Monday 24 February 2014

Houdon's Robespierre?

According to the caption, this photograph, published on a Belgian blog, represents a bust of Robespierre by Houdon which has been "scandalously hidden from the public" since 1905 in the vaults of the Musée de l'Histoire de France at Versailles. The picture is reproduced on several other sites, most of them Russian; in some it is clearly a page from a book, annotated "Robespierre", but there is no proper reference or explanation given.

The consensus among the experts is that, although Houdon probably created a life mask of Robespierre, he never actually went on to make a sculpture.  So what is going on?

Houdon, portrait of an unknown man, 1774
 Museum of Art, RISD
Illumination is provided by a 1991 catalogue for the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)  available on Google Books. S40 is an example of the same bust by Houdon. The entry explains that there is little information available but in the late 19th century the subject was commonly misidentified as Robespierre.  The statue now in Rhode Island came originally from a Belgian collection and is signed and dated 1774.  The material is plaster tinted to resemble fired clay, and small metal pins throughout the surface suggest that it was the original cast used for modelling finished versions.

We are told that the Houdon expert Louis Réau listed three examples of the bust:

1. A plaster, formerly in the collection of Jacques de Saint-Pierre.

2. A cast from a lost terracotta which belonged to the sculptor Henri Chapu, who himself made a cast for the Musée des monuments français (in the Palais de Chaillot) - possibly the cast in the postcard below.

An old postcard for sale:
Bust of an unknown subject, attributed to
Houdon.  Private collection.
Musée de Sculpture Comparée
(now part of the Musée des monuments français)
3. The sculpture now in the RISD, originally part of the Thoen Collection, Brussels.

It is not clear which, if any, of these versions is the one which ended up in Versailles.

In addition there is a fourth sculpture in the Musée d'Orléans, which is identified as a Bust of Laurent Gilbert.  Houdon's biographer Georges Giacometti apparently doubted the authenticity of this sculpture. I can't find the reference, so I'm not sure quite why, but, on the face of it, Laurent Gilbert is a tempting candidate for the subject.  

Nicolas Joseph Laurent Gilbert (1750-1780) was a satirical poet who made something of a name for himself as a panegyrist of Louis XV and opponent of the Encyclopedists.  He first arrived in Paris in 1774 so the dates fit.  More to the point - it looks like him!

Comparison with engraving of Laurent published in Wikipedia

The idea that the statue is Robespierre can probably be explained by its superficial resemblance to the sculpture of Robespierre by Claude André Deseine.

Other example of the bust turn up from time to time at auction, and there is also a notable later copy on display in the Café Procope.  

But sadly none of them is Robespierre!

"Portrait de Maximilien de Robespierre",
tinted plaster
Sold at auction by Drouot.
Café Procope


"255e anniversaire de  Maximilien Robespierre" on  Les grosses orchades, les amplesThalamèges.....(blog)

Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, European painting and sculpture, ca. 1770-1937 (1991) . p. 262 (S 40) [Extracts on Google Books]

Sunday 23 February 2014

A toy guillotine

At the time of the Terror model guillotines were a popular source of (somewhat nervous) amusement. Curtius made quarter-sized guillotines to adorn his waxworks. Miniature guillotines were  sold for cutting bread and some salon hostesses even furnished tiny dolls, which looked like the enemy of the day, filled with "blood" (perfume) to fly out after decapitation.  In Arras, according to one English eyewitness, children were taught to amuse themselves by making models of the guillotine, with which they destroyed flies, and even animals. 

Toy guillotine c.1794

The above illustration comes from a 1928 book on "children's toys of bygone days"; the author insists that this was a plaything rather than a model for grown-ups:

"The worst monstrosity of the kind was the outcome of the French Revolution, which indeed was over-rich in aberrations of taste. The toy shops put on the market little guillotines with which little patriots could behead figures of aristocrats. There still survive some specimens of this pretty and diverting machine, of which one bears the date 1794 [above]. These were not models but pure toys; and in proof of this we have king's evidence from one whom we should never suspect of wishing to give so bloodthirsty a toy to his little son. This was no other than Goethe. In December, 1793, he asks his mother in Frankfurt to get him such a toy guillotine for his son August; and in her reply he certainly got some home-truths. In her decisive manner she wrote to him by return post: 'Dear Son, Anything I can do to please you is gladly done and gives me joy;--but to buy such an infamous implement of murder--that I will not do at any price. If I had authority, the maker should be put in the stocks and I would have the machine publicly burnt by the common executioner. What! Let the young play with anything so horrible,--place in their hands for their diversion murder and blood-shedding? No, that will never do!"

[Children's toys of bygone days: a history of Playthings of All Peoples from Prehistoric Times to the XIXth Century by Karl Grober, English version by Philip Hereford. London, 1928]


The picture and the quote can be found in Will Schofield's blog of book illustrations: 50 Watts.
See also: Pamela Pilbeam, Madame Tussaud and the history of waxworks, 2006, p.58.

The posthumous life of Joseph Chalier

Chalier - 19c bust from the 
Musée Gagagne,Lyon
Following the fall of Lyon Chalier rapidly gained the status of secular saint. 

On 4th November 1793, the fanatical Collot d'Herbois arrived in Lyon to replace Couthon as représentant en mission, to be followed a few days later by Fouché.  One of their first acts, signalling an agenda of ruthless Revolutionary vengeance, was a carefully staged ceremony in honour of the martyred Chalier.  The "apotheosis" was scheduled for 10th November (20 brumaire Year II) to coincide with Chaumette's "Festival of Reason" in the capital, and featured much deliberate commandeering of religious imagery. 

To make the message clear, on the eve of the celebration Dorfeuille, the president of the new people's court, pronounced a commemorative oration on the place des Terreaux, in which he castigated Lyon as a "latter-day Sodom" and assured the martyred Chalier that "we will avenge you ....and cleanse [your] hallowed soul" with the "blood of the scoundrels".
The Republic, between the spirits
 of Chalier and Barra
Contemporary engraving

The next day at daybreak, accompanied by canon fire, a procession set off from the place Bellecour and moved along the banks of the Saône in the direction of the town hall.  In the lead was "a gigantic statue carrying a large axe of the law on its half-naked shoulders", accompanied by "a group of sans-culottes armed with pikes and wearing Phrygian caps" and "a throng of young women dressed in white and wearing flowers".  The focal point was a palaquin, covered with a tricolour cloth and  borne aloft by four Parisian Jacobins.  On it stood the bust of Chalier, crowned with flowers, an urn containing his supposed ashes and the dove which was said to be his companion in prison.  "Twenty thurifers burning incense" circled round.  Next came a "corps of musicians and singers" just ahead of "an ass wearing a mitre, mantled by a bishop's vestment, with a chalice around its neck and a missal attached to its tail".  The rear was brought up by a mock muscadin, "dragging a flag of fleur-de-lys through the mud".

With the funeral urn duly installed before the town hall on an  improvised altar, the two representatives held forth.  In the name of a "prostrate nation" Collot d'Herbois asked God to forgive the slaying of "this most virtuous of men...[whose] suffering he swore to avenge" whilst Fouché pledged threateningly to "avenge Chalier's torment, using the blood of aristocrats as incense".

As a finale, the blasphemous symbolism was brought home by making the ass drink out the chalice whilst the missal was burned.  The urn was then conveyed to the nearby church of Saint-Nizier, to the accompaniment of a rousing song to the tune of the Marseillaise which vowed to  "avenge the honour and virtue" of Chalier, the "greatest of all genuine san-culottes." That same evening Collot d'Herbois and Fouche wrote to assure the Convention that they would heed the call for vengeance which had repeatedly punctuated the solemn ceremony.

In a further letter dated 25th November (5 frimaire)  Collot d'Herbois pressed home his advantage by announcing his intention to forward the relics of Chalier to Paris, this time accompanied by a new treasure: "We are sending to you the bust of Chalier and his mutilated head (in wax) as it came out for the third time from under the axe of his ferocious murderers".  This bloody head, he declared, should be uncovered to rouse the pusillanimous to full severity of national vengeance.

Whence came this gruesome object?

On  21st December (1 nivôse) 
Couthon helpfully revealed to the Convention that the funeral ceremonies of Chalier had been made possible thanks to the devotion of one Citizen Padovani who, aided by her son, had dug up "the precious remains of the martyr" and recouped the head, which she subsequently handed over to the authorities thereby enabling "the preservation of his traits". There is even a decree of the Convention awarding her 300 livres for her initiative!  It is hard to imagine quite what the waxwork entailed; the ashes must certainly have been spurious, given the lack of funeral pyres or handy crematoria in Revolutionary Lyon.

Collot d'Herbois's commissioners from Lyon duly arrived in Paris, accompanied by Chalier's mistress, "La Bonne Pie", whom they presented, to acclaim, before the Jacobins on 13th December (23 frimaire), together with the bust, the head and, of course, the urn containing the martyr's ashes. The chemist Antoine-François Fourcroy, who had the bad luck to be presiding, was obliged to vote the lady an accolade of honour.  On the motion of Hébert and Chaumette, the Commune set the 20th (30 frimaire)  as the date for a Parisian "apotheosis" in which the relics were to be venerated with great pomp in the grande salle of the Hôtel de Ville, then processed to the Convention itself.

The appointed day dawned and the fête commenced with patriotic hymns.  The hapless Pie was brought  into the middle of the assembly, greeted with enthusiasm and made to sit beside the President so as to share in the honour of presiding.  Chalier's final letters of commendation were read. Then the deputation from Lyon brought in the bust, the head and the ashes and an oration was given, comparing Chalier to Marat.  The ceremonial at the Convention was less satisfactory, for  the majority of deputies had absented themselves, and the procession was  forced to move swiftly on to the Jacobins where the relics were duly deposited.  The blooded head was unveiled dramatically to appreciative crowds (who were doubtless disappointed when it proved not to be the real thing).

The reception by the Convention was not to be put off indefinitely and the next day, 21st December, the bust, head and urn set out once more on their travels.  This time the deputies, whether through enthusiasm or desire to be rid of them, decreed that the remains should be immediately translated to the Pantheon, the Committee of Public Instruction charged with the eulogy and Pie assigned a generous pension "equal to that enjoyed by the widow of Jean-Jacques Rousseau".

Chalier - 19c Sevre biscuitware 
bust - Musée de la Révolution, 
française, Vizille
In Lyon the Terror unfolded with much Baroque apostophising directed at the head of Chalier. In Paris passions perhaps ran less high. The deification of Chalier was certainly a gift for enterprising purveyors of Revolutionary memorabilia;  according to Helen Maria Williams, "The good citizens of the republic, not to be behind hand with their representatives, placed Chalier in the cathedrals, in their public-houses, on fans and snuff-boxes - in short, wherever they thought his appearance would proclaim their patriotism. (Letter of 11th June 1794.)

Chalier's glory was, of course, relatively short-lived.  After Thermidor his ashes were swiftly removed from the Pantheon and in Lyon the Fête de la Concorde (18th February 1795) saw Chalier burned in effigy on the place des Terreaux to cries of relief and triumph.


Taken mainly from:
Aime Guillon de Montléon,  Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de la ville de Lyon pendant la Révolution (1824). vol. 2, p.406-
See also:
Antoine de Baecque The body politic: corporeal metaphor in Revolutionary France, 1770-1800 1997, p.290 [ Extracts on Google Books]

Philip Bourdin, "La Terreur et la mort" in  Cahiers de mediologie 13 (2002) [online journal]

Sunday 16 February 2014

Revolutionary women in Lyon

In Lyon in September 1792 food shortages and price rises combined with sharpened fears of counter-revolution to produce the first considerable popular unrest since 1790.  The Musée Gadagne  preserves a couple of interesting relics from this period,  - a nasty looking iron pike, inscribed "Les Citoyennes de Lyon 1792" and a poster presenting a pricelist of basic commodities.

Disturbances began on 9th September, when, in imitation of the Parisian prison massacres, eight officers of the regiment of Royal-Pologne held in the fortress of Pierre-Scize,  were seized and killed together with three refractory priests,, and their decapitated heads paraded around the city. There followed two months of disorder which the  mayor Louis Vitet and his supporters were unable to bring under control and which the National Guard made no serious efforts to stop.

The crisis of food supply deepened.  Shipment of grain along the Saône had entirely ceased and the authorities and merchants of Lyon bought goods only to have them stopped in transit in the districts of Tournus and Trévoux.  The departmental, district and municipal authorities all sent out commissioners to search for provisions but in vain; on the 14th there were disorders in the market places and the Council for Rhône-et-Loire declared that stocks of grain were about to run out entirely.  All goods were dear; the workers, who received their salaries in assignats were now paying almost double pre-Revolutionary prices.   On the 15th a deputation of women presented a petition to the municipality, complaining that they "died a thousand times seeing their children go without basic necessities," and demanding that prices be lowered for basic commodities.  Without waiting for a reply from the municipality, they drew up a tarif of goods, had it published and posted.


"The sovereign people of the town of Lyon have laboured long under the of tyranny of monopolising aristocrats and are tired of the losses brought about by paper money. The people,with only  paper currency to buy the necessities of life, have suffering terrible injustices at the hands of monopolists.  They receive the same rate as they did before for their toil, but have to pay almost as much again for goods. To end oppression by the monopolists, to thwart all the traitors on the Civil List, still within the city limits, in a word to be able to procure subsistence without having to resort to the violence necessitated by the public calamities of the day, the people have decreed  that they will only pay for everyday necessities at the following prices:

[The petition lists with prices 59 basic products of the late 18th century: general foodstuffs such as oil, butter, wheat, barley, rice, beans, wine, cheese, bacon, simple fruits, plus firewood, coal, soap and candles, as well as a few more expensive commodities such as sugar, coffee and pepper.]

Citizens of the countryside should not be alarmed by this agreement; the patriotism which motivates us demands only that you work to the advantage of the people, that is to establish a just proportion between wages and expenses.....

.....  All those who conform to the will of the people, which is founded on justice, equity and equality, will be respected by their fellow citizens and will find in them faithful guardans of their property. Those who do not listen or who dare to show opposition will be subject to public scorn and regarded as traitors.  All traders and merchants are invited to comply with the present regulations, and to sell their goods only at the same price as they formerly charged in silver currency."

For a week grocers' shops were systematically raided in almost every quarter of the city. Goods were commandeered and sold off: "the people, almost the whole people, is raiding the shops to recover all the foodstuffs; almost all the women have come out to take them." (Report of the Municipality to Roland, 19 Sept. 1792)  At least 113 grocers' shops were pillaged between 17 and 19 September and one wholesale merchant's stock of cheese, valued at 21,000 livres, was sold off in one day.  The three administrative authorities, departmental, district and municipal met in common on the 17th, but a menacing crowd made its way to the town hall and pelted the grenadiers on duty outside with stones; someone set of a gun and several people were wounded, two killed and the town hall had to be evacuated.  The municipal commissioner Bonneville succeeded in diffusing  the situation with promises of  measures to alleviate the food shortage.  Next day, amid further scenes of pillage, the municipality finally capitulated:  fearing that "the city would be put to the torch...and the majority of the wealthy citizens murdered", it decreed price controls for eggs, butter, meat and bread (the cost of which was thus artificially reduced from three sous per livre to two). However, the regulations had little real effect and on 9 October, after the agitation had subsided, the price controls were lifted.

Contemporary observers were unanimous that the movement was spearheaded by the women themselves. According to the Jacobin Laussel, the petition was instigated  by some forward women and a few male supporters ["quelques femmes de la lie des coquines et quelques souteneurs en petit nombre" Letter to Roland, 22nd September] One "supporter" - probably Chalier's colleague Bussat - was certainly responsible for  printing the poster. The notice shows that the women were aware of the current political debate, interpreting their own circumstances in the light of notions of popular sovereignty and direct action, as well as popular concepts of fair price.  According to the Journal de Lyon of 20 September the women insurgents formed a "deliberating society".  Female police commissioners ["commissaries de police femelles"] patrolled the markets armed with pikes to control any excesses.  

Women also subsequently participated in the clubs and the thirty-four sectional assemblies of Lyon during the campaign in October 1792 to raise the tarif for silk weavers - a proposed 33 percent supplement had the support according to officials of almost 3,000 people "especially many women".  However, in November 1792 the authorities issued an amusingly pious declaration To the men and women citizens of the City of Lyon in which it called on the women to “return to your homes with confidence in your magistrates” and exhorted their menfolk to calm their wives, return them to their household duties and “keep them within the bounds prescribed for them by nature”.


Musee Gadagne - Room labels in English.
See: Room 18: The Revolution pike and petition of the people of Lyon (pdf)

Maurice Wahl, Les premières années de la Révolution à Lyon, 1788-1792 (1894) p.604-5.
Bill Edmonds The rise and fall of popular democracy in Lyon, 1789-1795 (pdf) p.248-9

Saturday 15 February 2014

Surviving the Revolution: Dominique Doncre, provincial artist

Following on from the trompe l'oeil, here is a little more information on the Arras artist Domnique Doncre.  Apart from a small exhibition Arras and Hazebrouck in 1989-90, Doncre has attracted little attention.  Not quite in the top flight of artistic accomplishment, his works on public display are relatively few  -  though his output was prolific, many of his decorative creations were ephemeral in nature, and other pieces were sold off and scattered after his death because he lacked direct descendants.  

His career illuminates the questions of how to make a living from art in 18th-century France and, secondly, how to survive and prosper as a professional artist in the Revolutionary era.

Early life and career

Self-portrait with Dominique Herment,
Musee de l'Hotel Sandelin, Saint-Omer,
"Painted by Dominique Doncre, his pupil, in 1769"
Guillaume-Dominique-Jacques Doncre was born in 1743 in the Flemish village of Zegerscappel, ten kilometres south of Dunkirk.  Nothing is known of his training as an artist - his virtuosity in trompe-l'oeil and grisaille recall the work of Antwerp artist Martin Geeraerts (1707-1791) which has led to the suggestion he studied there. He probably started his career in Saint-Omer, where there is a 1769 self-portrait with the local sculptor Dominique Herment, in which he identifies himself as Herment's "pupil". 

Monseigneur de Conzié,
 Diocese of Arras

By March 1772 he was firmly established enough in Arras to be made a bourgeois of the town and to join the local confraternity of Saint-Luc.  He developed a clientele  among the local noblesse de robe, particularly members of the Conseil d'Artois. Various decorative commissions and portraits are recorded: numerous fashionable grisailles,  Christ on the cross  for the cathedral in Arras, a portrait of the bishop, Monseigneur de Conzié.

Joseph II , 1783
Naumur, Collections
 artistiques communales

In 1783 Doncre was invited by the Imperial Princess Marie-Christine, wife of Albert duc de Saxe-Teschen  to restore the picture gallery of the château de Mariemont at Morlanwelz near Mons. It was at this time that he received a commission for a portrait of Joseph II, later presented to the town of Naumur to mark an imperial visit there during Joseph's six week tour of the Low Countries in 1781. 

Portrait du peintre et de sa femme Agnès-Rose 
Arras, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Amongst the princess's paid companions was Doncre's future wife Marie Agnès-Rose Dineur. Already in her forties when they married in 1784, Marie Agnès-Rose had a great reputation for beauty as well as for her sweet nature. She was a frequent model - the Flemish-born Doncre's taste in women clearly ran to the Rubensque! They had one child, a boy who died when he was three and was painted by his heartbroken father as an angel ascending to heaven.

The Revolutionary Years

There is no real first hand evidence for Doncre's reaction to Revolutionary events. However, his biographer Le Gentil cites, with some justification, Sieyès's "J'ai vécu"; close as his relations were with the local nobility and haute bourgeoisie, Doncre's position no doubt suggested prudence.  

Judge Pierre-Louis-Joseph Lecocq and his family 1791
.Musée de la Révolution, Vizille
 At first, at least, the Revolution allowed a measure of continuity.  In 1984 the Musée de la Revolution at Vizille acquired a  painting by Doncre, dating from 1791, which depicts a prosperous member of the Conseil of Arras. No doubt the Judge had been compensated for the loss of his magistracy, then re-elected - note the little angel or figure of liberty revealing his splendid robes of office.

During the Terror Doncre was credited with exercising a mitigating influence though his friendship with the numismatist  Effroy, the commissioner for prisons in Arras and one of the few men with the strength of character to stand up to Joseph Le Bon.  Artistically, however, Doncre firmly towed the line.

Doncre, his wife and their friends Effroy, 1803
Arras, Musée des Beaux-Art
Like David, he was involved in the confection of scenery and props for various Revolutionary and Napoleonic pageants ("travaux de circonstances") in Arras, including temples to "the Fatherland" and "the Law" and a pyramid erected to commemorate the defeat of the Chouans.  At the height of the Terror, in January 1794, "Citizen Doncre" supplied portraits for a fête to celebrate the anniversary of Louis XVI's execution which included the ceremonial burning in effigy of the monarchs of the Coalition.  It was his massive allegorical canvasses which transformed the Church of St-John-the-Baptist into a Temple of Reason - a letter exists from the artist to the district administrators, dating from Year IV, in which he seeks the payment outstanding for these works.  We are told too of an enormous Goddess of Liberty, complete with trident, which once hung in the Arras town hall, modeled we are told on Doncre's (substantial) wife. He also painted Revolutionary genre paintings of more modest proportions, such as this set of patriotic singers:
Patriotic singers ("la Marseillaise"). 
Inscribed on the back of the chair : "D.Doncre fecit 1794"
Musée  Carnavalet, Paris

As we have seen, Doncre also drew and painted portraits of Revolutionary figures. M. Le Gentil mentions a series of portraits "à la sanguine" of  the members of the National Convention, Robespierre, Lebas, Lebon, Peltier, Combe-Sièyes. Other drawings, also in "trois crayons", depicted Arras notables such as the younger Robespierre and Demeuliez the public prosecutor.  In 1906 the Pas-de-Calais Commission for historical monuments received notice of a fine portrait by Doncre in red and white chalk, thought to be one of Robespierre's three cousins on his mother's side, from the Carraut family, brewers of the Abbey of Saint-Vaast: "The Revolutionary is three-quarters turned, dressed in the costume of the day with a soft shirt and high collar, and with vivacious and intelligent eyes.  He has fine long nose, thin and small lips, prominent cheeks, disordered hair - the portrait of a poet or a thinker."   None of these drawings is traceable today, at least not on the internet.

Under Napoleon we find Doncre still painting for the regime, this time celebrating the Peace of Amiens in 1802.  After this he seems to have happily reverted by to his pre-Revolutionary mélange of historical and religious pictures, interspersed with portraits of society sitters.

Arras, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Perhaps more crucially for posterity, Doncre's position of trust allowed him a formative role in preserving the artist legacy of Arras throughout the Revolutionary period. In March 1793 the district directory charged him with valuing works of art among the sequestered goods of the  émigrés and in 1794 he became first curator of the museum in Arras, with a mandate to make his choice from the "works of religion and feudalism" in local churches, religious buildings and émigré households, in particular the great Abbey of Saint-Vaast. As his inventories in the Departmental archives of the Pas-de-Calais show, many medieval pieces now to be seen in Arras owe their preservation to Doncre.


Dominique Doncre 1743-1820.  Notice of an exhibition in 1989-90 in Hazebrouck and Arras.

Catalogue of works by Doncre in the museums of the Pas-de-Calais

C.  Le Gentil,Dominique Doncre (1743-1820) [1868]

Victor Advielle, Dominique Doncre [1902]

BCharles Oulmont. Notice concerning a drawing (la sanguine) by Dominique Doncre. Bulletin de la Commission départementale des monuments historiques du Pas-de-Calais (Arras)1889-1981. 5th April 1906.

Notice of portrait of Joseph II by Doncre

Monday 10 February 2014

Trompe l'oeil by Dominique Doncre

Dominique Doncre, Trompe l'oeil, 1785
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Arras
This trompe l'oeil by Dominique Doncre, the artist of the Le Bon portrait, is an attractive 18th century work. In a pleasant, self-regarding way, Doncre has painted the (seemingly) random content of his own work table.  I particularly like the "picture within a picture" with the plump complacent face of the artist on its pretend engraved page; in case we have any doubt who it is, Doncre has added "ego sum pictor"!  His signature and the date, 1785, are painted on the mock card below the splendid Ben Franklin specs.  

The painting seems to be just a virtuoso piece, no hidden moral, with no lurking vanitas messages.  

Doncre was a prolific producer of decorative pieces, trompe l'oeil, still life, grisaille and the like, but this is one of the few pictures on display and generally acknowledged as one of his best.  We know that the young Boilly, later an accomplished trompe l'oeil artist,  was in Arras at the time though whether he was a pupil or rival is not quite clear;  in either case Doncre may have felt the need to display his mastery.

Trompe l'oeil was particularly associated in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Low Countries and Northern France. Doncre himself was Flemish in origin and may have studied in Antwerp. The Musée des Beaux-Arts in Arras has this splendid, and much earlier work by Jean-François de Le Motte  dating from 1667, which is very similar to Doncre's composition.

Thursday 6 February 2014

Portrait of a Terrorist: Joseph Le Bon

Musée Carnavalet
Portrait, thought to be Joseph Le Bon, by Dominique Doncre
Canvas on wood, 16.5cm x 13cm

Inscription on the reverse reads "Portrait of Le Bon painted by Dominique Doncre"

This plump affable figure is not how we imagine Joseph Le Bon, implacable Jacobin, confidant of Robespierre and cruel prosecutor of the Terror in the Nord and Pas-de-Calais.  Maybe physionomy fails to reveal the soul.  But men of the Revolution remade themselves in response to circumstances. In 1792, when this portrait was painted, Le Bon was still a constitutional priest, mayor of Arras or maybe departmental administrator;  his career as member of the Convention and  représentant-en-mission was still in the future and his capacity for violence latent.

This image, the only known portrait  of Le Bon, was painted by local Arras artist Dominique Doncre and sold to the Carnavalet in 1884 as part of the collection Dancoisne, which also contained the contested early portrait of Robespierre.  Victor Advielle confirms that this painting too belonged to the collector Auguste Demory.  Perhaps he acquired it locally, for Le Bon's brother Léandre had lived in Arras throughout the Revolution. M. Advielle observes that the subject seems older than Le Bon's twenty-seven years, but the painting has written on the back, in a poor hand, "Joseph Lebon, painted by Do. Doncre" and "the features are certainly those of the Conventionnel".  The lot originally included a silver medal and tricolour cockade habitually worn by Le Bon.

The Pas-de-Calais archives preserves a photograph of the portrait dated 1870, presumably contemporary with the photograph of Robespierre published by M. Paris.

M. Le Gentil in his biography of Dominique Doncre, published in 1868, has a nice little story of how the artist obtained a likeness of Le Bon, who consistently refused to pose for his portrait.  Doncre was engaged on a commission for Demory, who was then administrator of the department (maybe not the same Demory as this was in 1792?), He  was at the bottom of the garden in the Hôtel Demory creating an enormous "perspective" (presumably some sort of out-of-doors trompe l'oeil canvas, since we learn it was dismantled when the garden was sold).  Le Bon happened at the same time to be attending a banquet which was laid out in the grande allée of the garden. Doncre seized the moment, surreptitiously roughed out a  portrait on a torn-off bit of canvas, and finished it at leisure later in his studio.

Joseph Lebon. Pen and ink 
Archives du Pas-de-Calais.
One can usefully compare Doncre's portrait with this anonymous sketch of Le Bon  preserved in the Pas-de-Calais archives.  It is described as 19th century but has Le Bon's signature beneath, so may be an authentic drawing from life.  This artist is concerned to capture the Terrorist's determination and brutality - it is the same man - look at the nose;  he is now thickset rather than plump; aggressively dishevelled rather than informally bourgeois.

Archives of the Pas-de-Calais; Notice on the life of Le Bon

Archives of the Pas-de-Calais: sources on Le Bon

Victor Advielle, "Les portraits de Robespierre & de Lebon au Musée Carnavalet" La Revolution francaise, revue historique. p.823-4

C.  Le Gentil, Dominique Doncre (1743-1820) [1868], p.31-2.

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Joseph Chalier...continued

Chalier in power

10 August brought the Lyon "Jacobins", supported by the popular clubs, to power. On his return Chalier was named president of the tribunal of commerce, and took part in the electoral assembly which chose the deputies for the department of Rhone-et-Loire for the Convention. In November 1792 the Jacobins gained effective control of the municipality, though margins were small -the only failure was Chalier's failure to be elected mayor..

Chalier's official position was now, however, strictly subordinate to his role as unofficial figurehead of the radical Club central, set up just off the present Rue du Bat d'Argent near the town hall, which brought together delegates from the popular clubs of the twenty-nine sections of the town.  An effective political organ, the Club central held rowdy public sessions which were publicised via a Journal and passionately followed by a widely politicised crowd of shopkeepers, artisans and workers.  

Chalier, procureur of the  commune of  Lyon proposes to the Club central, on the 6th February, to seize all the rich of Lyon and chop off their heads" Engraving; Musée Carnavalet.  
Chalier's fiery speeches to the Club survive only in fragments, mostly from hostile sources, but they resemble the writings he left -  a mixture of declamations, enthusiastic effusions, sinister jokes, adjurations, violent threats and austere advice.  According to his enemies, he spoke as it came to him in the heat of the moment, at once threatening and familiar, with exaggerated and compulsive gestures:  "His monkey antics, his will-o'-the-wisps, his sniggerings, offered nothing more dangerous.  He talked about cutting off heads in the most burlesque and mocking way; he rolled his eyes, he foamed at the mouth, he wrung his hands,".  His biographer, M.Wahl,  points out that these club sessions were violent battlegrounds not calm debates and notes that Chalier, like Marat, successfully struck a chord with the sufferings and fears of ordinary people. At first the bourgeois affected not to take him too seriously but hatred grew in proportion to their fear,

It is hard, of course, not to feel that Chalier was entirely carried away by his own rhetoric beyond all rational assessment.  But he was not alone. Against a background of economic dislocation, popular suspicion and uncertain allegiances, mass hysteria was never far from the surface.  On 9th September, only shortly after Chalier's reappearance in Lyon the fortress of Pierre-Scize was attacked and eleven prisoners lynched in a local version of the September Massacres. A week of chaos and disorder followed, in which shops and bakeries were ransacked.  Chalier was accused of inciting the crowd, which seems probable, though there is no corroborating evidence. The massacreurs were almost certainly sheltered by the Club central  and according to the former mayor Louis Vitet Chalier won popularity by indulging in violent eulogies of their deeds (letter to Roland, 11 September 1792).

From December 1792, we have Chalier's suitably bloodthirsty verdict on the fate of Louis XVI; Brutus, he proclaimed, had no need of a trial - twenty blows of the dagger and Rome was freed.  In January 1793 he was in full flow celebrating the death of the "tyrant Capet" with a sweeping vow to exterminate "aristocrats, feuillants, moderatists, egoists, speculators, usurers and fanatical priests".  Meanwhile in the streets violence continued, with clashes between youths and petitioners for the king's execution.

Chalier's revolutionary agenda

Assessment of the policies of the Lyonnais Jacobins reveals that they echoed closely those of the Parisian popular movement - price control, direct democracy, punishment for hoarders, terror against counter-revolutionaries and vigorous prosecution of the war. Despite Chalier's later canonisation as "patron of the poor" and his opponents' claims that he supported "redistribution of wealth", he represented the unique socio-economic conflicts of Lyon only in the peculiar animus of his vendetta against  "the sect of merchant counter-revolutionaries".  The Jacobins essentially exalted political equality - the speeches of Chalier's fellow-Jacobin Achard celebrated "this liberty which secures equality for you" and promised that "the simple tiller of the soil will be raised above the opulent egoist" - but didn't really want economic levelling.  Identification of the "mercantile class" with counter-revolution justified economic measures against it, but these were seen as temporary expedients, for example taxes to meet costs of volunteers for the army.  Chalier backed a maximum on grain and bread prices but the municipality lacked the capacity to do more than continue its predecessor's policy of subsidising bread and prices remained high.

Arbitrary imprisonments; more than 1200 citizens are thrown into the cellars of
the Town Hall in Lyonon the orders of Laussel, Chalier and their supporters.
Anonymous engraving.  1793 .Bibl. Nationale
 The Jacobins did little better as effective exponents of terror.  In February 1793 the Club central and its adherents in the town hall organised the arrest of several hundred "suspects" and - in a dramatic closed session on 6th February -  called for the establishment of a revolutionary tribunal to judge "all the enemies of equality" starting with the moderate members of the municipality. This was the occasion of Chalier's memorable and melodramatic demand that the guillotine be set up on the pont Morand and the bodies of the executed thrown in the Rhone.  Slightly surreally, the meeting even laid down the formula for judgement; the president of the tribunal must break in two a a loaf of bread with the solemn pronouncement, that it is as impossible for the condemned to remain on the earth as for these two ends of bagette to rejoin  - to the bridge with him!  The mayor Nivière-Chol at first complied with house-to-house searches and arrest of suspects but demurred at the establishment of a revolutionary tribunal and guillotine. Happily pieces of the guillotine were at this stage stashed safely away in three different locations. 

There followed a complicated struggle within the municipality and in the streets, which culminated in the sacking of the club on the 18th by a crowd of over one thousand people. The Jacobins contrived to have their mayorial candidate elected, but initiative for implementing the Terror now fell increasingly to the Parisian representatives on mission, who drove through a series of increasingly extreme measures - revolutionary army, forced taxation, maximum on grain. Conflict culminated finally in the fall of the town hall to an armed federalist assault on the night of 29th May.  From April 1793 survives a last "Oath of the three hundred Romans" clearly from the hand of Joseph Chalier, threatening "the incalculable number of the enemies of Lyon":

.... Aristocrats, feuillants, moderates, egoists tremble!  At the first attempts you make against liberty the bloody waters of the the Rhône and Sôane will carry your bodies to the terrifying seas.". 

Histrionic to the end : The last words of Joseph Chalier in prison in Lyons: "Why are you crying?  Death is nothing to him whose intentions are just and whose conscience is clear."  Engraving by Tassaert from a design by Caresme, Bibl. Nat..
Chalier, leaving prison for the scaffold; addresses his friend the presence of his companions in misfortune, these remarkable words:  "Friend, I know your heart: you are made for me and for liberty, do not grieve. You know my most secret thoughts my soul is fully revealed to you".  Engraving by Carpentier; engraved by Marchand, Bibl. Nationale.

Arrest and last days

And so the arrests began. Chalier refused to flee and on the morning of 30th May was sleeping soundly when they came to take him.  He was paraded through the town, from his house to the arsenal, from the arsenal to the town hall and finally to the Roanne prison on the opposite bank of the Sôane. Everywhere he was met with a barrage of hate. In despair at this reception he attempted suicide by swallowing a pocketful of nails and a ball of his own hair (that's what it says I think!) but he soon rallied, considering it less cowardly to be put to death than to seek it at one's own hand.

He remained in prison for six weeks, in the course of which he wrote much - mainly letters to his friend Bernascon, a Piedmontese plasterer, which were later published.  At first he appeared stunned, lamenting his plight and begging his friends to make representations to the Convention and the Jacobins of Paris on his behalf. He  complained that he was harshly treated, kept in the dark, guarded night and day, that everyday at midnight ten or twelve soldiers would arrive to make a show of leading him out to execution.  He occupied himself with his affairs, with the house that he had constructed in la Croix-Rousse district, and with comforting his housekeeper / mistress Pie, who "did nothing but cry".Bernascon and his friends planned futilely to break him out of prison.
Other Jacobins likewise awaited their fates; the ex-actor Gaillard committed suicide and another municipal officer Sautemouche was acquitted but lynched by a vengeful mob.  

On 15th July Chalier's trial opened to packed crowds.Such was the hostility toward him, that the women Marteau, Pie and Madame Bernascon, who had come as witnesses for the defence, fled in terror.  Only Bernascon himself was able to make himself heard.  Chalier himself was shouted down when he tried to speak.

Moulin the lawyer for the defence answered the accusations of incitement to murder and pillage skilfully, presenting Chalier as a sincere enthusiast and recalling his life of sobriety and devotion to duty.  Chalier himself mustered calm and dignity, even sleeping through the deliberations of the jury. It was not until four in the morning that the condemnation was pronounced before the huge crowd - 10,000 strong it was claimed - which had waited up for the verdict.

Chalier was allowed to return to prison to finalise his will and say for his last goodbyes. He found courage for one last dramatic performance and went to his death bravely, requesting the constitutional priest who accompanied him to testify that "I die for liberty, that I would be happy if my death and my blood could consolidate it." He began to address the crowd, asking that he might be only victim and others pardoned;  he was drowned out by the drum roll.


Maurice Wahl, "Joseph Chalier: Etude sur la Revolution Française a Lyon"
Revue Historique t. 34, fasc. 1 (1887), p. 1-30

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