Monday, 3 October 2022

The monument to Bonchamps at Saint-Florent


My father was one of the five thousand prisonners in the church at Saint-Florent, for whom Bonchamps commanded pardon on the point of dying.  In executing this monument I wanted to repay, as far as I could, my father's debt of gratitude.
Note of David d'Angers on an engraving (quoted Jouin, David d'Angers, p.150-151)

Here are a few additional notes on David d'Angers's famous monument to Bonchamps in the Abbey church at Saint-Florent.

The Father

David d'Angers always maintained that he executed the monument in recognition of Bonchamps's humanity, as personally experienced by his father.  Pierre-Louis David (1756-1821) had been a successful decorative sculptor in Angers. He was an enthusiastic patriot and volunteered in the Republican army in 1793.  In a notice written in 1838, David recalled that his father was a daring soldier, who was often entrusted with dangerous missions.  Having been wounded and captured at the Battle of Torfou (19th September 1793), he found himself among the prisoners liberated at Saint-Florent on the orders of Bonchamps. He subsequently retired from active service to a post in army administration, but remained a lifelong ardent supporter of the Revolution, an allegiance which he handed on to his son.

It comes as some surprise to learn that David's father had taken the five-year old Pierre-Jean, the youngest of his four children, on campaign with him.  After the Battle of Saumur, the boy became separated from his father, and actually travelled for some time in the baggage of the Royalist army. He  was reunited with his father by chance at Saint-Florent.

The sculpture

On 20th July 1817 Louis XVIII gave permission for the erection of a monument to Bonchamps financed by public subscription.  In line with the Restoration policy of national reconciliation, the King laid down certain conditions;  the monument was to be set up inside church rather than on the public square, and was to be engraved with Bonchamps dying words, "Grâce aux prisonniers!"

In preparation, on 18th October 1817, the anniversary of his death,  Bonchamps remains were exhumed from the cemetery at Varades and taken with great ceremony across the Loire to a temporary resting place in the family church at La-Chapelle-Saint-Florent.  It was to be another eight years before they were finally brought to Saint-Florent.

 In August 1818 David obtained the commission for the statue from  Bonchamps's son-in-law,  the comte de Bouillé,   A committee, headed by the duc de Brissac, oversaw the work. The subscription, to which the Court contributed, raised 29,000 francs, of which the government supplied half.  As David later wrote to his friend, the writer Louis Pavie, he did not profit from the work; indeed, he scarcely covered his costs [Jouin, David d'Angers, p.152-3].

David submitted various projects, of which several preliminary sketches remain.
See: "Les dessins préparatoires au monument du général Bonchamps" (Resource for 2017 Exhibition at Cholet]

 Some versions featured an elaborate military "triumph" rather than an effigy.  The committee finally approved the classsical semi-recumbent (and semi-nude) figure of the general that we see today.  A proposed bas-relief was replaced by two allegorical figures of Religion and France.  The design was agreed in June 1819, but the work was not finally completed until 1824.  In preparation, David made a bust of Bonchamps's daughter, whom everyone agreed bore a striking likeness to her father.  Those knew him, later recognised his features in those of the statue.

The bas-relief which featured in David's initial projects, shows the scene of the pardon.  A column in the centre of the composition, represents the door of the church of Saint-Florent.  To the right the doomed Republican prisoners say their last farewells:  an old soldier, sits with his head in his hands, whilst the young man at his knees shields his eyes.  On the left, outside the door, the Vendean army is eager for vengeance.  A cannon is already trained on the door.  In the foreground Bonchamps, supported by the chevalier d'Andigné, raises his hand to command clemency. 

The architect associated with the project, David's friend Achille Leclerc, supervised the construction of the tomb and its placement in the Abbey church.  He planned extensive work to improve the elevation  and lighting, though it is not known to what extent this was carried out.  The statue was originally situated at the back of the sanctuary, where the main altar now stands, whilst the altar itself occupied a typically 18th-century position in middle of the choir. The monument was transferred to its present location in the north transept in 1890; there is a photo in the church which shows it just before it was moved. The tomb was extensively renovated in the 1960s: See: Recherche - POP (

Engraving showing the original position of the monument in the Choir  

At Saint-Florent in 1825

The formal inauguration of the monument took place on 11th July 1825.

In preparation, on the morning of 18th June 1825, Bonchamps's remains were transported to Saint-Florent-le-Vieil and formally sealed inside the base of the monument to await the arrival of the marble statue.

Despite his Republican sympathies, David himself was an honoured guest at the event.  He first made the journey from Paris to Angers where he was given a warm welcome; on his arrival and departure he was offered a serenade, which moved him greatly.   He stayed several days and was reunited with old friends.  With his former drawing master Jean-Jacques Delusse, he  made a sentimental pilgrimage to the tomb of his father (See Jouin, p. 153)

The completed statue left  Port Ayrault  in Angers on 25th July, and was transported by sailing boat along the Maine and Loire to Saint-Florent under the care of David's assistant Le Goupil.  David himself, Louis Pavie and their party followed in order to supervise the unloading and installation. 

The weather was fine and peaceful. In his later account, Louis Pavie describes how the belltower of the Abbey church came into view. On the opposite bank the friends were moved to catch a glimpse of the village of La Meilleraie where Bonchamps had died.  The party was welcomed by the comte de Bouillé and several of the general's close friends, and stayed with them as their guests.  David made excursions to the cottage in La Meilleraie, where he arranged to have a plaque erected, and to Bonchamps's château at La Baronnière. 
 It must have been during this time too that David met with manyveterans and sketched their portraits.

The ceremony which took place on 11th was a carefully orchestrated and heavily emotional affair.  The walls of the church were draped in black cloth and a tribune was erected. The abbé Joseph Gourdon, the curé of La Chapelle-du-Genet, and himself the son of a veteran, pronounced the funeral oration.  Besides the family, various dignitories attended  - the prefect of Maine et Loire, the Bishop of Angers, high ranking members of the local nobility.  But the occasion was dominated by the aging survivors of the Army of the Vendée, who stood "ranged in order of battle", with their sons lined up on the steps of the monument.

Postscript: David d'Anger in 1851 and 1855

In 2019 Jean-Clément Martin published an article by David on the war in the Vendée, which had appeared twenty-five years after the inauguration, in the Almanach du peuple for 1851.  The piece serves as a corrective to the idea that David intended the monument to Bonchamps as a symbol of national reconciliation.  David himself had always made it clear that, whilst he admired Bonchamps personally and felt sentimentally attached to the Vendée, his debt of gratitude was a purely personal one.  In the years after 1825, as the political situation in France polarised, David continued to be true to his Revolutionary convictions: in 1848 he was elected as a deputy for Maine-et-Loire to the Constituent Assembly, where he sat with the Republicans of the "Mountain",  then in 1851 he was forced into exile for his opposition to Napoleon III.  In his essay he follows the conclusions of writers like Michelet and Jaurès who insisted on the violence of the rebels in the Vendée, on the treachery of the local nobility and the duplicity of Counter-Revolutionary priests.  According to David, "the finest pages of this sombre history belong to the Republicans"  - whereas the Vendeans fought behind hedges, in their own country, the Revolutionaries had only their "indomitable courage" to fall back on. 

Jean-Clément Martin [blog], "David et la Vendée. De la difficulté des réconciliations nationales", post of 10.07.2019.  (

In 1855, the year before he died, David made a final journey along the Loire to see his statue for the last time.  It was a deeply sentimental moment of reflection.  Standing before the effigy of Bonchamps in the church at Saint-Florent, he pronounced himself content with the work: "After attempting to pay my debt, I wished to say my farewells before I died." [Journal de Maine-et-Loire, 9th January 1856)


Henry Jouin, David d'Angers: sa vie, son oeuvre, ses écrits et ses contemporains · Vol.1 (1878)
_______, ed. David d'Angers et ses relations littéraires:  correspondence  (1890) [On Google Books]

Victor Pierre, "La Révolution francaise, son histoire dans les monuments" Revue des questions historiques,  Vol.53 (1893), p.91-135; p.120. [On Google Books]

Clemenceau du Petit Moulin  [blog]: "David d'Angers et J-J Delusse à Saint-Florent en 1825", post of 23.07.2011  (

Jean-Clément Martin [blog], "David et la Vendée. De la difficulté des réconciliations nationales", post of 10.07.2019.  (

As usual I have managed to just miss a major exhibition:

 "Grâce aux prisonniers!" Bonchamps et David d’Angers, Lumières sur un chef d’œuvre.

The event was jointly organised by the Université Catholique de l'Ouest, and Les Anneaux de la Mémoire ,  an association based in Nantes which aims to promote historical understanding and "reconciliation" (initially with respect to the slave trade but now for the wars in the Vendée).  The exhibition opened at the Abbey in Saint-Florent in 2017, then moved on to Saint-Sébastien-sur-Loire in  2018, Cholet in 2019 and finally in Angers (Dec 2020-March 2021).  Among associated initiatives were lectures by Anne Rolland-Boulestreau, the chief curator of the exhibition, and by Jean-Clément Martin.

Press-release for the exhibition, by  Anne Rolland-Boulestreau: 
Photographs from the designers of the exhibition, Deveau Graphisme.

At Cholet and Angers also  David's preliminary sketches for the monument were also exhibited:
"Les dessins préparatoires au monument du général Bonchamps" 


David d'Angers on the life of his father

....There began the bitter conflict in the Vendée, that great episode in the Revolutionary drama.  The artist, who had now became a soldier, took part in almost all the battles; his energetic courage always drew him into the thick of the danger.

One day of battle, he was placed on guard over the church at Gonnord which was filled with Vendean prisoners.  Seeing that he was alone, they attempted to escape, but he fell on them with such force that his bayonet broke in the door as they hurriedly reclosed it.  They supposed him disarmed and tried to break out again; but, as he himself often recounted, when they saw him brandishing two pistols, his face enflamed with anger, animated with the determination of a man ready for anything, they withdrew, overcome by the fascination true courage always inspires.
Louis David was one of the five thousand prisoners, confined in the church at Saint-Florent, who owed their life to the political virtue and humanity expressed by the dying Bonchamps!

Kléber, who had seen my father's courage on more than one occasion, wanted to take him with him to the Army of the Rhine; but his sentiments as a family man spoke louder than his desire for military glory. He  had been wounded at Torfou and when he recovered he obtained a position in ordnance and recruitment. ..After the pacification of the Vendée, the sculptor returned to his workshop, poorer than when he had left, but without complaint, pleased to have  participated, in so far as as he was able, in the great drama of the Revolution. 
Pierre-Jean David, Notice sur Pierre-Louis David, dated 5th September 1839, p.294.
[This episode in Gonnord is difficult to place - Gonnord was the site of a notorious massacre by Republican troops in January 1794.]  
" Pierre-Louis David, père du sculpteur David d'Angers (1756-1821)", La Maraîchine Normande [blog],post of 18.12.2018.

When I accompanied my father on the battlefields of the Vendée, I was always  in delicate  health.  I was often ill.  One night, near the Haie-des-Hommes, Coron (19th September) the commander of my father's corps unwisely allowed his men to be caught in crossfire, which caused disorder in the ranks.  A carpenter was shot in the heel.  My father, who had the strength of Ajax, carried the wounded man on his back and, still firing, beat a retreat.  I was later entrusted to this friend of my father's, who abandoned me in a cowardly fashion on the road from Varrains, after the Battle of Saumur.  I was found, near the bridge, by some Vendean women, who took pity on me...I was carried around the Vendée  in the baggage train of General de La Rochejacquelein.  Perhaps I passed near Bara!  It was only at Saint-Florent that my father, one of the prisoners liberated by Bonchamps, rediscovered me by chance in the middle of the baggage. 
MS autograph notes, quoted in Jouin, David d'Angers (1878) p.7-8.

Louis Pavie's account of David's journey to Saint-Florent:

The Monument to Bonchamps was completed. There remained only to take it to its final destination. The boat embarked and I shared with my friend M. David the honour of watching over the precious cargo.  How happy we were to accompany the statue of this great man, who awoke the memory of so many virtues!

The beauty of the sky, the richness of the countryside, the majesty of the river, all elevated our thoughts, inviting an analogy with the pure and noble life of the Angevin Hero. What a contrast!  This pleasant countryside, which was once filled with cries of anger and the noise of war, was now peaceful, echoing only to the sounds of our oars. The wind picked up as we approached the end of our journey, and we soon sighted the bell-tower of Saint-Florent....
We arrived before La  Meilleraie; like some ghostly revenant, the statue of Bonchamps journeyed along the same river that the ill-fated general had crossed thirty-two years previously.  He had then been at the end of his glorious career; today he began his era of immortality.

As soon as they saw us, the people of Saint-Florent came to the riverbank, led by M. le Comte Arthur de Bouillé, who gave orders for the Monument's transport.  The crowd often hindered our progress, but we could not push aside these good Vendeans, who cried out fervently, "Let us see our friend!"

To satisfy our great impatience, M. de Bouillé took us to the church.  He showed us the long galleries of the monastery where  the five thousand prisoners had been crowded.....From the heights of the terrace, where the eye could follow the distant course of the Loire, M. de Bouillé pointed out a cottage with a little garden shaded by a few trees...It was there that Bonchamps had died!  We were eagar to visit it. 

What thoughts came to mind when we saw this shabby little house where the leader of so many brave men had died, almost alone... My friend seized his pencils, so as to take away with him the image of this place of memory.  He wanted more: an inscription, on white marble, over the door, to commemorate the mournful event:


Soon the house was full of Vendeans who had been present at the fatal moment.  Exclamations escaped their lips at intervals:  "It was there that he lay"; "We stood around him thus"; "I promised him to keep my faith, and I have done so"; "I gave him my belt to stop his wound from bleeding"; "It was in my arms that he died"....  They could not say more; great tears flowed down their rugged cheeks.  M. de Bouillé shared their emotion.  My friend and I were so moved that we felt we too were Vendeans.

M. de Bouillé got up and we followed him in silence.  As we passed the cemetery in Saint-Florent, he said: "Cathelineau is buried here, M. David; I hope that one day his tomb may be sought out and found."

We arrived at Chapelle-Saint-Florent where we  met the venerable M. Courgeon, the worthy priest of this parish. 

I admit that when I was seated at the same table as the widow, daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and confessor of the Vendean General, I felt saddened.... After the meal, which displayed all the charms of Vendean hospitality, a walk was proposed.  "Let us go to La Baronnière", said M. de Bouillé, and the curé seconded him.  Turning to M. David and me, he explained that this was M. de Bonchamps's estate which his widow had been forced to sell in order to pay off their debts.

We missed nothing on this interesting excursion.  While our artist sketched the pavilion, which was all that remained of the château,  M. le curé told us about M. de Bonchamps - his unfailing courage, his profound military knowledge and above all his consistent humanity.

"Was it you", I asked him, "who closed his eyes?" "No", he replied, profoundly moved:  "he called me in his last moments;  I heard his confession and administered the last rites.  He drew me to his heart and asked me to recite the prayers for the dying....But soon I did not have the strength to continue.  I asked the  priest who was with me me to continue, and went out.  M. Bonchamps died shortly afterwards..."

On our return to Saint-Florent, the bells announced the arrival of the Monument in the sanctuary.  The vault was filled with the noise of workmen and their tools.  M. de Bouillé rushed everywhere, overseeing and directing the operation.  Finally the statue was in place.  The crowd rushed to view it, eager to see once more those beloved features.  The former companions-in-arms of Bonchamps  stopped short, amazed.  They believed they could still hear him cry:

Grâce aux prisonniers; grâce!   Bonchamps l'ordonne!

Everywhere in this place of God, love for the hero, and admiration for the genius who had created his likeness, inspired in the onlookers a sort of reverence.  Only M. David himself remained calm; one thought preoccupied him -the fear that he had not done justice to his subject.

They threw a cloth over the Monument, to await the solemn ceremony of consecration.
Louis Pavie, Voyage à Saint-Florent et La Chapelle, le vingt-cinq juin 1825

The ceremony

The young Victor Pavie, the son of David's friend, was also present at the inauguration ceremony.
The statue of Bonchamps was solemnly inaugurated in the Abbey church in the presence of his widow, his daughter, son-in-law and grandson, to the sound of arms from Fontenay and Torfou, to the drum roll that had beaten in the amnesty.  The impression was immense.  I have never forgotten the sight of those veterans, ruined by time and war, lined up in order of battle and passed in review by the ghost of their leader; their sons were lined up on the steps of the monument.  Above, the  statue, in its whiteness, cast a protective wing over young and old, living and dead.
Victor Pavie, Bonchamps et sa statue (1846), p.12 [On Google Books]

David in Saint-Florent, 1855.

Saint-Florent, on the banks of the Loire, 14th August 1855:
I have just visited the monument to Bonchamps.  I came to pay him my final farewell.  I relived my feelings on the day of the inauguration, when I saw, on the steps of the monument, those little children; and in two ranks, inside the church, their fathers, armed with ancient rusting guns. And then I thought of my father, one of the prisoners who had been saved by Bonchamps.
From the notebooks of David [Carnets, vol. 2, p.448]

In October [?] 1855, David had wanted to see again Saint-Florent and the chef-d'oeuvre that he had left in 1825 and not revisited since.  Saint-Florent, he said, always reminded him of the abbé Gourdon as he pronounced from the heights of the most beautiful place in Anjou, the eulogy of the best of the Vendeans. It was the very greatest piece of eloquence.  I am not discontent with my work, he add with a smile, I believe that I have succeeded not at all badly in my statue; but that is not really surprising:  my model was the sort of hero I love, as generous as he was brave. I was young and, as you know, my father was among the prisoners saved by Bonchamps.  After attempting to pay my debt, I wanted to say farewell to him before I died
Unsigned article from the Journal de Maine-et-Loire, 9th January 1856, cited Jouin, David d'Anger, p.151.

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