Thursday, 14 January 2021

Marie-Antoinette "on her way to the scaffold"

The sketch by David of Marie-Antoinette "on her way to the scaffold" is an image of enormous resonance and iconic status  - not one to be challenged lightly, even by esteemed members of the French art establishment.  However, the fact that the drawing might not be by David at all but by Vivant Denon has been quietly hinted at for some time by both the  Director of Graphic Arts at the Louvre, Xavier Salmon and by the eminent expert on David, Philippe Bordes.  Salmon first aired doubts in  his 2005 book Marie-Antoinette: images d'un destin (2005); and subsequently, more conspicuously, in the catalogue for the 2008 blockbuster expo Marie-Antoinette at the Grand-Palais in 2008. His observations did not provoke much reaction, though his dissent was noted on the very thorough Wikipedia page devoted to the drawing. 

Last year, for the  Marie-Antoinette exhibition at the Conciergerie, the challenge was made much more explicit.  This time it was Philippe Bordes's authority that was to the fore.  The work was not by David: according to the dossier pédagogique: "Today the legend is refuted.  The art historian Philippe Bordes attributes it to the fervent Revolutionary Dominique Vivant Denon".

The picture itself (or rather a copy of it) was displayed inconspicuously, next to the splendid canvas Joseph-Emmanuel van den Büssche from the musée de Vizille, which provides an imposing image of David at work on his sketch.


Portrait de Marie-Antoinette reine de France, conduite au supplice [Louvre 3599 DR]

Drawing representing Marie-Antoinette on her way to the scaffold.   
Formerly in the collection of Edmond de Rothschild. Given to the Louvre in 1935. 
 Pen and brown ink on cream paper.  14.8cm x 10.1cm. 

Provenance: The sketch belonged to the the inveterate collector the abbé Jean-Louis Giraud Soulavie (1752-1813) who, according to the accompanying note, obtained it from the wife of the former Conventionnel Marc Antoine Jullien [(Jullien de la Drôme (1744-1821)].  The Soulavie collection was acquired in 1818 by Eugène de Beauharnais and transported to Munich. The drawing was auctioned by Drouot on 25th April 1904 when it was purchased by the Baron de Rothschild. 

The note framed with the sketch is in Soulavie's handwriting.  It reads: 

Portrait de Marie Antoinette reine de France conduite au supplice; dessinée à la plume par David spectateur du convoi, & placé sur la fenêtre avec la citoyenne Jullien épouse du représentant Jullien, de qui je tiens cette pièce.

Portrait of Marie-Antoinette, queen of France, being taken to the scaffold.  Drawn by the pen of David, witness to the convoy,  at the window with Citizeness Jullien, wife of the Representative Jullien, from whom I acquired this picture.

Worth noting are several high quality drawings and prints;  the BN has at least two copies - this one on  Gallica and a second was shown in the 2020 exhibition .  Their existence confirms that the image was well-known at a relatively early date.  

Drawing - copy in black ink. Portrait of Marie-Antoinette....copied from the original in the collection Soulavie  

The copy at the Expo. was this one:


I suppose there are really two separate questions:  firstly, whether David was really the artist, and, secondly, whether the sketch really created "from life", done literally as the tumbril bearing Marie-Antoinette pressed through the crowds to the place de la Révolution.  In practice, the two are closely intertwined. If David's presence on the scene is doubtful, so too must be his penmanship. 

Can we trust Soullavie's annotation?

The annotation is said to be in Soullavie's own handwriting and is the only direct written evidence we have. 

Thanks to Anne Duprat, who has edited her letters, we now know a fair amount about Rosalie Ducroy, Madame Jullien.   Her voluminous correspondence with members of her family, particularly her son who was an agent of the Committee of Public Safety, shows that she was a staunch supporter of Robespierre though after Thermidor she carefully distanced herself from his memory.  In all honesty, there is nothing to suggest she would have deliberately fabricated the story.

Where was David exactly when he drew the picture?

This is a more promising avenue of approach.  As always, as Jean-Clément Martin insists, the test is in the detail. David proves elusive. There is no consensus about his likely location.

In the rue Saint-Honoré?

The tradition which derives from Soulavie's annotation, places David at a window with Mme Jullien.  According to Annie Duprat,  the deputy Jullien was absent from Paris at the time of the execution, but in any case his lodgings can be discounted; he lived in rue Saint-André-des-Arts, not directly on the convoy's route.  It can be surmised that the pair were in the rue Saint-Honoré.  Paul Belaiche-Daninos in a densely researched novel Les Soixante-Seize jours de Marie Antoinette à la conciergerie (2007) suggests No 1, rue des Prouvaires, at the corner of the rue Saint-Honoré opposite the rue du Roule. This was a suitably positioned building with an imposing balcony - but I am not sure there is any real evidence to place them there.

Here is the scene imagined by Joseph-Emmanuel van den Büssche in his  painting of 1900 from the Museum of the French Revolution in Vizille, which featured in the 2019-20 exhibition at the Conciergerie: 

In the café Régence?

A  second tradition, followed by Marie-Antoinette's biographer Stefan Zweig, writing in 1932, places the painter in the café Régence.  According to the Larousse  Dictionnaire de la Révolution, David drew both Queen and later Danton from the terrace of the Régence, which stood on the corner of the rue Saint-Honoré opposite the Palais-Royal (the site of the present brasserie Ruc). This was a good vantagepoint;  from the Conciergerie, the corteges bearing the condemned would cross the Seine and pause briefly the the Place du Palais Royal before continuing along the rue Saint-Honoré to the Place de la Révolution.  The location seemed plausible to contemporaries -  as early as July 1795 Edme Courtois accused David of callously sketching Danton there.  However, there is no known drawing of Danton to back up this allegation.
Jean Olivier Leconte, "Marie Antoinette", Le Café de la Régence  [blog], post of  20 May 2012

Would David have used pen-and-ink?

It is a minor but significant point that an artist working at speed would be unlikely to use pen-and-ink.  David commonly sketched in pencil.  

What about the second drawing?

Problems of attribution were highlighted in 2001 by the publication on the internet of a second image of Marie-Antoinette attributed to David,  this time showing the Queen's decapitated head. The crude sketch reminds us how readily all sorts of caricatures were ascribed to David.

 The image was posted on the official site of the French Senate as part of feature commemorating  20-year anniversary of the abolition of the death penalty.  Presumably the original is in the Senate's own collections.  The signature of the artist is included, and also, slightly incongruously,  a few lines of text attributed to Gracchus Babeuf.  Annie Duprat found a reference in a sales catalogue which specified that the sketch had originally been entrusted by Marshal Ney to a lawyer in Beaulieu to be given to Jeannon David, the painter's nephew in Brussels. In 1982 a collector called Georg Marichka thought that, even though the signature was not identical to David's, the piece might still be genuine.  However, Philippe Bordes gave the piece short shrift;  the sketch was not by David; it was counter-revolutionary in inspiration and conceived in  hindsight (hence the odd association with Babeuf). [Duprat, 2013, p.135 and nt.31]


There is no new documentary evidence to back up an attribution to Denon, but there is a fair amount of educated connoisseurship. 

Sadly, if Denon is accepted as the artist, the sketch cannot really be "from life" (but I guess we really knew that all along?).  Denon was expelled from Venice in July 1793 as  a Convention spy, but did not return to Paris until mid-December, almost two months after Marie-Antoinette's execution. 

I do not have access to the catalogue of the 2020 exhibition, but  according to a post on the Marie Antoinette discussion forum, it takes a firm stance in favour of Denon as the artist:  The entry is by Alain Chevalier, director of the Musée de Vizille.

Chevalier cites the authority of Philippe Brodes  to support the view that the  drawing is not in David's style but that of Vivant Denon.  Since Denon was not present at the execution, the sketch is entirely an invention  ("un croquis inventé de toute pièce").   

According to the new interpretation, Denon, a fervent revolutionary, hated Marie-Antoinette who had him recalled from his post in Naples in 1785 and created the portrait to assuage his hatred "pour assouvir sa détestation"


Even if the ascription to Denon is accepted,  I am not so  sure the drawing straightforwardly expresses "detestation".   As with other Revolutionary images by Denon, it has a strange moral ambivalence - no doubt the origin of much of its fascination.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to see it as deliberately amoral?  Whilst some observers have interpreted it only as vindictively realistic, others, perhaps equally legitimately, have felt that it  preserved  a sense of Marie-Antoinette's dignity in death.  

The Goncourt Brothers championed the obvious view; it was a mean work, which expressed only hatred:

 [David's sketch is] "something dreadful and ignoble; a child's drawing for a cheap engraving, a republican grotesque by a painter, the lackey of Marat and Napoleon, who could only lend his pencil to hideous caricature for the agony of Marie-Antoinette.
The Goncourt Brothers in their Journal for 1858-60.

However, according to Mary Sheriff, later 19th-century historians often esteemed the portrait not only for its  "authenticity"  but also (slighly bizarrely) as an accurate physical likeness. See: 
Mary Sheriff, "The portrait of the Queen", in  Marie-Antoinette: writings on the body of a queen ed. Dena Goodman (2003) p.45-72; p.66-67.  [Google Preview]

Here are a few comments by modern historians:

In a trice [David] had sketched the Queen as she was passing, a cruelly magnificent drawing, made from the life with sinister skill; the picture of a woman prematurely old, no longer beautiful, to whom nothing but pride remains.  Her mouth is arrogantly closed; her expression is one of profound indifference;  with her hands tied behind her back she sits as challengingly upright on the wooden seat of the tumbril as if she were seated upon a throne.  Every line of her stony countenance speaks disdain, and her pose is one of invincible resolution.  Suffering transformed into defiance, pain metamorphosed into energy, give her tortured face a new and dreadful majesty.  Not even hatred, which made this picture, can deny the awful dignity with which Marie Antoinette endured the shame of her drive to the place of execution. 
Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette: the portrait of an average woman (Originally published 1932; this English transl.2013)

David was at the window.  A few strokes of the pen sufficed him to capture the tragic figure, seated upright,  a bonnet over her roughly cut hair.  Her nose is arched, her lip curled in distain of human insults, her eyes lowered so as to see nothing of this world that she is leaving.  In the eyes of the painter, she is noble and proud as she goes towards death.  
Marguerite Jallut, Marie Antoinette et ses peintres (1955)

The painter David, watching the Austrian woman from a window, drew her on her final journey in order to illustrate once and for all the contempt of the Hapsburg Archduchess with her haughty expression and her pouting lips....

Yet prolonged humiliation can in the end damage those who try to inflict it.  Just as David's celebrated drawing can be interpreted as a final image of disdain - or unalterable calm dignity, depending on the point of view.  Every account, every eyewitness, agreed on the unassailable composure with which Marie-Antoinette went to her death.
Antonia Fraser,  Marie-Antoinette: the journey (2001)

Whether by David or another....this ink sketch is of a rare intensity.  Sitting upright, hands tied behind her back, Marie-Antoinette presents an austere profile; her eyes and mouth are closed, a few locks of stiff straight hair escape from her bonnet.  The mouth is bitter, the face unreadable,  as though closed in on itself, oblivious to the outside world.  This is the last glimpse of the stiff silhouette of the once pretty queen, now condemned to death.  The sketch imprints itself on everyone's memory, an implacable allegory of the destiny which reduced the brilliant queen celebrated by madame Vignée-Lebrun into a miserable woman on her way to the scaffold.  
Anne Duprat, Marie-Antoinette 1755-1793: images et visages d'une reine (2013), p.135.


 "Marie-Antoinette conduite à l'échafaud", Article in

Marie-Antoinette: Métamorphose d'une image.  Exhibition at the Conciergerie, 11th October 2019 - 26th January 2020.  Educational dossier.

Annie Duprat, Marie-Antoinette 1755-1793: images et visages d'une reine (2013), p.135-6.  [Preview on Google Books]
_____, ed. « Les Affaires d’État sont mes affaires de cœur ». Lettres de Rosalie Jullien, une femme dans la Révolution, 1775-1810, Paris, Belin, 2016. 

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