Monday, 26 December 2016

Let them eat cake! A marketer's dream

Let them eat cake!

 In fact that lethal phrase had been known for at least a century previously, when it was ascribed to the Spanish princess Marie-Thérèse, bride of Louis XIV, in a slightly different form: if there was no bread, let the people eat the crust (croûte) of the pâté.  It was known to Rousseau in 1737.  It was credited to one of the royal aunts, Madame Sophie, in 1751, when reacting to the news that her brother the Dauphin Louis Ferdinand had been pestered with cries of 'Bread, bread' on a visit to Paris. The Comtesse de Boigne, who as a child played at the Versailles of Marie Antoinette, attributed the saying to another aunt, Madame Victoire.  But the most convincing proof of Marie Antoinette's innocence came from the memoirs of the Comte de Provence, published in 1825. No gallant guardian of his sister-in-law's reputation, he remarked that eating pâté en croûte always reminded him of the saying of his own ancestress, Queen Marie-Thérèse.  It was, in short, a royal chestnut.
Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: the journey (pbk, 2002), p.160-1.

Marie-Antoinette may never have uttered the notorious words, but oh what a delicious marketing concept!  

 In 2006 Ladurée, the French luxury pâtissier, scored a major coup by negotiated with Sofia Coppola to fill the visually sumptuous set of the film Marie-Antoinette with gloriously presented and suitably decadent gateaux and pastries.  Cakes became chic, youthful, bright and faintly irresponsible.  Marie-Antoinette, notes one marketing website, is "worth watching for the food styling alone".  Quite true - though the costumes are marvellous as well!

Of course, it is all marketing hype:  Ladurée has no connection whatever with the real Marie-Antoinette.  The original Paris pâtisserie and tea shop was founded only in 1862.  Today the company is a global concern.  According to the latest count, there are 85 outlets in 30 countries (including stands at Orly and Charles-de-Gaulle airports!).   Branding is based on the notion of classic French art de vie; the stores all feature generic late eighteenth-century or Second Empire decor - antique sculptures, pastel walls, frescoed ceilings and, of course, beautifully fashioned fancy pastries piled high in glass cases.  There are now five different Ladurie "brands"  encompassing toiletries and make-up as well as cakes and chocs, with products launched in seasonal  "collections".

Ladurée's original trade-mark confection is the "macaron" (not to be confused with the Anglo-Saxon coconut "macaroon").  This was originally just a boring hard biscuit - according to tradition the first macarons were baked  by former nuns in Nancy in 1792.  In 1930, however,  the grandson of the Ladurée founder "came up with the idea of sandwiching a creaming ganache filling between two macaron shells and the "French macaron" was born". There are loads of different flavours and colours to choose from.

In the wake of the Marie-Antoinette film in 2006, the world was briefly swept by a macaron craze.  Ladurée faced stiff competition, not only from its traditional rival Pierre Hermé, but from ....McDonald's who in 2007 introduced six flavours of macarons into their McCafés.  (The Mac Macaron is marketed widely outside the UK; a third of the price, it has fared surprisingly well in comparative tastings.)

In Spring 2013 Ladurée fought back by launching a "Marie-Antoinette" macaron.  Surprisingly, given the pinkness of the Coppola movie, the new macaron is blue - the shell is flavoured with rose and anise and the cream is based on Ladurée's existing Marie Antoinette tea:  aficionados gave the thumbs-up: "It tasted of Chinese black tea, rose petals, citrus fruits and honey, and it was delicious".

For Christmas 2016, Ladurée have more Marie-Antoinette themed treats, including - in traditional princess pink -  this splendid "Marie-Antoinette Yulelog" (a few strange cultural references there, methinks.....)

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


Laduree website:

Kyrsti Ashmall, Laduree’s Global Standardization Strategy, Global Marketing Culture, 12/12/14
Angela C. "Laduree - Marie-Antoinette"  Comfort Food [Blog], 16/03/14

"Ladurée vs McDonald’s Macarons: Blind Taste Test",  HubPages Cookery, 31/05/13

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Christmas 1792

Jean-François Garneray, Louis XVI à la Tour
 du Temple
 (1792) Musée Carnavalet

Tuesday 25th December 1792 was the first Christmas of the new French Republic.  At the Temple prison, Louis XVI spent the day writing his will, prior to his appearance at the bar of the Convention on the 26th.  Paris was in a state of security crisis and simmering uprest.  The religious policies of the Convention were wracked by indecision, with rationalists like  Pierre-Louis Manuel moving towards policies hostile to Christianity without declaring them openly.  In the Paris Commune, the ascendancy of would-be dechristianisers was assured by the election  on 12th December of  Pierre Chaumette as  procurateur with Hébert as his substitute.

On 23rd December 1792 the Commune prohibited the celebration of Midnight Mass on the pretext of public order. Crowds gathered in many of the poorer parishes and parish priests were obliged to officiate in open defiance of the commissioners sent by the Hôtel de Ville to enforce the order. The surviving accounts emphasise the role of agitators in orchestrating the movement. The Girondin Patriote française identified them as radical rabble-raisers, whereas Prudhomme's Révolutions de Paris blames royalist intervention. However, reading between the lines, there seems to have been strong component of spontaneous popular demonstration. The Sections were clearly divided on the prohibition.  It is recorded that at Saint-Eustache,  the women of Les Halles gathered together with the intention of hunting down and hanging Manuel.  A municipal officer Beugnon, a master-mason by trade, who had been set upon by the women, appeared with on guard next morning at the Temple with his face scratched and bruised. 

.From the Patriote française:

In order to incite trouble, agitators profited from the order of the Conseil-général of the Commune which commanded the closure of churches during the night.  The order was not enforced in several parishes; crowds gathered, sought out the priests and forced them to hold a service. We thought at first that these were insurrections by the devout; but we were soon convinced that religion counted for nothing in these tumults. At Saint-Eustache the crowd was composed of young men and prostitutes;  we recognised several of the agitators from the terraces of the Feuillants;  we found the same at Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois - indeed we saw stirring  up the crowd the same individuals who were at Saint-Eustache moments before.  Since the guard had been doubled these Maratiste/religious uprisings did not lead to anything further.  We should not finish without observing that agitators and priests often form a united front because they have the same enemies, the philosophes. Under the Ancien régime priests took the same position, but in those days they were the auxiliary troops of despots.

From the Révolutions de Paris: 

In broad daylight, in the public squares, there are puppet shows and towers of cups on exhibition; no harm in that; children and their nannies must be amused.  But to assemble in the night in dark garrets to sing hymns, to burn wax and incense in honour of a bastard and an adulterous wife, is scandalous...and merits severe punishment...For more than eighteen centuries this outrage, the same for all that has been made a religion, has been repeated every year on the 24th - 25th December and has not be stamped out.

In these circumstances, the municipality of Paris believed that it was doing its duty to recall the law forbidding nocturnal gathers, and published an order closing the churches on  Christmas night, so called.   Right thinking people thought this precaution was unnecessary.  Who would have supposed that in 1792 anyone  in Paris would still be saying Midnight masses ?

 But the friends of the King make weapons of anything.  They infiltrated the Sections.  The Arsenal Section sent a deputation to the Commune to protest against the order: the heroes of the 10th August Revolution wanted to go to Mass.  The response was a shrug of the shoulders; the Commune did not know that bands were gathering at the doors of several churches, led by men who did not ordinarily go to Mass.  They were men with gold, royalists longing for a Saint-Bartholomew's Day massacre of the patriots (as the procureur of the Commune judiciously remarked).  Indeed in the parish of Saint-Germain, they started to ring the bell which, by the orders of the first Medicis,  had signalled the massacre of the Protestants... They called out the women and the sans-cul0ttes of the faubourg Saint-Marceau.  They threatened the artillery emplacement on the place des Fédérés; at Saint-Jacques-la-Boucherie and Saint-Jacques-de-l'Hôpital, at Saint-Eustache, Saint-Méry and Saint-Gervais, municipal officers were ill-treated and the Mass said in their presence in defiance of the law.

The Section Droits de l’Homme came to assure the Commune that it would respect its order.  That of the Louvre, on the other hand, petitioned for an explanation... . At Saint-Germain, a citizen was mistaken for Manuel; there is the scoundrel, cried fifty men and women, We must hang him.... At Saint-Laurent, Saint-Victor,  Saint-Médard,  Saint-Marcel, at the couvent des Anglaises, Mass was said in open defiance of the magistrats. The majority of priests submitted to a little roughing up  in order to escape justice...

Although the unrest passed swiftly, religious sentiment remained. On 3rd January the Feast of Sainte Geneviève, went ahead with less ceremony but suitable patriotic fervour at the church of  Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.   On 30th December Manuel unsuccessfully proposed to the Convention the abolition of Feast of Epiphany ("The Feast of the Kings"); his demands were enacted the following day by the Commune which inaugurated a secular "Feast of the Sans-Culottes": the Chronique de Paris for 4th January contained the following reflections on the Commune's decree  and the theme of the "sans-culotte Jesus":

The Commune of Paris, which imagines itself the municipal government of France, makes all the changes in the calendar that it pleases.  It proposed (session of 31st December) to call the Day of the Kings the day of the Sans-Culottes.The Commune is wrong to think it has supreme legislative control over the national calendar and other legislation...but it is more justified than one might think to call this day that of the Sans-culottes. The day used commemorate three kings on their knees before a child; it has been proved with great learning, that he became the chief of the sans-culottes of Jerusalem, whose missionaries preached everywhere the doctrine of the ordinary people, which is madness according to high society and which spread the good news of liberty and equality.


Extracts translated from: 
Histoire parlementaire de la Révolution Française, Vol. 22: 1792/3, p.359-64.
André Castelot "Louis XVI sur le chemin du sacrifice" Historia no.146, January 1959 
Reproduced in Les Roi souterrains [blog]

For the theme of "the sans-culotte Jesus":
Frank Bowman, Le Christ romantique (1973)

Thursday, 22 December 2016

The triumph of the guillotine in Hell

[A quick break from festive cheer!]

The collective memory of the Terror was described by Michelet as "a huge Dantesque poem, which circle by circle, caused the descent of France into Hell".   This extraordinary painting entitled The Triumph of the Guillotine captures the vision perfectly:  Revolutionary iconography meets Hieronymus Bosch in an apocalyptic landscape of all-enveloping red. The picture, which is now in the Hermitage, is usually attributed to the landscape painter Nicolas-Antoine Taunay (1755-1830).  

In the painting's imagery, the real personages, institutions and policies of the Terror are transferred with effect to the infernal regions.  A mountain surmounted by a guillotine provides the central focal point like some infernal Calvary.   At the top of the canvas a group of artists and Jacobin poets, led by David with his painter's palette and easel, fly in amidst smoke and lightning bolts. On the right at mid-height sits the Revolutionary Tribunal, implacable as ever.  Across the bottom progresses a Revolutionary procession: Robespierre and  Saint-Just are carried in triumph, preceded by Marat in his bath. Scenes of killing and cannibalism occupy the foreground.  Even the demons of Hell themselves are afraid and flee, abandoning their flaming abyss to the Revolutionary invaders.


Nicolas-Antoine Taunay,  Le triomphe de la guillotine / Allégorie satirique révolutionnaire / le triomphe de Marat aux enfers
c. 1795. Hermitage, Oil on canvas.  129 x 168 cm
The Carnavalet has a small, preliminary oil sketch:

The attribution to Taunay rests only on stylistic analysis, but  is accepted in the major monograph by Claudine Lebrun,  Nicolas-Antoine Taunay (1755-1830) (2003), p.44.

See also
Mehdi Korchane, "Thermidor et l'imaginaire de la Terreur", L'Histoire par l'image, Jan.2009

The Doll, a Christmas tale

Légendes de Noël 

Another Christmas tale set in the time of the Terror, translated from G. Lenotre. Paternal sympathy triumphs over the Revolutionary divide!

 Illustrations are  by Paul Thiriat from the 1911 edition of the Légendes de Noël which is available on Gallica.

As far back as I can remember, I can picture the old marquise de Flavigny seated, smiling and serene, in an old armchair covered in peach-coloured velvet.  Her grey hair and her great bonnet of lace decorated with trembling knots stood out against the upholstery.

Next to her on a low chair, there almost always sat a woman of the same age, also smiling, with a calm and peaceful expression. They called her "Mademoiselle Odile" .  She was not a servant;  an intimacy united the two old ladies; they would sit together knitting the coarse blue woollen garments which were distributed to the poor, along with a loaf of bread and five two-liard coins, on Thursday mornings.  They exchanged interminable confidences in low voices, with an air of camaraderie, almost of complicity. On certain days,  days of tidying and arranging, the two friends laid aside their knitting and visited their cupboards, great chests of varnished oak with long brass lock fittings, narrow and tall, cut into arabesques. They opened boxes, tied up linen, spread out on shelves embroidered napkins, dusted and cleaned all day long.  We children were admitted to this salutary spectacle on condition that we touched nothing.

In the depths of one of these mysterious cupboards,  as though in a sanctuary,  there reposed in a glass case an object held by the two ladies in a sort of veneration.  It was a large doll, dressed in old-fashioned style, with a gown of threadbare silk. It was almost bald with age; its nose was broken, its hands and face cracked and discoloured. I remember that it had only one shoe, of cracked Moroccan leather with a blackened silver buckle and a high heel which had once been red.

When they came to this imposing trinket, the marquise and Mlle Odile moved it with great like a choirboy moving a reliquary.  They spoke about it in hushed voices, in short phrases.

SHE has lost more hair...  Her petticoat is now completely worn out...  This finger will come away soon...

The glass cover was lifted off with great care, the spices renewed, the skirts straightened carefully with a fingernail.  Then the doll was put back in its place, upright on the best shelf, as though on an altar.

Is she all right, my dear?" asked the marquise.

This was how she addressed Mlle Odile.  The latter called her familiarly "Madame Solange", without ever giving her her title. She spoke with with a hint of an Alsatian accent, but without roughness and so slight that it appeared eroded by time.

We knew nothing about the history of these two old ladies and their doll until one evening - it was Christmas Eve in a year now long past - when we were suddenly initiated into the mystery. That day Odile and the marquise had chattered with more animation than usual.  But towards evening they withdrew and became silent:  they held hands, looked at each other affectionately and it was clear that a common memory filled their minds.  When it got completely dark, Odile lit the candles; then, bringing out a bunch of keys from under her apron, she opened the cupboard containing the doll.

The doll was taken out of its box.  With its stained frills and its hairless skull, it seemed even older than the two women who passed it from one to another with careful, almost tender movements.  The marquise took it on her knee, gently straightened the plaster arms which creaked complainingly, and contemplated the "lady" with an affectionate smile.

My dear, she said, as though speaking to the doll, shall I tell these children our story?
It was Odile who nodded solemnly in acquiescence.

The marquise indicated that we should gather round her.  She kept the doll sitting on her knee and seemed to be addressing it.  She told us how many years ago, when she was just a child, civil war had devastated her native Brittany;  it was the time of the Great Terror.

Early in 1792 the parents of Little Solange had emigrated; fearful of the dangers of exile, they had left the child in the care of a peasant woman in Ploubalay, a village close to their chateau, in the region of Saint-Malo.  They were convinced that the "just cause" would soon triumph and their absence would be short.

However, almost immediately, the frontier was closed.  Harsh laws threatened émigrés who tried to return to France;  a terrible torment descended on Brittany.  For the whole time that the bloody storm raged Solange remained with the Rouault family, the villagers to whom she had been entrusted. These good people were frightened;  they had no news of the little girl's parents nor any possibility of contacting  them, since any attempt to correspond with émigrés was punishable by death.  Ploubalay was a large village three leagues from Saint-Malo and  half-an-hour's journey away from the coast. The shoreline bristled with red rocks and was protected by an archipelago of reefs continually buffeted the ocean; any attempt to land by boat was perilous.  The Revolutionary soldiers, who had chased out the Chouans, occupied the village;  the sergeant who commanded them was a typical petty officer of the  Revolutionary army;  a rough patriot, inflexible and blunt.  He was an Alsatian and his name was Metzger. The whole village feared him;  Little Solange trembled on the doorstep of the Rouault house when she saw this terrible man; his big moustache, thick eyebrows, suspicious gaze, booming voice and harsh accent gave her nightmares.  When Sergeant Metzger was not out on patrol with his troops, he was to be found outside the guard post in the disused church, sitting astride a chair and ostentatiously smoking his pipe.  From there he could survey fiercely all three roads of the village.

One day Solange had gone to fetch bread for Mother Rouault.  She was returning with the heavy black loaf in her apron, when she noticed Sergeant Metzer, in his habitual place at the church porch, following her with his eyes.  She would have liked to have gone another way, but she dare not. Sticking bravely to her path she began to walk faster, as though someone was waiting for her at home. She trotted past the fronts of the houses without turning her head.  At the moment  she thought she had escaped danger, she heard the voice of the Blue boom out:

- Stop there, little one!

The child felt her heart stop beating;  she stood rooted to the spot with fear, close to fainting.

- Come here!  Come closer,! added the voice.

She obeyed, feeling lightheaded; even now that she was two paces away from the Sergeant she did not dare to lift her eyes.  He let her stand there, without saying a word;  then, in a voice that made the child tremble as though it were a thunderbolt:

- Are you a little aristocrat? he asked.

She stood with her mouth open, without speaking, and commended herself to God.  She did not understand very well; but she know that the word aristocrat was used for people that were put to death.

- How old are you? asked the man.

In a weak, hoarse voice, shaking with terror, she replied:

- Eight years

She was going to add politely "monsieur"  but, as if by instinct, she swallowed the word, certain that if she uttered it, the soldier would  slaughter her immediately.

He did not appear to be thinking of doing  that;  Instead he mumbled: Eight years....eight years; very well...Suddenly he added:

- You are well built and strong for your age.

He said this in so different a tone that she looked at him in surprise. He was fearsome to see -  his bicorne hat with its a red tassle, his tanned face, his blackened pipe, his striped sleeves, the white bands crossed over his chest, his great sword and his muddy gaiters. And, worse of all were  his eyes, deep and penetrating, which seemed to devour her.

- Run along, little girl,  he ordered.

Shaken and trembling, she turned on her heels and started to walk once more towards the house.

From that day on, she sensed that she was being watched by the sergeant.  When he passed the Rouaults' door, at the head of his men, he would glance inside to look for her.  If he met her in the street, he would follow her with his eyes, or even call out to her loudly in his rough voice, with its diabolical accent:

- Hey there, little one!

Solange would have preferred never to venture outside, but Mother Rouault, who thought  that the child would never see her parents again, compelled her to help with the housework. Almost every day she found herself in the presence of the man she feared.  She was convinced that the sacrifice of her life would be required; the evil Blue was only waiting for his chance. She was left in no doubt when, seeing her washing vegetables at the fountain in the square, he asked her suddenly:

- Little one, what is your name?

Convinced that her moment had come, she replied with resignation - Solange.

The sergeant exclaimed:
Solange! (He pronounced it "Zaulanche").  What a funny name!  He grabbed her arms and lifted her up off the ground to test her weight.  Eight years old!  How well she grows!

She imagined herself in the hands of an ogre drooling over his prospective prey.

With that perspective, her life became miserable.  December arrived with its dark nights, its days without sun;  scarcely a day passed without the Blues capturing some émigré.  The exiles endured such misery in Jersey or London, suffered such a desire to see France again, that many could stand no more and  risked the landing.  The Blues lay in wait for them on the coast and gave chase among the rocks and beaches.  For this new quarry, they trained up enormous dogs  who pounced on anyone who lingered  in the ditches at night or hid by day among the gorse bushes. The captives came through Ploubalay in chains, with their clothes in rags, surrounded by soldiers who were taking them to Saint-Malo or Rennes to be shot.  The law was without pity and arrest was without appeal:  any émigré who was captured was a dead man.

When Christmas Eve came that year, 1793,  no-one seemed to give a thought to the festivities of former times.  The church was closed; the church bells silent, The night fell, with a thick fog. All day long the dogs had been heard barking from the shore: the Blues had enjoyed a good day's hunting.  Little Solange went to bed, on the first floor of the Rouault house, in an attic next to the hayloft, a room full of shadows, She would shiver through the night, immobile in her bed, scared of the mysterious dangers that lurked in the darkness.

That night she was very sad.  As she undressed shivering, she remembered earlier happy Christmas  Eves when she was still with her parents and her little heart was filled to bursting with love and joy.  How good it was to wake up in the bright morning!  What transports of joy she felt at the sight of the fireplace, filled with toys, sweets and white ribboned packages!  While she dreamed she held in her tired hands her rough clogs, which she would not  put in the hearth,  knowing as she did that they would remain empty.  Did the Baby Jesus fear that he would never come to France again?

She thought she heard a noise in the loft and quickly put out her candle. Burying herself under the covers, Solange went to sleep.

As she slept, it seemed to her that the door opened gently and a shadow entered her attic room.  She peeped out from the covers;  the night was now clear, the chamber lit up by the moon. Was she dreaming?  She could see now that the shadow was a man, a man dressed like the émigrés that she had seen in the streets of the village  escorted as prisoners to Saint-Malo.  She heard a very gentle voice saying:

- Don't be afraid,  little Solange!  Don't be afraid!

Solange was not afraid.

She felt a hand, carefully touching the curls that covered her forehead.  A shaft of moonlight from the curtainless window fell on her.  The man who had entered looked at her.

- You are so beautiful my little Solange; so fine and strong!

He seemed not to tire of contemplating her.  Then suddenly he took her in his arms, embraced her frantically and covered her with kisses.  She did not know any more whether she was awake or dreaming.  Suddenly it came to her that if  her father were still alive, he would speak to her in those tones and give her those gentle caresses, those hugs and kisses.  It seemed to her that the man was kneeling by her bed and that he was crying; she buried herself in his arms and - feeling so happy - fell back to sleep.

At dawn, when she opened her eyes, she had difficulty in sorting out her memories.  She soon decided that she must have been dreaming; the room was empty; the door of the loft was closed; below she could hear Mother Rouault coming and going as usual, with heavy footsteps.  Solange sat on her bed and suddenly, she gave a cry of joy....On top of her neatly paired clogs, she saw a large doll in a splendid green silk dress.  Smiling and imposing, the doll was dressed like an aristocratic lady, with beautiful well kept curls falling in corkscrews round her enamel cheeks,  a lace mantle and Moroccan leather shoes with shining silver buckles.  The child fell to her knees before the "lady", and immediately called her Yvonne.  She got dressed in a few moments and holding her "little girl" in her arms, she went down into the main room.  Mother Rouault saw her appear  with this  marvellous toy, the like of which she had never seen, and she exclaimed in amazement:

- My goodness, Solange, who has given you that doll?

- Madame, replied the child in all simplicity, it was the Baby Jesus.

The Bretonne stood with her mouth open.  She was still a believer, but this miracle seemed to surpass the boundaries of divine power.  She knew that such a marvel was not to be bought in Ploubalay, nor yet in Matignon, nor even in Saint-Malo or Rennes.  She became suddenly respectful, examining without daring to touch this lady that Solange presented to her so triumphantly.  Then she called to her husband;

- Look. Rouault, what the Baby Jesus has brought our demoiselle!

Rouault was less astonished.  He was a simple soul, who know little of silks and fineries. But already their female neighbours were running up.  They cooed and twittered, their hand joined in admiration.  Some of them bowed naively in front of the undoubted miracle.  Others, of a more sceptical bent, searched in vain for a satisfactory explanation.  Solange, did not trouble herself with them,  but cradled Yvonne with the utmost care, scarcely daring to touch with her lips the blond curls and lustrous cheeks.  She held her up to the window, showing her the view of the main road of Ploubalay. Then Mother Rouault, who had returned to more practical matters, sent her out on an errand to the end of the village, to the saddlemaker Coiquaud, who sold peas.  The child, radiant, took her doll with her.

These events were already known to half the village;  peasant women came out onto their doorsteps to watch.  Solange passed by, proud and serious, conscious of her importance. When she arrived in front of the church where Sergeant Metzer usually sat astride his chair, she did not think to turn round:  what danger could menace her on such a day?  Her interior joy was so complete that she was  frightened of  nothing and no-one; and when the sergeant called to her and asked her what she was carrying, she stopped with aplomb and went up right up to him.

- It is a doll.

- What a pretty doll! How did you come by that, urchin?

- Monsieur le Sergent, the Baby Jesus gave it to me.

The Jacobin got up, looking fearsome, and kicked away his chair.

- What did you say?  he shouted.

- It is a doll that the Baby Jesus brought me for Christmas, repeated the child.

Metzger was enraged by such audacity.

- Do you think, he snarled, that I am going to believe in this....Confronted by the child's air of innocence,  he stopped;  but he took the doll in his hands and examined it carefully 

- A beautiful lady, it is  true, he said,  a real lady;  and look what is written on the soles of her slippers: Berkint-London.  So the Baby Jesus is an Englishman, is he?

- I don't know, monsieur, Solange replied taking back her lady, her joy spoiled.

- We will see about that, growled the sergeant.

Turning towards the guard post he cried out,  La Cocarde!
The corporal appeared.

- Did anyone enter the village yesterday? 

- I don't think so, Sergeant:  the men kept a good watch.  In the evening the dogs were howling in an odd way  but we searched and found nothing.

- That's good.  Assemble the men.

He attached his cartridge pouch, tightened his belt, took his gun, and began to march at the head of his troop towards the Rouault house.  Solange, instinctively in agony, walked beside him, dragging her feat and holding the beautiful smiling Yvonne to her chest.  When he arrived, the sergeant positioned his soldiers, two on guard at the front door and others in the orchard so that the house was surrounded.  Then followed by the rest of his men, he went indoors, holding Solange by the hand.  He sat down on a bench, pulled the little girl onto his knees and said in a gentle reassuring tone:

-  Come, little one, tell me all about it.

Her heart in her mouth, in a breathless whisper, she started her story;  she told him about her "dream", the man that she thought she saw in her room,  how she imagined his kisses,   and, in the morning, her surprise at discovering the beautiful doll....The sergeant took in every word.  Suddenly, he turned towards the soldiers that were with him and commanded:

-  Do a turn about, and guard the outside of the house.  Fire on the first person that looks like they are trying to escape.

The men went out.  Metzger remained alone with the little girl.

- Now then, gamine:  you said that the man kissed you, that he called you his "Little Solange", that he knelt by your bed and cried?

The child nodded yes to the questions.  She did not want to lie but realised all the same that  catastrophe threatened.  Metzger was in no hurry to act.  He put his rough hands on Solange's shoulders, and appeared to be talking to himself.

Yes, he said gravely,  I have a little one like this at home in Alsace, at Gerlsheim.  She  is eight years old as well....and  it is also two long years since I have seen her.  To catch a glimpse of her, even asleep in the shadows, to embrace her for an instant, to feel her sleeping on my shoulder, her blond hair against my cheek ... I too would risk my neck....All fathers, it seems, are the same.

He seemed to think deeply.  Then, coming to himself suddenly, he got up, shook his head and turned towards the open door.

- Two men with me;  he said;  we are going to search the place.

Solange cried out:

- Monsieur le Sergeant, wait!

She had listened and suddenly  understood that it had been her father.  He had risked death for a few moments with his little girl; he had left exile, crossed the sea, disembarked among the rocks, climbed up to the village under the guns of the guards. .  It was her father who, stricken by idea that his child had no toy for Christmas, had brought her the "lady".  It was her father who was up in the attic; they would take prisoner;  she would see him chained up and taken away by the soldiers.  Great sobs wracked the broken-hearted little girl.  She threw herself on the sergeant.

-Wait !  Wait!

The Alsatian had regained his brutal expression and rough voice:

- Wuat now?  he asked.

Solange had had an inspiration: to save her father she would have given all she possessed; but she only possessed a doll.  She decided to make a great sacrifice.

- Monsieur le Sergent, is it true that you have a little girl...who is the same age as me...that you haven't seen for two years?

It was Metzger's turn to reply: he nodded.

- All right!  All right! added Solange with tears in her eyes;  perhaps, because you aren't there, the Baby Jesus will have forgotten her.  Take my doll;  send it to her;  I am giving it to her.

The soldier leaned towards the little girl;  he looked at her great wet eyes;  he whistled hard; his lips were trembling under his moustache and his cheeks twitched with suppressed emotion. Two of the men entered the room.

- Be quiet, little one, don't be afraid,  said the sergeant in a low voice.

Then addressing the soldiers:

- We are going to go up and search everything. Have your guns at the ready and keep your eyes open.  And you, mioche, go in front.

The three soldiers and the little girl climbed the stairs.  When the arrived at the attic room, the sergeant posted one man at the entrance and the other by the window. Then went into the loft  alone and shut the door behind him.  Solange's heart raced in her chest.  After a moment, the loft door reopened and Metzger reappeared.

- There is nothing there, he said.  Lets go back down.  The bird has flown.  We have been fooled.

When he was back in the downstairs room, alone with Solange, he leaned down and whispered in her ear:

- Listen well;  "the man" can stay up there tonight and the next day.  Tell him not to worry; he will not be disturbed.  When he leaves the next night he should make for Lancieux and Saint-Briac, where he can catch a boat.  The route will not be guarded;  I will take my troops in the other direction.  Do you understand?

- Yes, Monsieur le Sergent.

- Good.  As to your doll.  I will take her:  I will send her to my little Odile.  I will take her, because someone else might be as surprised as I was that the Baby Jesus brings toys like this from England for kiddies of your age.  Your young lady will cause you too much trouble. Go on up! And remember: towards Lancieux and Saint-Briac.

He went out and reassembled his troops, which that very evening he led off on patrol for three days, with their hounds, in the direction of Matignon.

- That is our story, added the marquise de Flavigny, the great drama of our lives, Odile's. Yvonne's and mine.  Fifteen years later, after I was married, I made a journey to Alsace with the marquis.  I went to Gerlsheim, I inquired after Sergeant Metzger and his daughter Odile, for all these names, as you can imagine, were lodged in my memory.  I found the old soldier in his hop-field: he had left the army,  having been decorated at Austerlitz by the Emperor himself.  He had often told the story of little Solange to his daughter who had taken care of the "lady";  when he died a few years later, I brought Odile to live with me: she returned Yvonne to me, and since that day, we have never again been parted.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Watteau's Cythera - aller ou retour?

For 250 years  Watteau’s great masterpiece, the Pilgrimage to Cythera, was taken to depict the embarkation of pilgrims for the fabled Greek Island of Love.  Then in the 1960s the British art historian Michael Levey offered a new interpretation: the pilgrims were not  embarking at all, but were already on Cythera, preparing to take their leave for home. This gave quite a different meaning to the painting.  Not all commentators, by any means, accepted Levey’s conclusion; fifty years later there is still no scholarly consensus.

Pélerinage à l'île de Cythère. c. 1717 Musée du Louvre  129 x 194 cm
The known facts concerning the painting are few.  Watteau painted the work as his reception piece for the Academy of Painting.  He was provisionally accepted into the Academy in July 1712 and, unusually, given a completely free hand in his choice of subject for his reception piece.  There are two versions of the picture, the original in the Louvre, completed in August 1717, and a more finished reworking, probably commissioned by Watteau’s friend and patron Jean de Jullienne, now in the Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin.  It is not known what prompted Watteau to choose his subject, though a pilgrimage to Cythera  was  a well-know  theme in Parisian theatre at the time; .It  enters popular  iconography in the first years of century – though only in handful of prints and  theatrical illustrations.  Watteau himself had painted an earlier version, usually dated to 1708 or 1709.

Embarkation for Cythera c.1718-9. Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin.  129 x 194 cm.

The name of the painting

Any interpretation of the scene must first of all take account of the contemporary assumptions about the subject of the painting.  Michael Levey pointed out that title “The Embarkation for Cythera”, originated only with Tardieu’s engraving for the Recueil  Jullienne  of  c1733.  The Academy’s procès-verbal  of 28th August 1717, which presumably reports Watteau’s own deposition, states that the picture represented "The Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera" (Le pelerinage à l'isle de Cithère") This  title is slightly more ambiguous since it theoretically allows for the  possibility that the pilgrims are already  ON the island..  The Academy's secretary  in any case changed his mind, crossed out the title and replaced it with simply “une feste galante”.   

None of this is very conclusive.  It  does not seem that likely that  Jullienne, who know Watteau well and owned the second version of the painting, should have so fundamentally misread the iconography. There are other illustrations showing embarkations, but the theme of leaving Cythera would have been entirely novel.

The setting

The main strength of Levey's thesis is his conclusion that the land to the right of the painting represents Cythera. The pilgrims are paired off and already seem  bonded in love.   Moreover, as Levey noted,  the whole landscape  is clearly dedicated to love; there is a prominent term – a traditional boundary marker – in the form of Venus; on its plinth are hung a bow and quiver of arrows, and a pelt, in offering to love.  The statue is garlanded with roses;  freshly so, for the cupid-pilgrim who sits close by holds a rose in his hand.  There are also convolvuluses  which symbolise the lovers' bond.  “All these are suggestions of  a rite accomplished” (p.182) In the Berlin version the erotic context is even more emphasised.  The cupids are multiplied; replacing the term is a sensuous  statue of Venus confiscating Cupid's arrows  Beneath it  lie a coat of armour,  a shield and the hilt of a sword which has been struck into the ground.  Half hidden in the shadowsare a wineskin and a lyre.  Thus love prevails over Mars, Bacchus and the arts.  There are further suggestions of love consummated;  the couple added at the right of the canvas  seem lost in their amorous absorption: the man has discarded  his staff and scrip and his partner  taken off her cloak.  
Claude Duflos, after Bernard Picart,  L'Isle de Cithère 

The impression that we are already in Cythera is reinforced by comparison with another depiction of the island, engraved by Claude Duflos in about 1708, possibly after a design by Bernard Picart, (see Posner, p.187-8).  This illustration would undoubtedly have been known to Watteau. The  pilgrims are quite clearly on Cythera; the island's temple of Venus features prominently and a pair of lovers can be seen arriving in the distance by boat.   The engraving provides likely prototypes for at least two of Watteau's couples, the man  helping a lady to her feet and the pair where the woman is holding a fan.  Notice also the quiver in the tree which features prominently among the accoutrements of Venus in the Berlin Watteau.

The identification of Watteau's landscape  with Cythera is, however, by no means established.  The landscape does not definitely suggest an island.  Nor is there a temple to Venus. A boundary term may just as easily denote an embarkation point. The whole action takes place in the enchanted world of the fête galante and most of the imagery can be paralleled in other works by Watteau; the Venus statue for instance is the same one depicted in the painting Plaisirs d'amour.  

The destination

The pilgrims ARE clearly leaving. The movement of the painting is dependent upon it. The amorous couples wind down a hill, as if in a dance,  to a ship rowed by two oarsmen and crowned by a flock of cupids.  The Berlin version reinforces theme of departure by multiplying the cupids who orchestrate the movement, and by enlarged and defined the ship.

The destination is not defined; certainly there is no sign of the architecture which signalled Cythera, such as the Temple of Venus, but merely "misty Claudian peaks" in the distance (Levey p.182).  On the other hand, the destination is not in the real world either.  The Louvre picture has the smallest hint of ramparts and towers which perhaps suggest an otherworldly goal.

Possible antecedents

It tells against Levey's argument that, whereas departure from Cythera is unknown in iconography, there are at least two known possible embarkations.

The most telling is a drawing by from the Homburger Collection (University of Harvard) by Watteau's one-time master and mentor Claude Gillot.   The sketch is tentatively thought to depict  the last scene of the comedy, Les Trois Cousines by Florent Dancourt which was first performed in 1700.  (26 performances took place in all between Oct. 1700 and Feb.1701) The angle suggests that it was sketched from a theatre box.  The action of the play takes place in the Paris suburb of Créteil, which can be glimpsed through the arch on the right.  In the finale the youth of the village dress as pilgrims and gather on the shore in order to make the voyage to Cythera.  The boat can be seen in the left of the drawing, crowded with passengers.

Claude Gillot, Embarkation for the Island of Cythera (detail)  Drawing c.1700  20.7 x 31.7 cm
 Homburger collection, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard
The other embarkation picture is a theatrical illustration painted earlier by Watteau himself.  This picture belonged to Jullienne and was engraved under the title L'île de Cythère. Again it is usually related to Dancourt’s play, which was performed by the Comédie-Française in the Spring and Summer of 1709.  Charles de Tolnay and others, Levey included, have agreed that the pilgrims in this picture are setting out for Cythera.  The temple of Venus is can be seen in the background but there are no architectural embellishments in the foreground. The pilgrims stand hesitantly and are not yet paired off.

L'île de Cythère, c1709  Stadelsches Kunstinstitut Frankfurt

The theme of departure implies a certain assumptions about the mood of the picture.  Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Pilgrimage to Cythera seems to have been regarded as simply a depiction of a happy journey to a symbolic island of love.  But to later romantic writers, the idea of love took on a tragic air and the idea arose of a  "melancholic Watteau"; thus the Goncourts discerned an “indefinable sadness” in the fêtes galantes.  Modern commentators  tended to accept this verdict.  Charles de Tolnay writing in 1955 saw the couples in the Pilgrimage moving through the stages of love, embarking to Cythera only to find disillusionment:  the season is autumn and the goal is lost in the distant mists;   love, like life itself, is necessarily transitory”(see Posner, p.184)  Levey’s view also emphasised  the transitory nature of love. The lovers must rouse themselves from their self absorption.   One pilgrim helps his partner to her feet.  The woman in the central group looks back longingly as she is urged to depart. The movement of the picture “suggests  the end rather than the beginning of a fête galante”.The partial cleaning of the picture reassures us that the golden tones are  not a matter  of discoloured varnish; the time is obviously evening and the setting sun gives atmosphere to the whole scene: "This is the reason why an air of transcience and sadness has so often been detected...There is even a hint that one cannot leave the island, sans cesser de s'aimer” (Levey, p.185).  

More recent interpreters, tend on the whole to reject this gloomy view as unhistorical. The golden tones may indeed be the effect of age and are, in any case, less noticeable in the Berlin picture, which is brighter and more highly finished.  According to Posner,  a melancholy mood is attractive to commentators mainly because  as lends itself to possible metaphysical readings.  It has no objective critical value: ”imagined music exists only in the ear of the beholder” (p.184).

Was Watteau’s picture simply incoherent?

This idea has been suggested by more than one recent commentator.  The scene is both an embarkation towards Cythera and a depiction of the Island of Love itself.  It is emphasised that Watteau was more interested in the structure and movement of his composition  than in any strict narrative meaning.(See the article by Le Coat) It is certainly likely that Watteau was interested primarily in the aesthetic coherence of his work.  Moreover  the fêtes galantes are intentionally difficult to read;   the viewer,  observing the interaction of lovers from the outside,  cannot know their state of mind.  There is an element of uncertainty - love can always miscarry.   

But does it really seem likely that Watteau would have abandoned any compositional logic?

For myself, there seems nothing wrong with the idea that the painting simply shows an embarkation for Cythera. The composition, with the boat to the left, echoes Watteau's earlier treatment of the theme. The ship in the Berlin version is strikingly like that of the Gillot sketch.  Neither  the landscape nor the behaviour of the couples goes beyond the familiar  spaces and themes of  other fêtes galantes.   The lovers are roused from their reveries to move on to the next stage of love.  Their plans may still miscarry – note the cupid at the left with his reversed arrow which may yet undo the enchantment.  At the centre a woman looks back momentarily , perhaps in hesitation, perhaps  to reassure herself that her companions are following.  The cupids, which proliferate in the Berlin version, are keen to hurry the lovers on -  they nudge them into action and swirl over the ship pointing the way on.  We do not see Cythera on the horizon.  But perhaps, as mere observers, we cannot follow the pilgrims, even imaginatively,  into the realms of love? 


Donald Posner, Antoine Watteau (1984) p.182-95

Michael Levey, “The real theme of Watteau's Embarkation for Cythera.” The Burlington Magazine,1961, vol. 103, no. 698, pp. 180–5 [JStor article]

Gérard Le Coat, . “Le Pèlerinage à l'Isle de Cithère: un sujet « aussi galant qu'allégorique ».” RACAR: Revue d'Art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review,  1975. vol. 2(2) p. 9–23. [JStor article]

Dewey F. Mosby, "Claude Gillot's 'Embarkation for the Isle of Cythera' and its relationship to Watteau", Master Drawings 1974, 12(1): p.19-56 [JStor article]

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