Imaging the French Revolution Discussion
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F. Warren Roberts's interpretation elicited suggestions and encouraged reflections on the challenge of comprehending sources.

The problem of “popular representation” is likewise very complex. We can discern the so-called ”popular” only indirectly by ascertaining the origins, production, and destination of the print. Most engravings were derived from fine paintings, portraits, or engravings and then reworked by the artist or engraver for a more general or plebeian audience. Thus, even so called “popular” wood-block prints or etchings were usually inspired by or derived from more elite sources. For example, the valorous victims in the “Massacre des prêtres dans le couvent des Carmes” [Image 12] might have been inspired by David's celebrated “Sabine Women.” Though the anonymous artist uses a similar binary division of the battle scene, he shifts the political meaning of the composition by focusing on the government's brutal treatment of the church and clergy. That is, the engraver develops a decidedly counterrevolutionary theme by portraying the vulnerability of the unarmed priests who are being assaulted by revolutionary marauders.

My guess is that many of these prints were designated for an urban audience. Since fine engravings were expensive, they could only be purchased by well-off customers. I would agree with Lynn that while many of the artists highlight the “agency” of the crowd, the designers also tended to restrain the representation of violence through abstraction, technical formality, or by distancing the audience from most unruly displays. With the exception of the Foulon/Bertier de Sauvigny narratives [Images 2 and 31], a good number of prints in our sample modified the impact of violence by emphasizing symbolic or ritualized aspects of violence. It would stand to reason that pro-revolutionary printers and their team of engravers preferred to minimize crowd violence and class tensions to avoid offending a comfortable clientele so as to stay in business.

Subject: question 2
Posted By: Vivian Cameron
Date Posted: July 6, 2003, 6:05 PM

One of the basic problems with all of these prints of events relates to the concept of narrative. Unlike the various written accounts, reports, and memoirs of events which can discuss a series of events over time, the printmakers (medal-makers) were reduced to showing a single moment (or several consecutive moments) within one image, such as the fall of the Bastille [Image 13], the march to Versailles [Image 6], or the execution of Foulon [Image 2]. Such a time constraint (with, at best, a compression of several moments into a single visualization) restricts the information that can be conveyed visually. Another problem concerns the date of production of the prints. The prints in the Histoire de France collection at the BN, as well as those in the De Vinck collection, are categorized by the date of the event, not by the date of production. Our Image 19, “Pariser Poisarden,” for instance, looks stylistically as though it was produced in the 1830s. Given that as a possible date, how does that affect one's reading of the image? Thirdly, there is the problem of interpretation. In the case of Image 6, “Memorable Day at Versailles,” which Joan analyzes, without the text that mentions “our modern Amazons glorious in their victories...,” we might be inclined to read the image as a negative comment about the women who marched to Versailles. While Joan reads the figure of the woman leaning “affectionately against a Guardsman” as “the transgression of moral and political authority unleashed by the Revolution,” it could also be read as a sexualization, and thereby trivialization, of the political actions of the women during the October days, hence not as “phallic threat” but as flirtatious dalliance in the rococo sense.

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