Pierre-Nicolas Legrand de Sérant (1758-1829)
Portrait of Joseph Cange, clerk of the Saint-Lazare Prison, Paris, 1794
oil on canvas 70cm x 56cm
Musée de la Révolution française, Vizille, Isère (MRF 1989-11)
This beautiful and sympathetic Revolutionary portrait by Pierre-Nicolas Legrand de Sérant, was acquired by the Museum of the French Revolution in Vizille in 1989. Its subject, Joseph Cange, and the story of his charitable actions, briefly fired the imagination of Thermidorian France, which was hungry for sentimental tales of reconciliation and humanity as a counterpoise to the violence and treachery of the recent past.
Cange, who was born in Sarrebourg, Lorraine in 1753, was a clerk at the prison of Saint-Lazare during the Terror. The story goes that, he was so moved by the poverty of the family of one of the prisoners, that he decided to share his meagre resources with them. With commendable modesty, he made the woman and her three children believe that the money came from the imprisoned father (In some versions Cange, whose total fortune was 100 livres, gave 50 livres to the wife supposedly from her husband and another 50 livres to the prisoner supposedly from his wife). After Thermidor, the prisoner was freed and hastened to make the identity of his benefactor known. Cange became a minor hero and had several poems and plays written about him.
A second painting, by Legrand, now in the Dallas Art museum, shows the emotional reunion of the former prisoner with Cange and his family:
Oil on canvas 63cm x 80cm
Dallas Museum of Art (1989.134.FA)
There is no information on the circumstances in which the two pictures were commissioned. The Dallas painting was exhibited in the Salon in the Summer of 1796 and Cange's portrait was reproduced in high-quality engravings - by Bonneville for vol. 2 of his "Men of the Revolution" and by Beljambe who added a patriotic bonnet. The Moniteur for 16 Nivôse III (5th January 1795) , records that Beljambe's engraving was presented to the Convention.
The recent acquisitions records for the pictures do not clarity the provenance a great deal. According to Tom Gott of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne: "Both paintings were probably commissioned by 'Georges' , the beneficiary of Cange's generosity, since they were sold in 1989 by descendants of his godson, whom it has not been possible to identify with any greater clarity". The group painting was sold by the Colnaghi Gallery in New York which exhibited it shortly before its purchase by the Dallas Museum in 1989. Guide to the exhibition "Napoleon: Revolution to Empire". National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2nd June-7th October 2012, p.66 Google Books
According to Amy Freund, the Dallas canvas is "a Greuzian scene of gratitude", which reveals the eagerness of portrait commissioners to insert themselves into the Revolutionary narrative. Details like the tricolor cockades and liberty bonnet define the context. The image of "the good sans-culotte" is asserted as a counter to the aberrations of the Terror; the gratitude of the bourgeois family provides a model of universal fraternity.
The historian of Revolutionary fashion, Aileen Ribeira, sees the unity of the two men as more apparent than real. Although they both wear a cockade, the fashionable greatcoat and smart beaver hat of "Georges" contrasts with the outmoded Revolutionary costume of Cange. In an era where political allegiance was expressed through dress, "men like Cange were past history".
Amy Freund, “The ‘Citoyenne’ Tallien: women, politics, and portraiture during the French Revolution.” The Art Bulletin, 2011, vol. 93(3), p. 325–344. On JSTOR
Aileen Ribeiro, "The Mirror of history: the art of dress in late eighteenth-century France" in French Art of the Eighteenth Century, ed. Heather MacDonald (2016), p.151 French Art of the Eighteenth Century - Google Books.
The literary and theatrical representations of Cange, though sympathetic, give the same sense of a hero who is absent from his own story. His position recalls the sentimentalised heroes and heroines of the last years of Ancien Régime rather than the working class heroes of popular Revolution.
Cange is presented to the Convention
|"The virtuous Joseph Cange" by Beljambes|
In the theatre
Cange's story was above all a phenomenon of the newly re-opened theatres of Paris. The new sentimental drama of the era often featured moralising episodes of this sort from the recent past, "les faits historiques", a genre which reached its height of popularity in 1794. There were at least eight different productions on Cange in last months of 1794. The theatres of the Cité-Variétés, the Opéra-Comique and the Amis de la Patrie et de l'Égalité all exploited the subject. The first play, Cange, ou Le commissionnaire de Lazare by Marin Gamas, opened to great acclaim at the Théâtre de la République on 30th October, followed a day later by the production of Pierre Villiers and Armand Gouffé at the Théâtre de la Cité. Duval, who was one of Gouffé's collaborators, reports that they had been together in the café Cuisinier when the latter chanced upon the verses of Sedaine. Four days later the play was written and in rehearsal; by the first days of the next décade it was on stage. The actor Tiercelot took the part of Cange, which he played with his trademark Auvergnat accent. Both playscripts were printed and sold. These first two plays were prose works but others included songs and music: the most ambitious, which appeared at the Opéra-Comique, was Les détenus ou Cange, commissionnaire de Lazare by Benoît-Joseph Marsollier, with music by Nicolas Dalayrec. Simon Chenard appeared as Revéche, concierge of the Saint-Lazare prison.
Despite some elements of comedy, the plays all had strong political objective, to defend the virtuous Republic and repudiate Robespierre and the Jacobins. See for example, the closing speeches of Les détenus by Marsollier:
Georges : Men like Cange...show us that in the least fortunate classes, one generally finds belief in humanity, kindness and respectable virtues...As if Nature wishes to console humanity for the appearance of malevolent beings who... hide behind a mask of of patriotism, the corrupt heart of a hypocrite and tyrant." (Les détenus, p.48)
And Chenard sings, "Justice and benevolence/ Make more friends than Terror" (p.50)
|Georges: "My virtuous friend, I owe you my life"; Cange: "I only had a hundred livres; I wish I possessed more". |
Contemporary print by Labrousse.
The generous deed of Cange is one of those that give the greatest pleasure to recount, because it occasions no regret, and the character that gave rise to it showed only the the purest of sentiments... Cange could not have expected any other reward than the happiness which virtue brings to those who practise it. He neglected nothing to ensure that his deed went unremarked. And if it was, what recompense could he have expected? The couple were not in a position to pay him back. The husband was on the point of dying on the scafford; the wife in a state of cruel poverty, without any resource. Almost daily Cange saw those whom he had helped take the memory of his benevolence to the grave...He was generous enough to release from the burden of gratitude those who might have been humiliated to have received help from a man of such an interior class.
Boissy d'Anglas Le Commissionnaire de Saint-Lazare (1825) NOTE.