Friday 19 January 2024

A little-known heroine of the Nancy Affair

It is a curious footnote to the story of Désilles to discover that a second person was credited with heroism the "Nancy Affair" - and that this was a woman, indeed a "woman of the people":  the wife of the Concierge at the Porte Stainville.  Here she is in Le Barbier's painting, serving the cause of peace by determinedly pouring a bucket of water over one of the cannons:

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Le Barbier's "Heroic courage of Désilles"

Le Barbier, Heroic courage of the young Désilles (1794) - detail

The making of an artist

The career of Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier is a revealing case study of  how professional artists made a living in late 18th century France - and of the strategies they employed to weather the storms of the Revolutionary years.

Monday 15 January 2024

André Désilles - forgotten Revolutionary hero

Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier (1738, Rouen - 1826, Paris)
Le Courage héroïque du jeune Désilles, le 30 août 1790, à l’affaire de Nancy
Huile sur toile
H. 317 ; L. 453 cm
Inv. 512
Dépôt par le Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nancy au Musée de la Révolution française, Vizille

This imposing canvas by Le Barbier, now on display in the Museum of the French Revolution in Vizille,  was once intended to hang in the hall of the National Assembly as a pendant to David's Tennis Court Oath. The scene which it depicts is an all but forgotten episode from the early Revolution, the heroic action of the young lieutenant, André Désilles, who sacrificed his life in an attempt to prevent bloodshed during Nancy mutiny of 1790.

As Jean-Clément Martin notes,  Desilles's heroism, like that of Bara and Viala,  excited great popular acclamation at the time, but his reputation was rapidly overtaken by the evolution of Revolutionary politics: 

The example of the chevalier Désilles gives pause for thought concerning such posthumous glory  In the Spring of 1790 the garrison in Nancy mutinied and rose up against its officers, but quickly capitulated to the marquis de Bouillé, who was charged by the Assembly with re-establishing order. However, a number of the mutineers threatened Bouillé's army with their cannons.  At this point a  young officer, Lieutenant Desilles placed himself in front of the cannons to prevent them from being fired and was mortally wounded.  The incident was followed by brutal repression: 22 men were hanged, one broken alive on the wheel, 41 condemned to the galleys in Brest.  Desilles attracted immediate  nationwide glory.  His action was popularised in engravings, sculptures and theatre productions; his name was given to streets throughout the country and his bust was crowned with oak leaves in the National Assembly.   Two years later,  following the flight to Varennes, Bouillé had become a  reviled counter-revolutionary. The rebels of Nancy were amnestied in September 1791 and rehabilitated in 1792. The Assembly welcomed the former galley slaves, who paraded through Paris in their red bonnets, whilst the memory of Desilles became odious to the Revolutionaries and was soon forgotten.  Adulated for a short time, then scorned - this would seem to be the fate of such heroes, tied in as they were with the vicissitudes of political events.
Jean-Clément Martin, "Bara, de l'imaginaire révolutionnaire à la mémoire nationale".  In : Révolution et Contre-Révolution en France de 1789 à 1989  (1996)

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