On the relationship between the image of sovereignty and the legitimacy of social order in modern political thought

This article compares rulers’ portraits from the 17th and 18th century arguing that they reveal a critical transformation of political thinking. Since the French Revolution, sovereignty is no longer an absolute model of divine authority but has turned into a contingent image of itself. Hence, the dispute about the symbolic form of the social and the adequate representation of the sovereign (the people) has become the very essence of modern democracy. Formerly involved in the constitution of royal power through acts of display and pictorial representation, the visual arts now face the challenge to depict sovereignty in a society where the ultimate place of power is empty.


On the 11th of December 1831 John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, wrote in his diary: «Democracy has no monuments; it strikes no medals; it bears the head of no man upon a coin; its very essence is iconoclastic.» [1] Adam’s comment on the image of popular sovereignty reflects a modern understanding of political representation which seems to have distanced itself from any form of metaphysical idolatry. But what are the reasons for democracy’s alleged aversion against all forms of overbearing imagery? Forty two years prior to Adams diary entry the question about the form of sovereignty and the source of its legitimacy had become a question of life and death in revolutionary France.

The assault on the Bastille on the 14th of July 1789 marked a turning point in recent history, the transcendent foundations of the absolutist social order having crumbled and fallen within a few years. The fierce dispute in the 18th century about the nature of sovereignty was historically unprecedented. The radical upheavals also had a profound impact on the visual arts of that time which, until then, had played an important role in the constitution of royal power (at least in the institutionalised form of the French academy). In particular the portrait of the sovereign can be regarded as a significant document to understand the legitimacy of social order at an extraordinary and momentous point in Western history.

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