750-1831, center). The cluster represents the unity of the confessions, Protestant and Catholic, with patriots in the project of national regeneration. By the time David made his picture, however, Dom Gerle had already become an enemy of the Revolution, alienated above all by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, passed in June 1790, which transformed French clergy into civil servants and required them to swear an oath of allegiance to the national Constitution. Grégoire was a celebrated opponent of slavery and advocate of equal rights for Jews who cast his lot with the republican opponents of monarchy.

2. Wind blows into the Tennis Court, signifying...what? The winds of change? Or progress? A lightening bolt strikes the roof of the Royal Chapel--is this David's commentary on the crisis of divine-right monarchy? Before 1789 David's benefactor, the provincial lawyer Maximilien Robespierre, had been an ardent advocate of lightening rods--is the lightening bolt prophetic of Robespierre's ascendance?

3. Administering the oath of solidarity is Jean-Sylvain Bailly (1736-1793), an successful academic astronomer before the Revolution. Soon after the events depicted in this image, Bailly was acclaimed mayor of Paris (12 July 1789), only two days before the Storming of the Bastille. By the spring and summer of 1791: on 17 July 1791, his police fired on a demonstrators at the Champs de Mars, an act that earned him the hatred of radicals. Having lost control of the city, Bailly resigned the post in November 1791. On 11 November 1793, Bailly himself was executed as a counter-revolutionary.

4. Seated before Bailly sits Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (1748-1836), the grey eminence of the Revolution, whose revolutionary pamphlet, What is the Third Estate?, arguably did more than any other single piece of writing to launch the Revolution. Sieyès' greatest legacy was the idea that the nation's sovereignty was independent of any constitutional form, that the national will was supreme and the source of all law. By 1791, the Revolution had radicalized to the point that Sieyès counted as a conservative. Later Sieyès would play an instrumental role in propelling Napoleon to power. Sieyès was deported when Napoleon fell, but returned to  Paris in 1830.

5. In the right foreground, looking skyward, is Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau (1746-1791), a member of the Provencal nobility, ne'er-do-well son of a celebrated Enlightenment philosophe, and one of the principle figures in the constitutional phase of the Revolution. Mirabeau died of natural causes on 2 April 1791, around the time this picture was made. Soon after, it was revealed that Mirabeau had been a paid, secret advisor to the Queen, Marie-Antoinette--a revelation from which his reputation as a revolutionary never recovered.

Just above Mirabeau is Antoine-Pierre-Joseph Marie Barnave (1761-1793), a lawyer and native of Grenoble who rose to early promience in the Revolution for his great oratorical skills. Barnave became a leader of the faction favoring a constitutional monarchy for France. At the time this picture was made, Barnave was at the height of his powers: he was counted among the "Triumvirs"--three de facto leaders of the Revolution. But Barnave's days were numbered: he defended constitutional monarchy long after it was prudent to do so, was arrested on 19 August 1792, and executed as a counter-revolutionary on 29 November 1793.

6. David gives special prominence to Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794), an early advocate of total transparency in politics and future leader of the Revolution during its most radical phase, even though in 1789 the delegate from the province of Artois in northern France was still little known. Robespierre was elected to the Committee for Public Safety in July 1793 and from that position presided over the revolutionary reorganization of France until 28 July 1794, when he and his colleagues were executed.

7. In the right foreground, David includes Martin d'Auch, the lone delegate to the Third Estate who refused to sign the oath. D'Auch cowers with hands across his chest, protected from the urgings of another delegate by another who gestures silence...a tribute, perhaps, to freedom of conscience?

8, 9. Allegorical figures populate the corners: in the upper righthand corner (9), a father and his children--personifying the people of France--observe the proceedings. In the lower left (9) an anonymous patriot wearing the Phrygian cap of liberty aids an old man, representing the hopes of past generations, to witness the fulfilment of ancient dreams.