Thursday, 12 August 2021

Joseph Cange

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:

Pierre-Nicolas Legrand de Sérant
A good deed is never forgotten ("Une bonne action n'est jamais oubliée") 1794/95
Oil on canvas  63cm x 80cm 
Dallas Museum of Art (1989.134.FA) 

The identity of the recipient of Cange's kindness is not known for certain.  In the plays he is given only  a generic name,  either "Durand" or "Georges". However the playwright Georges Duval, in his Souvenirs thermidoriens, identifies him as a certain Thomassin, a plumassier (that is a dealer in feathers) in the rue du Petit-Lion-Saint-Sauveur.  According to Duval, the man's only crime was to have laughed at Grelat, the president of the Revolutionary Committee of the section of Gravilliers, who was a hunchback and cripple (p.5,nt).  There seems no reason to doubt Duval  though, if  Thomassin financed Legrand's pictures, he cannot have been the humble tradesman depicted in the plays. Souvenirs thermidoriens - Google Books

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

Whilst the portrait preserves an authentic sense of the man himself,  the second painting tends to subordinate Cange as an individual to a wider political message: 

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
The first mention of Cange's story occurs in the official record of the Convention.  On 16th October 1794,  a deputation from the Lycée des Arts ("Lycée de la Commune de Paris"), a patriotic society which aimed to advance knowledge and education, presented Cange in person to the assembly and  read out a poem relating his act of generosity by the playwright Michel-Jean Sedaine. 

It was also noted that Cange,himself the father of a family, had recently taken on the three orphaned children of his sister-in-law, whose husband had been a soldier of the Republic. 

 Cange was invited up to receive "fraternal accolade"; the Bulletin of the Convention recorded the president's words, "We applaud Cange's generosity. We admire the virtue that characterises him".  His case was also referred to the Comité des secours which awarded him a small pension. 

Archives parlementaires, Séance du 25 Vendémiaire.

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 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) 

For a selection of patriotic speeches from the various plays, see  Ernest Lunel, Le Theatre et la revolution (1910), p.244-246.  Le theatre et la revolution - Google Books


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 performances were frequently made more emotive by the presence of Cange himself in the audience. It is recorded that after the first performance at the Théâtre de la République, he and his wife were invited on stage, and showered with applause by the audience, which had been moved to tears;  the same thing happened at the Cité-Variétés;  at the Opéra-Comique, Chenard saluted them in their theatre box (See Tissier, Les spectacles à Paris pendant la Révolution (1992) p.76,  note 17; p.141, note 47).  There was a strong element of calculation in this -  Duval notes, with some plausibility, that the naive hero  allowed himself to be manipulated by unscrupulous theatre directors seeking only to boost their receipts. 

Despite the adulation of the theatregoers,  the Republic did not treat Cange with any great generosity.  He and his family continued to live in poverty.  He was found menial employment as an office messenger in the Commission of Public Instruction, a post which brought little money and possibly undermined his health.  To their credit, well-meaning commentators soon complained that the theatres owed him a rightful share of the profits. The abbé Grégoire and the young writer Louis-François Jauffre befriended him, as did Félix Nogaret, who wrote poem in his honour.    As reported by Laufret, we hear the authentic voice of Cange for the first time; a simple man,  proud of  his virtue and independence, he stubbornly refused to countenance the need for reward. 

Cange died shortly before 11 Nivôse Year IV (1st January 1796) leaving a widow, and six children; the family was completely forgotten by officialdom.  Boissy d'Anglas reprinted his poem "De  la bienfaisance" for the widow's benefit as late as 1825.  Cange's  son served in the Napoleonic army and, after 1815, ran a modest café in Vincennes.  



Michel-Jean Sedaine. 
Le Commissionnaire de Saint-Lazare Imprimé aux frais du lycée, au profit du C. Cange

Félix Nogaret, Le commissionnaire , trait historique en vers, 21 Frimaire Year III  (December 1794)
Reprinted in Contes en vers (1797), p.64 Google Books 

Boissy d'Anglas Le Commissionnaire de Saint-Lazare:  fragment d'un poeme sur la bienfaisanceréimprimé et vendu au profit de Ve Cange (1825)

PLAYS [As listed in Tissier , Les spectacles à Paris pendant la Révolution]

1. Gamas, Cange, ou Le commissionnaire de Lazare : fait historique en un acte et en prose.  Paris, chez la citoyenne Toubon, an III.  Shown for the first time at the Théatre de la République, 9 Brumaire III (30th October 1794).  THÉÂTRE DE LA RÉPUBLIQUE  6 performances in 1794. (Tissier No.214)

2. Pierre Villiers and Armand Gouffé, Cange ou le commissaire bienfaisant, chez Plassan, an III   First performed at the Théatre de la  Cité-Variété, 10 Brumaire III. [31st October 1794] 43 performances  Tissier 884 and 969

3. Gabiot, Le commissaire de saint-Lazare, trait. hist; 7th November 1794 (17 Brumaire)[See Journal des théâtres, 16 November 1794, where it is called Cange, ou les vertus du peuple]  AMBIGU-COMIQUE.  22 performances.  (Tissier No. 1354)

4.1798: Cange, ou l'exemple des vertus républicaines, pant. Leblanc. 23 Brumaire III  [13th November 1794]  25 performances at the Théatre du Lycée des Arts.[Tissier, no. 1798]

5.  Tondu-Blondin, Cange ou le commissaire de Lazare  Théâtre de la Gaîté  17th November. 43 performances.

6. Les détenus ou Cange, commissionnaire de Lazare by Benoît-Joseph Marsollier, with music by  Nicolas Dalayrec. , Les détenus ou Cange, commissionnaire de Lazare, Paris, Maradan, an III, p. 60. In verse. Performed at the OPÉRA-COMIQUE on 28 brumaire III [18th November 1794] 34 performances. (Tissier No.394)

7. Le commissaire de Saint-Lazare, ou la journée du 10 thermidor, fait his. 29 Brumaire III [19th November 1794] (Tissier No.2151)
LAZZARI-THÉATRE DES VARIÉTÉS-AMUSANTES -7 performances; by two unknowns.

8. Bellement and Jardin, Cange, ou le Commissaire de Lazare , fait historique, en un acte , en prose , mêlée de musique , donnée à ce théâtre, le premier frimaire de l'an troisième de la République» Théâtre  des Amis de la Patrie 21st November 1794. 12 performances. 

9.  Le Commissionnaire  Théâtre de l'Égalité, 22nd November 1794 By the Julie Candeille. 

Modern works
"Joseph Cange" on Wikipedia. fr

 André Tissier , Les spectacles à Paris pendant la Révolution (1992)


Yesterday at the Théâtre  de la République, took place  the first showing of Cange, a historical tableau set  in the maison d'arrêt  at Saint-Lazare. The public showed, by repeated applause, how much it is the enemy of cruelty and oppression, and the sincere friend of right conduct and virtue...
Cange and his wife were present at the show;  the public asked for them, they appeared on stage, to renewed cries of "Long live virtue!  Long live the Republic!"
Police report of 31st October 1794. 

Theâtre de la Cité-Variétés
Cange, ou le Commissionaire de Saint-Lazare

This touching drama (by Villier and Armand Gouffé) provoked lively applause.

Cange is a worthy inhabitant of the mountains of the former Auverne.  He arrives at home of a detainee's wife, to fetch the prisoner's dinner.  The unfortunate woman, together with her two children, has fallen into extreme poverty.  A rogue, who is in love with the woman, offers to free her husband in return for her favours; she resists with the pride of an honest soul; the rogue threatens to throw her and her family in chains. This is the only dramatic conflict in the play...and it is not necessary.  Virtue, delineated with enough force, has no need for a villain to oppose it...
However, this work is well dramatised and well written...Citizen Tiercelin creates a convincing character in the role of Cange and Citizeness Germain gives a good performance in the demanding role of the prisoner's wife.  The virtuous Cange was present at the opening show; the public asked him to appear on stage, where they applauded with the enthusiasm which depictions of virtue and goodness always excite.
Esprit des Journaux, October 1794, p.297

Théâtre de l'Opéra Comique
Les détenus, ou Cange commissionnaire de St Lazare

This play [by Marsollier] has nothing but the basic story in common with the other versions of the  Cange story which have already appeared in several theatres in Paris. The author transports the viewer into the interior courtyard of the prison of St.Lazare, where the detainees are passing the time with games, egged on by Daudin, a stupid young oaf with a good heart.  George has received no news from his wife or children;  this virtuous father is reduced to destitution; he appeals to the messenger Cange, nicknamed Bon-Enfant, the favourite of the gaoler Revéche.  Cange promises to search out George's wife;  this unfortunate woman then arrives with her two children: Cange brings them into the courtyard, where they can see George through a little high window.  Finally, he makes his plan to separate into two halves the sum of a hundred francs, the fruit of his savings, which he has left with Revéche.  He contrives to regain possession of money, giving half to the woman; and the other half to the unfortunate prisoner.  The Citizeness uses her fifty francs to obtain from a business man, the documents which prove her husband's innocence; the evidence is placed before the Representatives of the people, and George regains his liberty.  The deed of the good Cange is revealed;  he leaves his post as messenger and goes to work with George.  All the detainees congratulate them on their departure.

This work cannot be summarised; you must see it to appreciate its full interest. 
Esprit des Journaux, November 1794, p.229

 Cange, the hero of the story, fell into the trap created for him and had the weakness to allow himself to be exploited by these greedy speculators.  It was Saint-Elme, the director of the Cité, and one of the worst charlatans among the directors of the epoch, who first had the felicitous idea. He went to find Cange in his home, at 46 rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, and, offering him a box at the theatre, requested the honour of his presence  at the performance next day.  Cange, a simple and naive man, accepted the invitation.  The next day the poster for the Théatre de la  Cité announced that Cange himself would be present with his family for the twentieth showing of  "Cange, ou Le commissionnaire de Lazare".  The crowd was huge and the receipts showed that Saint-Elme had calculated well. The oak garlands which decorated one of the boxes announced to the public that it was reserved for Cange; and he duly arrived with his family shortly after the curtain went up.  Universal cheers greeted him, and he stood up several times, put his hand on his heart and modestly saluted the public. This was fine once;  but other directors wanted their share of the increased receipts...  They all made Cange the same proposition in turn and he had the weakness to agree; with the result that he appeared successively in eight or ten theatres where "Cange ou Le commissaire de Lazare" played.  This no doubt took nothing away from the merit of his good deed; but if he had not offered himself so frequently and willingly to public applause, it would perhaps have been better appreciated; modesty accords well with virtue!   
Duval, Souvenirs thermidoriens  p.8-9.

Account of a conversation with Cange
Yesterday morning, leaving a café where I had been reading an article in your journal on Cange, I ran into this generous citizen.  He was on his way to the Commission of Public Instruction, where he has a job as a garçon de bureau. 
-Have you read the Journal de Paris today?, he asked me.
- Yes, I have just read it; there is an article about you.
- Someone came to talk to me; but I am not happy with what they have said about me.
- The article affirmed a great truth: that it is generally more convenient to admire a good deed than to reward the doer.
 - Did they not say that I was dying of hunger?
 - They did. 
- Well it is not correct.  I have a big family and I do not earn enough to live well; but I would need to have neither arms, legs, nor honour for my family and I to die of hunger. 
- They observed with justification that you have the rights to a part of the considerable profits the theatres have made from your good deed.  
- They owe me nothing.  If I did a good deed it was through humanity;  if the theatres give me some reward, it is because they in their turn wish to do a good deed; they promised it to me.  But that is not sufficient to give me the right to demand it.
 - But the nation is indebted to you....
- The nation owes me nothing at all. 
- But  caring souls wish you to be rewarded. 
 - Good actions aren't done for payment.   Besides, what I did was simple; and what astonishes me, is that it has been given so much importance.
- So the article in the Journal de Paris has upset you?
-Yes,  very much and I would like people to know my opinion about it.
- Nothing could be simpler, respected Cange;  I will write down our conversation, address it to the Journal de Paris, and virtuous souls will not read it without esteeming and admiring you still more. 
Louis-François Louis-François Jauffret L'Esprit des journaux, françois et étrangers, June 1795

Obituary notice
I hope I might be permitted to draw attention once more to a man whose life has been one long act of benevolence.  Joseph Cange, known as "le Commissionnaire" has just died. His deed of humanity will be remembered for a long time. It was celebrated last year in more than one play; and no doubt he merited the applause he received on stage.

Some people have criticised Cange for appearing too often before the public at the end of performances.  They believed it showed a reprehensible ostentation.  I reply to them that the the good commissioner was not capable of that false modesty which in reality  seeks only to attract more attention.  He presented himself, as one would present a child; because he was persuaded that the public wished to see him.   If he had more amour propre he would have been more calculatingly modest....

Some people attributed his good deed to a momentary impulse; it seemed an easy way to acquire glory, with two 50-livre notes.  I reply that, long before he was known to the public, Cange practised virtue; and lived only to do good.  On the death of his sister, whose husband was in the army, he provided a refuge for his three little nephews - an act of humanity all the more admirable because he already had three children of his own.  Today, these nephews  are still being cared for by his widow.

The naive graces of his humanity offered me inexpressible charm.

Since Cange was not educated enough to be anything more than a  garçon de bureau,  he was given this post, which he filled conscientiously. I understand that he suffered a sort of ennui, because he found it too sedentary;  his complexion changed; he became yellow and bloated;  We learned that he died, almost sudden, three days after having taken to his bed.
Félix Nogaret, Le commissionnaire , trait historique en vers. Reprinted in Contes en vers (1797), p.64 Google Books 

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.

The Convention, informed of this fact, in a time where virtue was not without influence in it, charged one of its committees to investigate and make a report.  After they investigated, they awarded this virtuous citizen a monetary reward and an honorable mention.  A theatre hurried to produce a play on the subject;  M Sedaine produced a play in verse, and public opinion honoured the Commissioner of Saint-Lazare with its approval and esteem. During this time he gave further proof of his virtuous generosity;  his brother had just died in the army, leaving three small children.  He adopted them as his own, although he already had four children himself.  He died shortly afterwards, leaving to the family no other legacy than love of work, and the virtue that makes it bear fruit. His wife, who became infirm, having acted as a doorkeeper in the same house for twenty years, asked for admission to one of the hospicies run by public charity in the capital; but she has not yet obtained this.One of his sons, dismissed in 1815 from the army, where he reached the rank of lieutenant...was obliged, in order to  survive, to establish a café in Vincennes; he lives happily as do all those who have memories of virtue. However,  the government ought  not to abandon him, nor his mother, now in her seventies.
Boissy d'Anglas Le Commissionnaire de Saint-Lazare (1825) NOTE.

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