Tuesday 28 February 2023

The drummer boy Pierre Bayle

How can one lack strength, replied the young hero, 
when one may usefully serve one's country?

Unlike other child heroes of the First Republic, the drummer boy Pierre Bayle had to wait over two hundred years to be remembered.  It was only in 2006 that he was formally recognised as "the youngest combatant to die in battle since the formation of the French Republic" (a sad epithet that...). 

The case provides an  interesting insight into the dynamics of commemoration in modern France.  

Wednesday 22 February 2023

More juvenile heroes - Mermet


To 19th-century French schoolchildren the death of 16-year-old Jean-Baptiste Mermet alongside his father in the Vendée in 1794 was a familiar episode. It was notably popularised by the educationalist Étienne Charavay in his 1882 book Enfants de la République, where Mermet features alongside Bara, Viala and the Tambour Stroh in the roll of patriotic juvenile heroes.  Charavay and his readers prized Mermet particularly as an example of filial devotion. (According to a study by François Wartelle, youthful displays of aggression were beginning to fall from favour by the 1890s; in 1895 Ernest Lavisse was to drop Stroh from his primary school manual).

In reality, as usual, almost nothing is known for certain about the young man or the circumstances of his death.

Sunday 19 February 2023

More juvenile heroes - Derudder

"Le Jeune Darrudder", 1793. Engraving by Charles-Melchior Descourtis after Joseph Swebach Desfontaines 

"The action of the young Darrudder, aged 14, is a example of bravery and a display of filial piety. During the affair of Fougere [sic], he saw his father killed at his side, snatched his pistol from his belt, fired on the murderer, blew his brains out, then continued to beat the charge against the brigands until they were completely routed. This worthy follower of Vialas and Baras is offered as a model to the pupils of the École de Mars, by the Representatives of the People who admitted him to this school and bestowed on him a fraternal accolade in the midst of applause and great shows of joy."

As Jean-Clément Martin has remarked, without this fine engraving after the artist Joseph Swebach Desfontaines, the existence of "the Young Darrudder" (more properly "Derudder"), like that of so many who fought in the Vendée, would now be entirely forgotten.  His fate is also sometimes briefly recalled due to the warm response he elicited from Robespierre, which prefigured the latter's much more decisive intervention on behalf of Joseph Bara (see my previous post of  01/02/2023).

Thursday 16 February 2023

The Drummer Boy of Wattignies

"You are too small," said the sergeant to little Stroh, who had just enlisted under his country's colours.

The lad gave him the memorable reply:  "I will grow up fighting".

 According to legend "Tambour Stroh" or "Sthrau" was a young hero of the war on the Belgian frontier, killed at Dourlers on 15th October 1793 on the day preceding the French victory at Wattignies.  He is remembered today chiefly through two monuments by the 19th-century sculptor Léon Fagel,  a relief on the Wattignies monument in Maubeuge (1893) and a sculpture erected in the commune of Avesnes-sur-Helpe in 1905.

"Le Petit Tambour De Wattignies" illustration by Onfray de Bréville ("JOB") for Jean Richepin's book of patriotic poems for children Allons, enfants de la patrie (1920) 

For over half a century story of the "Tambour Stroh"  was the preserve of local folklore and soldiers' tales.  His existence rested on little more than an incoherent oral tradition and a half-remembered name.   He was mentioned in print for the first time only in 1850, in a local history by Zéphir Píerart,  to be followed, briefly but influentially, in 1853 by Michelet in volume 13 of  his history of the Revolution. Despite the lack of information, under the Third Republic his patriotic exploits passed into children's books: Étienne Charavay felt confident enough to include him with Bara and Viala in his Enfants de la République in 1882; and in 1888 the novelist Sixte Delorme produced a fictionalised account for young readers - quite a best seller if the number of copies available on ebay is anything to go by.

 In the 1890s  a concerted research effort was made in preparation for the inauguration of the memorial at Avesnes, which took place with considerable pomp in 1905 in the presence of the War Minister Bertaux.  A coherent narrative was pieced together for the occasion but in reality the exploits of "the Tambour Stroh" remained (and still remain) very uncertain. 

Wednesday 15 February 2023

Viala(?) by Prud'hon(?)

Depictions of the boy-hero Viala are rare in art. This striking image, attributed to Pierre-Paul Prud'hon,  would  seem to owe more to  David's visions of the Revolutionary martyr than to later 19th-century realism. But is it really by Prud'hon and, more questionable still, does it really represent the feisty child-hero of Year II?

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, "Death of Viala", Musée des Beaux-arts, Lyon.

Image on Wikimedia:  Supplied by user "Rama" as one of a set of accredited photographs from the Musée des Beaux-arts in Lyon.  
Paintings department, accession number 1966-13.  
Donated by the heirs of Emile Labeyrie in 1966. 
Taken on 27th April 2011.

The painting is from the collections of the Musée des Beaux-arts in Lyon. It pops up frequently on the internet, but almost all the images derive from a single photograph on Wikipedia / Wikimedia, taken in April 2011. The photographer, "Rama" kindly sent me an email to confirm that the work is indeed (or was) on display in the museum and that their annotation was taken from the museum label.  It is an oil painting; no dimensions are given.

I had some trouble finding further references. The picture is not included in either the museum's online catalogue or in the accessible extract from the Catalogue raisonné for the collection, published in 2014.  It is a  comparatively recent acquisition, given by the heirs of the politician Émile Labeyrie in 1966, with no earlier provenance available.  There are entries on the various commercial sites selling reproductions or digital images, but these add no new facts.  

Sunday 12 February 2023

Agricol Viala


"Joseph Agricole Vialla", 1793. Engraving by Charles-Melchior Descourtis after Joseph Swebach Desfontaines 

In February 1794 Joseph Bara was belatedly compelled to share the laurels of the Republic with a second, even more obscure, "child martyr", the splendidly-named Joseph-Agricol Viala.  

This Republican of thirteen years - even younger than Bara - had been killed in Avignon seven months previously attempting to cut the cable of a ferry that Federalist troops needed to cross the River Durance and take the town.  

Wednesday 8 February 2023

An encounter with David's "Bara"

An interesting perspective on David's Death of Bara was provided by the exhibition of the painting  held in  Avignon in 1989 as part of the bicentenary commemorations. Jean-Clément Martin described his reactions in an essay of 1990, updated for his 2012 book La machine à fantasmes.


EXHIBITION:  La mort de Bara.  De l'évenement au mythe.  Autour du tableau de Jacques-Louis David.  At Avignon, 18th January to 15 March 1989.  

J.-C.M. remarks that he remembered illustrations of Bara from his earliest schoolbooks and was confident and well-informed about the historical figure.  The exhibition was not held in the Musée Calvet, where David's picture is normally display,  but in the former Jesuit chapel in the rue de la République, now a Lapidary Museum.  Despite the busy main street outside, the church, with its Baroque facade, was an effective venue; the atmosphere of a silent grandeur encouraged a mood of contemplation and reflection. (The effect was only slightly marred by the prominence of an expanse of red netting under the roof.)

David's painting took central stage, enthroned in the middle of the chapel, on what was once the site of the altar.  Although he was very familiar with the image, Jean-Clément found himself taken by surprise:

Monday 6 February 2023

Joseph Bara [cont.]


Early representations of Bara

The Spring of 1794 saw a veritable outpouring of prints and engravings on the subject of  Bara.  Among the prints from Year II are a number of ambitious narrative scenes, which recreated the specific circumstances of his death in as much detail as possible.  Of necessity, they rely on the testimony of Desmarres: the feisty soldier-boy  is depicted standing; he resists the bayonets of the rebel band which surrounds him. As well as his youth and virtue, the accompanying captions emphasise his martial qualities.  They usually repeat the dying words furnished by Robespierre,  although Desmarres's more robust version can sometimes be found.  Homage is also invariably paid to his support of his mother, a conventional virtuous act by the good Republican soldier. No-one seemed quite sure how old Bara really was - some versions (as the one below) have him as young as eleven.

"Death of the Young Barat" - anonymous print of 1794.

"This young Republican was surprised by Rebels. When called upon to cry "Long live the King", he replied only  "Long live the Republic!" and was stabbed multiple times by the brigands. This child of eleven, provided for his mother from his wages, and subsisted himself only on bread.
The Assembly, when it heard this reported, accorded him the honours of the Pantheon.

Drawn and engraved by Philibert-Louis Debucourt, Paris, year II.

"Dedicated to Young Frenchmen
The entire army witnessed with astonishment Joseph Barra, equipped as a hussar, scarcely thirteen years of age, confront danger everyday, at the head of the cavalry; it once saw this young hero throw to the ground and take prisoner two brigands who had dared to attack him.  This generous child, surrounded by rebels, preferred to perish rather than surrender, and relinquish the two horses that he was leading. 

During the entire time that he had served in the armies of the Republic, he spent money only on absolute necessities, and sent to his large and indigent family all that he could save."  

Wednesday 1 February 2023

Joseph Bara - Republican hero


Aquatint by Angélique Briceau, c.1794  
British Museum collections

The heroic death of the soldier-boy Joseph Bara has long been a familiar part of French Revolutionary tradition.  His story was particularly promoted during the Third Republic, when his image featured in the salles d'honneurs of regiments,  and he was the subject of numerous official statues, poems, plays and paintings.   Jean-Joseph Weerts's huge canvas, La Mort de Bara,  commissioned by the state in 1880, adorned a salon in the Élysée Palace during the Universal Exposition of 1889.  In schoolbooks "Bara's drum" was part of Republican collective memory for many decades, right down to the 1960s and '70s.  

Even today, Bara is still celebrated, at least in his native town of Palaiseau where in 1979 his name was given to the local school. As recently as September 2008, the Souvenir Chouan de Bretagne was moved to send a letter of protest to Palaiseau on the occasion of an exhibition of comic-book images: [Il était une fois Joseph Bara en BD]

The life and death of Joseph Bara

The legend of Bara is untrammelled by much in the way of biographical details.  The archives record only two events from his short life. The first is his birth, in Palaiseau on 30th July 1779,  the third son of François Bara, a gamekeeper on the local estate, and his wife Marie Anne Leroy (Bara was the ninth of their ten children; his younger brother is described as an invalid). The boy is recorded as having been born at the château. The second is his death, recounted in a letter to the National Convention dated 8th December 1793, from General Demarres, his commanding officer in the Vendée.  Between these two dates almost nothing is known. 

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