Imaging the French Revolution Discussion
Imaging the French Revolution Home
2. What are the advantages/deficits of visual mediation of events and concepts in this period? Can images provide knowledge that is distinctive and different from textual sources? How do images either correspond with or differ from their textual commentary? What does this reveal about the combination of image and text? Can representations by their nature capture popular attitudes? Are inherent male/female upper class/popular class tensions either captured or effaced in these images?
question 2 Warren Roberts, 6-9-03, 9:50 AM
RE: question 2 Jack Censer, 6-10-03, 1:05 AM
RE: question 2 Warren Roberts, 7-2-03,
9:53 AM
RE: question 2 Barbara Day-Hickman, 7-1-2003, 3:17 PM
RE: question 2 Warren Roberts, 7-2-03, 12:53 PM
RE: question 2 Jack Censer, 7-26-03, 10:17 PM
question 2 Vivian Cameron, 7-6-03, 6:05 PM
Final thoughts Warren Roberts, 7-18-03, 5:38 AM

Subject: question 2
Posted By: Warren Roberts
Date Posted: 6-9-03, 9:50 AM

I wouldn’t say that images provide knowledge that is different from textual sources but they can add something to what the textual sources tell the historian. At least they have done so for me. My comments here apply to the two images I have discussed in my essay for the project, illustrations by Jean-Louis Prieur depicting related events that took place on the same day (22 July 1789). Both Jack and Lynn seem to have doubts about the case I tried to build in my essay, so I will try to explain myself to them and to the other members of the group as well.

First, a few words about Prieur, the illustrator whose works I discuss in my essay. He did 67 of the first 68 illustrations for the Tableaux historiques de la Révolution française, deluxe prints depicting principal events of the Revolution from 1789 to 1799. All of Prieur’s illustrations for the Tableaux historiques were engraved by Pierre-Gabriel Berthaut. Two of his drawings were not engraved, “The Intendant Bertier de Sauvigny” and his last illustration, a rendering of the September Massacres. Prieur left the Tableaux historiques after the completion of his last drawing and henceforth played an active political role in the Revolution. He was a Jacobin, a member of the Revolutionary committee of the Poissonière section, and he was a member of the Revolutionary Tribunal. He was arrested after the uprising of 12 Germinal (April 1, 1795) and went to the guillotine in the following month, on May 7.

Prieur was not a detached observer who compiled an objective pictorial account of the principal events of the Revolution. He was a partisan; he scripted the events he illustrated. This can be seen in his rendering of two related events of July 22, “The Hanging of Foulon at the Place de Grève” and “The Intendant Bertier de Sauvigny, led to the Hôtel de Ville, recognizing the Head of Foulon,” that I discuss in my essay. Crowds had murdered two royal officials in the Place de Grève on July 14 by stabbing or shooting them, and eight days later, on July 22, in the same place, they dispatched two other officials by hanging them from lampposts, the first time (as far as I have been able to determine) in which revolutionary crowds dealt with their enemies in this manner. Thus began one of the central problems of the Revolution: Would justice be administered legally and officially by the state, or spontaneously by the people who lynched their enemies? Prieur’s “The Hanging of Foulon” can be seen as part of a contemporary discourse on the meaning of popular justice as rendered in this form, stringing up enemies of the people from lampposts. Desmoulins’ “Discours de la lanterne aux Parisiens” is part of that discourse, as were debates on the events of July 22 at Versailles by members of the Assembly.

In his illustration of the hanging of Foulon, Prieur gives central importance to the lamppost, an object used to dispense (and a symbol of) popular justice. Someone sits on the lamppost from which Foulon hangs, and below him there is a circle formed by the crowd, with the figure of Foulon at its center. Just how conscious Prieur was of the lamppost as an expression of popular justice is shown by his inclusion of a lamppost in his illustration of “The King and Royal Family led to Paris by the People.” In this illustration Prieur shows a lamppost at the far right-hand side of the image, with someone sitting on top of it who looks toward the royal carriage, as if to send a message to the King and Queen: Enemies of the people were subject to popular justice, and this, the lamppost, was where it was carried out.

Prieur’s scripting of “The Intendant Bertier de Sauvigny” brings out the sardonic humor that was integral to popular culture. Robert Darnton’s “Great Cat Massacre” essay1 analyzes that aspect of popular culture, as do Farge and Revel in their study of the 1750 Children’s Riot 2. A crowd that believed a constable, Labbé, responsible for the wrongful seizure of children in 1750, broke into a room where he had been placed in custody, ran him down after he briefly freed himself, and beat him and stoned him to death. “His body, which ‘no longer had a human face,’ was then dragged to the house of Lieutenant General Berryer, the official whose measures had been responsible for the riot. When archers carried Labbé’s body to the morgue on a ladder that night, a crowd followed behind in mocking silence. The next night a crowd appeared outside the house of Labbé’s mistress, where he also had lived. They cut a cat’s throat and then performed a travesty of a religious ceremony that included blessing the cat with water from the gutter, singing the de Profundis and Libera Nos, and throwing the cat into a fire amid jeers and threats that police spies ‘could end up like this cat.’”3 Discussing bourgeois who were in the crowd during the rioting, Farge and Revel explained that for the most part their response was to withdraw from scenes of popular violence. The “bourgeois were aware that during the heights of the revolt they had rubbed shoulders with a profoundly alien culture, which in the cold light of day they found deeply threatening.”4

Prieur’s “The Intendant Bertier de Sauvigny” can be seen against the background of the 1750 Children’s Riot. Once again, popular protest was accompanied by sardonic humor. Hay has been stuffed in the mouth of a hated official, as another official, also soon to be decapitated, turns away in horror from the frightful spectacle that confronts him. “Kiss Papa! Kiss Papa!,” the crowd’s response to this strange encounter, is an expression of the sardonic humor that was part and parcel of popular culture.

1 Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 1984).

2 Arlette Farge and Jacques Revel, The Vanishing Children of Paris: Rumor and Politics Before the French Revolution (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard U. Press, 1991).

3 Warren Roberts, Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Louis Prieur, Revolutionary Artists: The Public, the Populace, and Images of the French Revolution (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000), p. 49.

4 Farge and Revel, Vanishing Children, 56.

Extended Discussion
Imaging the French Revolution Home