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."
Portraits also feature prominently, sometimes paired with Viala, or grouped with the established "Martyrs of the Republic", Marat, Lepelletier and Chalier. The military context is emphasised by Bara's hussar uniform, often with an elaborate and fanciful shako. (In the very widely distributed print by Alix after Garneray, the motto LIBERTÉ OU LA MORT runs round the rim). Bara also begins to be depicted, quite spuriously, as a drummer-boy, a stereotyped image of youth and innocence.
| Engraving after Garneray, 1794 - detail |
The Bara of David
After the conventional realism of the popular prints, David's Bara seems to belong to a different world. The work still puzzles its viewers and art historians disagree in their interpretations. By what weird creative process was Desmarres's soldier-boy metamorphosised to this awkwardly posed naked and androgynous youth?
Notice for David's Bara, Musée Calvet, Avignon.
The cancellation of the festival of 10 Thermidor wrenched the painting from its intended setting, so there are comparatively few contemporary references to guide us:
- It was in the session of the Convention of 28th December that David was charged with organising the ceremony to accompany the transfer of Bara's remains to the Pantheon. Barrère proposed that Bara's image should be "traced by the brushes of the famous David" and engraved for distribution to the primary schools of France. This does not help much - did David really think that a naked figure was suitable to edify schoolchildren?
- According to Jules David, David sketched the work out on canvas immediately after he left the session of 28th December. (J-L. David, Souvenirs et documents inédits, 1880, p.208). This suggests that the basic composition came to him easily.
- In his report of 11 Messidor on the upcoming festival, David describes the moment of Bara's death: "the heroic child, replies Vive la République to the Vendean brigands and falls mortally wounded, pierced by blows, pressing against his heart the tricolour cockade" . As Jean-Clément Martin notes, this does not really correspond to the scene painted, in which a naked youth takes centre stage. The elements of the historical narrative are still present but in residual form. The dying Bara clutches to his breast a cockade and a piece of paper (his orders, a letter to his mother?). His attackers can also just be seen riding off with their flag at the far left margin of the canvas. (Jean-Clément Martin observes that this important detail is/was largely hidden by the frame in the musée Calvet).
- For the festival on 10 Thermidor the painting was probably intended to hang as a banner in the public space in front of the Pantheon. This would have dictated the large size canvas (119cm x 156 cm), and the need for a well-defined image. [See Weston, p.243 citing the research of the art historian Régis Michel].
- On 9 and 10 Thermidor David pleaded illness and took to his bed to avoid the political crisis; we therefore cannot know if he intended further last-minute work on his painting before the festival.
- After Thermidor, the painting disappeared from view and seems to have been largely forgotten. It remained in David's possession, until 1805 in his studio in the Louvre. During David's imprisonment in October 1796 Étienne Delécluze recalled seeing a forlorn group of canvasses abandoned in the studio, including "a charming sketch of a nude boy, dying with the tricolour pressed to his breast..." Delécluze, with telling vagueness, identified the subject as Viala. [Étienne-Jean Delécluze, Louis David, son école et son temps: souvenirs (1855), p.17-18; on Internet Archive] (Following David's death in 1825, the picture entered the collection first of the comte de Pourtalès, and subsequently that of Horace Vernet, who in 1846 donated it to the Fondation Calvet in Avignon. Today it is on display in the Musée Calvet.)
- David assiduously compiled catalogues of his works, but he never included the Bara, possibly because he considered it unfinished.
- The entry for the Bara in the catalogue for the auction of David's estate on 17th April 1826 emphasises the "painterly" aspects of the composition:Lot 11: The death of the young Barra, sketch. This study of a nude conveys an admirable form, the head full of expression; it arouses the interest inspired by the grace and charms of youth at their last moments. The rest of the picture is only a rough finish.
- In contrast, the catalogue published by Jules David in 1880, concentrates entirely on the supposed mise-en-scene; it is even suggested that the naked Bara has been striped by his assailants, a common 19th-century rationalisation.At the foot of a mound covered in brushwood, Barra, a drummer boy in the Republican army, lies dying. The brigands who have assassinated him and stolen his clothes disappear in the distance. He lifts his dying head and presses against his heart a tricolour cockade and the orders with which he has been entrusted...J. L.David, Le peintre Louis David, 1748-1825 (1880), p.640. [On Internet Archive]
Is the painting finished?
This question was debated in the catalogue which accompanied an exhibition of the work in Avignon in 1989. Régis Michel argued that it was indeed finished - after all, David had had over seven months to work on it; others of his paintings, notably the Marat, have very simple backgrounds. Antoine Schnapper disagreed: the impressionistic, stippled effect is not a final state and would have made the painting difficult to copy. Taking into account contemporary descriptions and comparing the copy at Vizille, an unfinished condition seems most likely. However, the figure of Bara is substantially complete.
In his essay in the same collection, Jean-Clément Martin notes that David had already abandoned other political commissions where his subject had been overtaken by events - the Tennis Court Oath; also the lesser known, "Allegory of the Revolution in Nantes" begun in 1990. See: Nouvelle acquisition : L'Allégorie de la Révolution à Nantes, 1790 - Loire-Atlantique / Foxoo
DAVID THE ARTIST
David's image is perhaps most readily understood by reference to contemporary aesthetic theory. Art historians note that David was highly constrained by Robespierre's conception of Bara as a perfect embodiment of Republican virtue:
- It is a truism of Classical art theory that the outward sign of virtue is physical beauty. In this context it was "almost a given" that Bara should be depicted nude. Winckelmann had expanded on the supreme grace and serenity of the "ephebe", who is neither child nor yet man, neither truly male nor female. Such a figure had recently been depicted in Girodet's Sleep of Endymion of 1791, a painting which David greatly admired.
- The attempt to situate Bara in an eternal history accounts for the lack of circumstantial detail in the painting. Jean-Clément Martin suggests David may left it unfinished because he found it too difficult to reconcile the demands of narrative propaganda with his painterly vision.
- As with the Bara of Robespierre, David's Bara is wholly passive. Thomas Crow sees this tendency as the corollary of Robespierre's desire to replace anarchic revolutionary violence with state-sponsored conformity to an ideal: "A simple rule would seem to apply in understand the development of David's art under the Revolution: the more coercive and conformist the political moment, the more abstractly beatific the image had to be." Already in David's Marat, there was no sign of the real life Marat's infatuation with violence; in the Bara, "the disparity between a pacific image and a violent reality reached its maximum extent" (Crow, p.183).
- A certain parallel with Christian iconography is almost inescapable. Bara is not yet dead, but "at his last breath". He is free from almost all earthly attachments. Agonised but resigned, his expression suggests the Martyr's happiness even in suffering and death.
- To modern eyes, there are ambiguities in the sexual message of David's picture. There seems little doubt that David himself intended to convey sexual innocence - hence the awkwardly concealed genitals. However, the twisted body readily lends itself to erotic and homoerotic readings. The figure of Bara also has a certain femininity - prominent hip, pouting mouth and long hair (at a time when recruits to the new Jacobin École Militaire were compelled to have their locks shorn). The image reflects the sensibilities of the closed, masculine world of David's studio.
- David d'Angers in his sculpture of 1838 already gives the maestro's image a more realistic, less erotically charged, interpretation. Bara lies naked, but modestly draped with the remnants of his stolen clothing.
|"Barra", 1838. Galerie David d'Angers|
|Bara by Jean-Joseph Weerts|
Under the Third Republic, the death of Bara gained new prominence, in part to counterbalance Royalist accusations of Revolutionary atrocities in the Vendée. Bara was part of the project of Jules Ferry who advocated a pedagogy that "went straight to the heart" and rejected all that "is base and vile". The little drummer boy became a role model for children mobilised in school battalions; freed from the rivalries of the Terror, Bara was the hero par excellence of Republican youth.
Other prominent portraits are those by Charles Moreau-Vauthier, purchased by the state from the Salon of 1880, and Jean-Jacques Henner (Salon of 1882; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Orléans) In Henner's picture, although Bara is depicted naked, he is clearly simply a corpse, stripped of his uniform and abandoned beside a hedge or a wood by his murderers.
It is the realism of the portrait by Moreau-Vauthier in the Historial de la Vendée, which is perhaps the most moving. Despite the beautiful uniform, the image is emptied of heroism: Bara ...is a little boy, sprawled out pathetically, alone, helpless and....so very dead.
Pascal Dupuy "La mort de Bara", Histoire par l'image
Helen Weston,“Jacques-Louis David’s ‘La Mort de Joseph Bara’: A Tale of Revolutionary Myths and Modern Fantasies", Paragraph 19, no. 3 (1996): 234–50. [On JStor]
Thomas Crow, Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France (Yales U.P, 1995) p.174-88.
The catalogue for the 1989 exhibition in Avignon is long out of print. Jean-Clément Martin's article is reedited as "Bara, de l'imaginaire révolutionnaire à la mémoire nationale". In : Révolution et Contre-Révolution en France de 1789 à 1989 (1996) https://books.openedition.org/pur/17398.