The Taking of the Bastille

The French Revolution is a complicated mix of major and minor events, of public and private situations, of famous and little-known places. It can be understood with the help of powerful slogans and declarations, of countless contemporary articles, stories and recollections, ideas and interpretations, but also with the help of thousands of images produced at the time.


How is one meant to look at these images of the French Revolution? How can one see the Revolution in these images?

What different purposes were they meant to serve? Confronted with so many different images, how can one sort them out? A first important criterion to consider is the subject matter.

With respect to those important events talked about all across Europe and as far away as the new American Republic, the images were often illustrations, informing on what happened and where, who was involved, but also what all the fuss was about, the significance of what happened.

The attack on the Bastille on 14 July 1789, for example, was a real battle with guns and cannons, opposing the Paris population, which sought to liberate prisoners from a hated prison, and with the kings troops garrisoned in the fortress. Many prints were engraved to tell the story of this astonishing victory.


For the first time, the will of the people appeared to be an irresistible force. Many observers considered that this event had a profound symbolic significance and most of the prints sought to communicate this idea and celebrate a new political consciousness.

Demolition of the Bastille, with a gleeful tiers état figure

Louis XVI

When it was decided to tear down, stone by stone, the Bastille, where many writers who had defended liberal causes had been imprisoned, it seemed as if the injustices of former days were done away with.

Once again, there image makers were keen to get this message across.

Not everyone felt the same way toward the sudden changes taking place. Those close to the king wanted everyone to rally around him after the taking to the Bastille.

Helped now by good ministers and counselors, he could be expected to pursue the reforms of government.

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