Let Them Eat Cake- Propaganda in the French Revolution

During the reign of Louis VIX & Marie Antoinette (1774 – 1792) much debt incurred due to the War with Great Brittan. When the price of flour sky rocketed, the people (peasants) of France became outraged and resentment of the royal extravagance hit its volatile peak. Three Estates (classes) existed consisting of the Nobility, the Clergy & the People. Two of the three estates (Nobility & Clergy) could always beat out (out vote) the last (the People). Lawyer Maxamillion Robes Pierre and activist, Jean-Paul Marat rose to become powerful, vociferous leaders in the French Revolution. Besides rallies, speeches and demonstrations along with posters, cartoons and paintings to propagate the crusade, the Guillotine and the Bastille came to symbolize the strength of the movement.

From A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens

“It was the popular theme for jests; it was the best cure for headache, it infallibly prevented the hair from turning grey, it imparted a peculiar delicacy to the complexion, it was the National Razor which shaved close: who kissed La Guillotine, looked through the little window and sneezed into the sack. It was the sign of the regeneration of the human race. It superseded the Cross. Models of it were worn on breasts from which the Cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied.”

“Liberty Leading the People” – a grand depiction of forging ahead, over enemies, and leading others who depend on you into victory. It encourages fighting on through death to carry on with the revolution. Liberty becomes the symbol/figure head of the fight for freedom against oppression. She eventually finds her way to Ellis Island in the United States as a gift from France, however this time she is fully clothed.

Eugene Delacroix painted “Liberty Leading the People” in 1863 to celebrate the French Revolution as well as to act as a propaganda poster for the revolution. “Liberty Leading the People” is an oil on canvas painting, by Eugene Delacroix in 1863. Delacroix used vivid colors in painting which brightened the hues and darkened the shades. This provides a contrast that emphasizes the main subject and draws your eye to Liberty as a goddess with a robust figure holding the iconic flag of the revolution. The goddess is raised by a pedestal of dead and wounded on the ground, further giving the figure prominence. In the background, figures represent the classes. The upper class is represented by the man in the top hat pointing his musket at her, and the peasants represented by the boy holding the pistols fighting along side her.

The Death of Marat (La Mort de Marat) is a 1793 painting in the Neoclassic style by Jacques-Louis David and is one of the most famous images of the French Revolution. It is referring to the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, killed on the 13th of July 1793 by Charlotte Corday.

Despite the haste in which David painted this portrait of Marat (the work was completed and presented to the National Convention less than four months after Marat’s death), it is generally considered David’s best work, a definite step towards modernity, an inspiring political statement. At the time of its creation, all contemporary sources clearly indicate that the painting was not to be dissociated, neither in its exhibition nor in its evaluation, from The Death of Lepeletier. The two were to function as a pair if not properly as a “diptych”. Until David’s death in 1825, the two paintings remained together. The unfortunate disappearance of The Death of Lepeletier prevents modern viewers from observing the The Death of Marat the way David had planned it.

These two paintings were deeply personal for the artist who was friends of both the subjects. As the fires of revolution burned hotter in the hearts of the French people, the first martyrs of the cause lit a fuse when they were murdered. Putting these events into something visual and tangible helped stir the emotion in the people that was already present.

The painter Jacques-Louis David represented the death of Louis-Michel le Peletier, marquis de Saint-Fargeau in a famous painting, Les Derniers moments de Michel Lepeletier or Lepelletier de Saint-Fargeau sur son lit de mort. David described his painting of Le Peletier’s face as “Serene, that is because when one dies for one’s country, one has nothing with which to reproach oneself.” This painting, only known by a drawing made by a pupil of David, is considered by scholars the first official painting of the French Revolution, a rehearsal for David’s The Death of Marat later achieved. As effective dictator of the arts, Jacques-Louis David staged many festivals, called fêtes, celebrating the French Revolution and the newly founded religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being. These massive propaganda events sought social cohesion. Some see David as the first minister of propaganda.

In this painting, the First and Second Estates (Nobility and Clergy) are standing over the dead body of one of the Third Estate (a peasant). 


(propaganda through gossip)

We chose to include this bit of information because it shows a different medium for propaganda besides visual media. Gossip, or “word of mouth”, is also effective in furthering a cause –

The Myth
Upon being informed that the citizens of France had no bread to eat, Marie Antoinette , Queen-consort of Louis XVI of France, exclaimed “let them eat cake”, or “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”.

The Truth
She almost certainly never said this. Critics of the Queen claimed she had in order to make her look insensitive and undermine her position.

The History of the Phrase
There has been some discussion about how “brioche” doesn’t translate exactly to cake, but was a different foodstuff (quite what is also disputed), and how Marie has simply been misinterpreted, but the truth is most historians don’t believe Marie uttered the phrase at all.

One reason for this is that variations of the phrase had been in use for decades. Examples of the callousness and detachment of the aristocracy to the needs of the peasants that people claimed Marie had uttered it. Jean-Jacques Rousseau mentions a variation in his autobiographical ‘Confessions’, where he relates the story of how he, on trying to find food, remembered the words of a great princess who, upon hearing that the country peasants had no bread, coldly said “let them eat cake…”


15 thoughts on “Let Them Eat Cake- Propaganda in the French Revolution

  1. Good post! I especially like that you added in the word of mouth propaganda. I think that it is important to remember a lot of what we hear isn’t fact. I had no idea it was questioned by so many historians that she said this.

  2. Wow! Really great to hear where this phrase came from. I think it has a different feeling today than it may have back then. When you hear the word cake now, you think of white and pink frosting with candy on top and some candles around the edge. Where back then I’m sure cake was a little different. I could be wrong about that but I’m just thinking in terms of food coloring technology and sugar being used in frosting and what not…

    • It’s tragic- that’s the point. I think it’s lines like this that have given that book it’s staying power. Although it was written many years after the revolution, it’s probably my favorite line about the guillotine. have a headache?

  3. Wow, the one paragraph or so turned into quite a few :p, yet I was intrigued by the way I would get to the next picture if I read just a wee-bit more, then to be honest I just started to read the photos. I did go back and skim tho.

    As far as what was written, great content btw, I was shocked about the “if they don’t have bread, let them eat cake…” Crazy elitists!

    • I believe she was accused of a lot of things she didn’t actually do. (But she’s not the first – or the last) But that’s probably the most famous line that was never said.

  4. The phrase in the French instance refers to the fact that brioche was made of expensive white flour (go try some brioche from a good baker, it is light, fluffy, buttery, delicious), while the peasants were forced to eat tough bread they often had to soak to even make edible.

  5. “Liberty Leading the People” by Eugene Delacroix was painted in 1830 to commemorate the Revolution of 1830 which deposed Charles X (second monarch of the Bourbon Restoration) and elevated Louis Philippe to the monarchy of France (July Monarch).

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