Tuesday 19 September 2017

Robespierre - some descriptions


 Where painted portraits fail us, written ones do little better. There is almost literally no neutral description of Robespierre.  He was generally held to be unprepossessing physically. He was short (perhaps only 5 feet 3 or so), slim with light-brown hair and a pale, slightly pockmarked face.  He had poor eyesight and needed spectacles, at times two pairs at once.  His eye-colour was light, usually given as green or blue;  his piercing gaze was probably a myth -  contemporaries who caught  him off guard remarked on the dullness of his eyes.   He also had an uncontrollable nervous facial tic, affecting his eyes and sometimes his mouth.  His voice was harsh to Parisian ears, retaining the accent of the northern provinces.

Augustin was great, well formed, and had face full of nobility and beauty. In this last aspect, Maximilien had not so great a share as he; he was of middling form and delicate complexion. His face breathed sweetness and goodwill, but it was not as regularly handsome as that of his brother.
Memoirs of Charlotte Robespierre,  describing her two brothers.
Translated by Estelle La Chatte

Green eyes, pale complexion [Les yeux verts, le teint pâle]
Notes accompanying a sketch of Robespierre, usually attributed to Guérin.

I knew M. Robespierre well.  His external appearance was ordinary ("commun"), he was not above middle height;  he had a small head upon broad shoulders;  his hair was of a light chestnut colour ("châtain-blond"), his face rounded, his skin slightly marked by smallpox, his nose small and short, his eyes blue, and rather sunken, his glance shifty, and his manner cold, almost standoffish; he seldom smiled, and then only mockingly.
Letter of M. Devienne, former procurateur of the Conseil d'Artois, and an acquaintance of Robespierre from Arras.  
"MS notes supplied by M. Hippolyte Renard". Jeunesse, p.75-6;  Thompson, Robespierre, p.20.

His appearance was entirely commonplace.  He was of mediocre height with very flat features....He bore on his broad shoulders a rather small head.  He had light brown hair ("les cheveux châtains-blonds"), a round face, an indifferent pock-marked complexion, a livid hue; a small, round nose and pale blue, slightly sunken eyes.  He never laughed. He hardly ever smiled;  moreover, it was generally only a mocking smile which revealed all the peevishness of an irritable nature.
La Vie et les crimes de Robespierre, 1795, pamphlet usually attributed to the abbé L.B. Proyart,  p.67.

He was as we have known him since: sad, bilious, morose, jealous of the success of his comrades...His mobile face had already developed the compulsive grimaces we knew....He was never known to have laughed....
Notes of Stanislas Fréron recalling Robespierre from his schooldays. Papiers inédits trouvés chez Robespierre.... vol. 1 (1828). https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=K7pBAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA154#v=onepage&q&f=false

I talked twice with Robespierre:  he had a sinister appearance; he would not look people in the face, and blinked continually and painfully... He told me that he was as timid as a child and always trembled when he approached the rostrum.
 Etienne Dumont, Souvenirs sur Mirabeau, p.250-52.

Robespierre lived to the age of thirty-five; he was five feet two or three in height;  his held his body stiffly; his movements were firm, quick, even brusque. He often clenched his fists, as if through a kind of nervous convulsion;  the same movement affected his shoulders and neck, which he moved convulsively from right to left;  his clothes were elegant, his hair always neat; his somewhat frowning features were quite unremarkable; his colouring was livid, bilious;  his eyes gloomy and dull; a frequent flickering of the eyelids seemed a result of the convulsive movements of which we speak; he almost always wore glasses.
Duperron, Vie secrette, politique et curieuse de M.J. Robespierre, pamphlet. Paris:  Ann II, p.23-4  https://archive.org/stream/viesecrettepolit00dupe#page/22/mode/2up

I never spoke a single word to Robespierre;  even without his speeches and actions, his person seemed to me repulsive. He was of medium height, thin and with a cold expression; his complexion was bilious and his regard false;  his manners were dry and affected, his tone dogmatic and imperious, his laugh forced and sardonic. Chief of the sans-culottes, he himself dressed with care and continued to wear powder when no-one else still did.  He was not very communicative and kept his distance, even from his intimates;   he was a sort of pontiff who had his attendants and devotees and whose pride was flattered by their worship.  In this, the man had something of Mahommed or Cromwell; he lacked only their genius. 
Memoirs of the Conventionnel, Antoine-Claire Thibaudeau, p.53.

[Robespierre was] a physically puny man, pale in complexion, having the face of a tiger or a fox, and a voice that was toneless, monotonous and harsh, with laboured elocution.
Memoirs of Louis Marie de La Révellière-Lépeaux, p.120-1.

His figure was badly designed, ill-proportioned and without grace in its contours; he was a little below average height.  He had a convulsive twitch in his hands, shoulders, neck and eyes. His face was without expression.  He showed, in his livid face and forehead which frequently furrowed, the marks of a bilious temperament.  His manner was brutal; his gestures at the same time brusque and heavy.
The high inflection of his voice was disagreeable to the ear;  he cried out rather than spoke.  His time in the capital had not entirely erased his harsh accent.  His pronuncation of certain words revealed the harsh tones of his province, with the result that his speech was deprived of all melody.  Although he could see perfectly well, in the last year of his life he took to always appearing in public with glasses. 
Montjoie, Histoire de la conjuration de Maximilien Robespierre, pamphlet, 1795, p.57

 A young man … one day asked old Merlin de Thionville, how he had brought himself to sentence Robespierre. The old man seemed to experience some remorse. But then, rising suddenly with a violent moment, he exclaimed: ‘Robespierre! Robespierre! … Ah! If you had seen his green eyes, you would have sentenced him just as I did.
bon mot from the Thermidorean Merlin de Thionville; Michelet, Histoire de la Révolution française, (ed. Gérard Walter, 1952), vol. 2, p.61

 Robespierre is now a man of about forty. Though slight and tall, he does not appear frail ; on the contrary, one feels that he has a powerful frame. He hasstrong muscles, and not too much flesh. His legs and arms are full and straight ; his height is 6 feet, and he carries himself well. In spite of vigils and mental worry, he has not lost flesh. His chest is broad, his breathing full and strong ; and as to his stomach, it is neither too flat nor too 
prominent. By build Robespierre belongs to the category of handsome men, and his face 
completes his claim to be ranked among them...

Under his arched eyebrows, rising on a forehead whose beauty is unmarred by wrinkles, shine his dark blue eyes, full of fire, and yet serious and thoughtful, where the flame of fanaticism is blended with an indescribable expression of gentleness. A nose of pleasing shape, neither too round nor too curved, stands out between the eyebrows. His cheeks are not too full, and have the ruddy look of manhood ; and his mouth never loses its gracious expression unless giving vent to a truly republican indig- nation. Black hair, which he usually allows to hang loose in waving locks, forms a frame for the handsome face, whose attractive colouring is enhanced by a blue-black beard. 
Anonymous - and ill-informed - German pamphlet of 1794 (cited Fleischman, Robespierre and the women he loved, p.57; see Thompson, Robespierre, i, p.xx))

I once spoke with Robespierre at my father's house in 1789.  He was then known as a lawyer from Artois, very exaggerated in his democratic views.  His features were repulsive, his complexion pale, his veins a shade of green...
Madame de Staël, Considérations sur ... la Révolution française, 1818 vol. 2, p.140-1.

Robespierre was small of stature; his limbs were puny and angular, his walk jerky, his attitudes affected; his gestures without grace or harmony; his rather sharp voice sought for oratorical effects but found only fatigue and monotony; his forehead was rather fine, but small and bulging above the temples, as if the weight and the slow movement of his thoughts had enlarged it through his own efforts. His eyes, very much veiled by the eyelids, and very piercing, were deeply embedded in their sockets; they had a bluish look, rather soft but vague, like steel gleaming in a bright light.  His small and straight nose was dilated by nostrils that were too wide; his mouth was big, his lips thin and disagreeably contracted at the corners, his chin short and pointed, his complexion a deadly yellow, like that of a sick man, or one exhausted by night watches and meditations.
Lamartine, Histoire des Girondins (1847) transl. Henri Béraud, Twelve Portraits of the French Revolution (1928), p. 66.

Miss Williams, in her Memories, claims that he [Robespierre] wore at once green spectacles to rest his gaze and a pince-nez, that he sometimes put in front of his glasses in order to gaze upon his listeners.  Cited in Cabanès, Curious byways of history (trans.1898)

From the appearance of this bust, which is an authentic resemblance of him, his face must have been rather handsome.  His features were small, and his countenance must have strongly expressed animation, penetration, and subtlety.
A noteably divergent assessment by the Englishman John Carr, commenting on a bust of Robespierre belonging to the cabinet of "M. le G", The Stranger in Paris (1802)

Personal grooming and clothes

Robespierre's legendary fastidiousness would seem an authentic memory.  He was meticulously clean and eschewed the informal style favoured by many Revolutionaries. Some commentators have seen his careful neatness as a conscious expression of personal virtue and self-discipline, but, looking at that natty striped jacket and fussy cravat, I am not convinced.  In another life Robespierre might just have been one of those men who took great pleasure in dress.

I should enter into some details on the sort of life that Maximilien had adopted.

He worked much, and passed a great part of the time he did not pass at the courts in his study. He rose at six or seven in the morning, and worked until eight. His barber then came to fix his wig. Then he took a light meal, which consisted of dairy products, and went back to his work until ten, when he dressed and went to the courts.
Memoirs of Charlotte Robespierre, describing Robespierre's habits as a young lawyer in Arras (trans. Estelle La Chatte)
Robespierre’s comportment was perfect; he was grave without pride; his dress was of an extreme cleanliness without fastidiousness.
Charlotte Robespierre, contrasting her brother with Danton.

[Paul Barras, visiting Robespierre towards the end of his life, found him brushing his teeth.]  Robespierre had at least taken out of the French Smile Revolution a greater concern for oral hygiene.  That is, he possessed a toothbrush, talismanic technology of the Smile Revolution.   Colin Jones, The Smile Revolution (2014) ,p. 150.

Robespierre always rose early; and his first step was to go into the shop to bid good morning to his landlord.  He afterwards worked for a few hours, taking no other refreshment than a glass of water.  No one was then allowed to disturb him; then, he had his hair dressed and this operation usually took place in the court-yard, in an open gallery leading out from his bedroom.  Immediately after this, numerous visitors came, since he had become so popular.  But to these he paid not the least attention: being occupied with the perusal of the Gazette and the periodicals of the day, and he then took his breakfast, consisting of fruit, bread and a little wine.  When not reading, his eyes were fixed on the ground; he often rested on his elbow, and seemed to reflect on important matters.

From the anonymous German pamphlet of 1794, describing Robespierre's routine whilst he lived in the rue Saint-Honoré,  Cabanès, Curious byways of history trans.1898, p.210-11.

Shaving bowl said to have belonged to Robespierre (Musée Carnavalet)
Always particular about the setting and powdering of his hair, Robespierre spent little, at this time [ie. the 1780s], on his clothes.  Among the Advielle MSS. in the Arras Town Library is a contemporary account-book of Duplessis, a draper and glove-maker in the Petite Place.  It shows Robespierre and Carnot among its customers; and Robespierre's purchases are few and inexpensive (Fleischmann, 199) 
J.M. Thompson, Robespierre, 1934, vol. 1, p.19 note 2.

The editor of the Affiches d'Artois, Barbe-Thérèse Marchand, claimed  to lent Robespierre ten louis and a trunk for the journey to Versailles for the meeting of the Estates-General: the contents are listed in detail:  
A black cloth coat, a satin waistcoat in fairly good condition, a waistcoat of raz de Saint-Maur rather the worse for wear, three pairs of trousers - one of black velvet, one of black cloth, and one of serge.  He possessed six shirts, six collars, six handkerchiefs, three pairs of stockings (one pair almost new), one pair of well-worn shoes, and a new pair.  His lawyer's gown, carefully folded was packed into this small trunk.  If we add to this list two clothes-brushes, two shoe-brushes, a box containing silk, cotton, wool, and needles (for he did not scorn to sew his own buttons), and a bag of powder and a puff, we have the young man's entire wardrobe.
La Vie et les crimes de Robespierre, p.81 nt. transl. McPhee, Robespierre,  p.62 

He was very poor and had not even proper clothes.  When he Assembly decreed mourning for Benjamin Franklin I asked a young friend of mine to lend him a black suit, which he wore, though its owner was four inches taller than he was...He was very frugal, fastidiously clean in his clothes, I could almost say in his one coat, which was was of a dark olive colour
Pierre Villiers, Souvenirs d'un deporté (1802),recalling Robespierre in 1790.

M Robespierre is good-looking ("a bonne mine"), with a pale complexion, a little effeminate.  I believe he has weak health and a nervous constitution.  He hates violent sports....Despite his extremely modest fortune, his dress has the coquetterie of a gentleman.  He wears powder, sleeves, shoes with buckles, and walks with a dignified air.
Police report of c.1790

That striped coat....

....coat of green stripes, vest, blue stripes on white, cravat red stripes on white [habit nankin rayé vert, gilet blanc rayé bleu, cravate blanche rayée rouge]
Notes accompanying a sketch of Robespierre, usually attributed to Guérin.
The colours are somewhat different, but this was probably the same coat and vest that appear in several portraits.....(David Jordan, Revolutionary career of Maximilien Robespierre, p.255)

On the Carnavalet portrait: This is the most famous portrait of Robespierre, artist unknown.  The same gray-on-gray striped coat and vest, as well as the formal high cravat, appear in several other portraits.  These may have been copied from this canvas, or Robespierre, who had so small a wardrobe, may have often worn this coat and posed in it.(Jordan, p.252)

The painter, Vivant-Denon, who often had occasion to see him, clearly remembers having seen him "powdered white, wearing a waistcoat of brocaded muslin with a light coloured border, and altogether got up in the most recherché style of a dandy of 1789."
Quoted in Cabanès, Curious byways of history trans.1898, p.214.

The obsolete term of muscadin,  which means a scented fop, was revived; and every man who had the boldness to appear in a clean shirt was branded with that appellation, and every woman who wore a hat was a muscadine; for the period was still remembered when a round cap was the badge of roture, nor were the aristocratical pretensions of the hat yet buried in oblivion. It is remarkable enough that at this period Robespierre always appeared not only dressed with neatness, but with some degree of elegance, and while he called himself the leader of the sans-culottes, never adopted the costume of his band. His hideous countenance, far from being involved in a black wig, was decorated with hair carefully arranged and nicely powdered; while he endeavoured to hide those emotions of his inhuman soul which his eyes might sometimes have betrayed, beneath a large pair of green spectacles, though he had no defect in his sight.
Helen Maria Williams Memoirs Of The Reign Of Robespierre (1795), p.95

The verdict of Fleischmann:
Besides, was he alone in liking to have his stockings well drawn up, alone in protesting, by the decency of his dress and elegance of his manners, against the slovenliness of the Sans- Culottes ? Did not Georges Duval, whose evidence is here reliable, because it can be verified, see Saint- Just, in his own home, attired " in a dressing-gown of dazzling whiteness, his feet encased in elegant Turkish slippers made of yellow morocco leather" ? 
Did not Billaud-Varenne himself, the man with the red wig, when an exile in Guiana, write to his wife thanking her for a parcel of fine linen ? (Robespierre and the Women he Loved, p.65-6)

On the political significance of Robespierre's clothes:
He would continue to dress in a style of the ancien régime while most around him ostentatiously abandoned the manners and fashion of a rejected past.  Robespierre's coiffure and dress, as well as his invariably correct comportment, were a declaration of a self he thought appropriate to a representative of the people.  He never considered changing.  He had no need to dress in the manner of a street radical.  He looked always like the provincial lawyer he was.  Later, when he was the acknowledge spokesman for the radicals and the Left and the sans-culottes, he declined to wear the symbolic Phrygian cap or red bonnet.....

Robespierre insisted upon distinguishing himself from those he represented and said he loved, those he would be willing to die for but not join in the streets.  He found it unthinkable to dress in any manner other than the one that befit his place in society, although the societyin which he was jealous of his status was in full revolution: the distinctions he was anxious to maintain were fast vanishing.  Nevertheless, a representative of the people need not dress like his constituents.  His neatness of appearance was frequently noticed, and there were few critical remarks of his style of dress. (Jordan,  p.55-6)


  1. There are problems with the post-Thermidor descriptions, which Mark Steel humorously skewers in 'Vive la Révolution!'. There's a lot of reliance on the then rather outdated theories of the humours & c. The "repulsive" descriptions would hardly explain the screaming fangirls he had…

    Height-wise: 5'2-3" in pieds du roi, the pre-metric French measure, is nearer 5' 6"-7" in UK/US feet. He was fairly average for 18C. The German description – some of the pre-metric measures in German states had a foot that was about 11" UK/US, hence "6 foot" description.

    I recognise the eye-twitch. I'm very short-sighted myself, and if tired and overworked (especially in a poor light), I've had it happen to me. Eye-strain was pretty common before artificial light and good prescription lenses.

  2. Charlotte has the same long nose as Augustin. That's what she really means: "Augustin was the better-looking because he looked more like me."


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