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.

Le Barbier's was a success story, of a provincial made good in the elitist and competitive world of Parisian fine art.  He was born in the parish of  Saint-Maclou in Rouen in 1738, into a family of "limited means"(according to Wikipedia). He studied at the School of Fine Art  founded in Rouen in 1741 by Jean-Baptiste Descamps, carrying off two first prizes. From there, he moved to Paris in 1758, where worked for the fashionable engraver Lebas, then joined the atelier of the Premier peintre du Roi, Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre at the School of the Royal Academy of Painting.  In 1767-68 he found the resources to make the virtually obligatory trip to Rome.  1776 saw a prestigious official commission when he journeyed to Switzerland to prepare illustrations for the government-sponsored Tableau de la Suisse.   . In 1780, he was made an associate member of the Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture, becoming a full member in 1785.   His reception piece as a history painter was a finely executed but conventionally conceived Jupiter asleep on Mount Ida.

Le Barbier, Jupiter asleep on Mount Ida, 1785

Le Barbier was to exhibit annually at the Salon from 1789 to 1799, "with the exception of only one year" (1793, I would guess) and produced a whole series of ambitious large-scale oil paintings, mostly of Classical or French historical subjects.  Although he was consistently admired for his draughtsmanship, his paintings were not generally well-received by contemporary and later 19th-century critics.  Today, however, they command very high prices at auction: in 2021 his Magnanimity of Lycyrgus changed hands for over a million US dollars.

Le Barbier has also recently become the subject of renewed scholarly attention. A catalogue raisonné of his work was published by the late Michel Jacq-Hergoualc'h in 2014.  As this reveals, Le Barbier's many paintings were only a relatively small part of his artistic activity, for he undertook paid work of all kinds, particularly designs for engravings and book illustrations:

During his long life Le Barbier produced nearly a hundred paintings, pragmatically conforming to the mode of his time, as much by his subjects as through his style. He produced many drawings in a great variety of techniques : lead pencil, sanguine, pen and ink, wash, and watercolor. Another major part of his activity was devoted to the production of vignettes (there are hundreds) for the illustration of more than sixty luxurious volumes. They provided work for over a hundred engravers during his lifetime. Some of these paintings or highly finished drawings, often known to the public since they had been exhibited at the very official Salons du Louvre, were also engraved and the prints thus produced were widely diffused. [Abstract of an article by Jacq-Hergoualc'h in Revue de l Art, 2012]

In the decade preceding the Revolution, Le Barbier turned his talents to contemporary events in a series of illustrations for Hilliard d'Auberteuil's Essais historiques et politiques sur les Anglo-Américains (1781-82) and also in designs for a collection of engravings on American themes by François Godefroy and Nicolas Ponce. In a study published in 1989, Edith Standen of the Metropolitan Museum suggests that the subjects chosen reflected something of the artist's personal outlook. He eschewed the direct depictions of violence but  preferred scenes of  intense emotion, for instance  Dr Warren's death at Bunker Hill, "the work of arbitrary power", or General Richard Montgomery killed in 1775 and honorably buried by his opponents.  In the Salon of 1781 he exhibited a portrait of a Canadian native and his wife on the tomb of their child, an intensely sentimental subject taken from Raynal.  Finally, in 1786 Le Barbier received a royal commission to design a series of tapestries to be offered to Washington representing the four parts of the world.  His "America" is a floridly patriotic allegory, emphasising Frances contribution to the war for liberty.  Also among his unpublished drawings is an image of Minerva holding the head of Rousseau which confirms the admiration for Rousseau which he shared with so many of his contemporaries.  (See Standen, "Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier and Two Revolutions.” Metropolitan Museum Journal, 1989, vol. 24: p. 255–74.)

America, tapestry designed by Le Barbier, Metropolitan Museum

We catch a final glimpse of Le Barbier before the Revolution in 1788, when he attended a splendid ceremonial inauguration of one of his paintings in Beauvais. The canvas in question, depicting the Beauvais 15th-century heroine Jeanne Hachette, had been bought by Louis XVI at the Salon of 1781 and was now donated by the King to the town.  An account of the ceremony appeared in the Journal de Paris on 5th February 1789, only a day before the convocation of the Estates-General was formally announced. (The painting survived the Revolution, only to be destroyed in 1941).

See P. Bordeaux, "Don par le Roi Louis XVI aux habitants de Beauvais d'un tableau", Mémoires de la Société académique d'archéologie, sciences et arts du département de l'Oise, 1907, p.103-118.

Le Barbier's final commission before the Revolution was to be the painted ceiling of the temporary hall in Versailles where the Estates-General was scheduled to meet.

Le Barbier in Revolution 

In 1789, then, Le Barbier had already turned fifty, an Academician  and "Peintre du roi".   At the outset, at least, he seems to have been an active partisan of Revolutionary change. He was a member of the Commune and in September 1791 he  is listed among the Paris electors to the Legislative Assembly. He was also chosen, along with David, to assist in the "regeneration" of the Royal Academy of Painting. To the Salon of 1789, in which Hubert Robert exhibited his painting of the Bastille,  he contributed a portrait of Henri Dubois, the grenadier who had been the first to enter the fortress and plant the flag on its tower.  A news item in the Observateur for August 12th 1789 reveals that he had expressly defied the comte d'Angiviller who had  forbidden him, on behalf of the King, to exhibit the work. (see Standen, p.266).  

A more felicitous and enduring contribution to Revolutionary iconography - and one perhaps more in tune with his personal convictions - was his famous, and oft reproduced, image of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizens engraved  on stone tablets like the Laws of Moses:

Barbier's Désilles 

The exact origins of Le Barbier's interest in Désilles and the events in Nancy are uncertain.  Perhaps the artist himself chose the subject: certainly he dedicated himself over several years to bringing the project to successful completion.  Désilles's heroism represented a suitably dramatic theme for his talents and, in all likelihood, chimed with his own commitment to Revolutionary reconciliation and the rule of law.

Here is what is known of the painting's genesis:

Preliminary studies
On  26th October 1790,  ten day after Désilles's death, the Municipality of Nancy welcomed Le Barbier of the Paris Academy, who had been "charged with retracing the heroic action of Désilles" (Badel, Les caveaux de la cathédrale de Nancy (1911), p. 46).   An archival register confirmed that he had come "to make a plan of the site where the action of M. Désilles took place and to transmit it to posterity by an engraving", Archives de Nancy, ed.Henri LePage (1865, p.119)

 The wording suggests Le Barbier already had an official commission of some sort, possibly for an initial engraving.  The trip is confirmed by several other reference.  The accuracy of Le Barbier's depiction of Nancy particularly the architecture of the Gate, is generally acknowedged and is clearly the result of personal observation.

An isolated and intriguing reference: On the occasion of the Festival of Liberty in honour of the Suisse, Mme. Rosalie Ducrolay Jullien reported to her husband that she had spoken to the artist, who  revealed "astonishing information" concerning the Nancy affair that he had learned from Désilles's father and mother. (Letter of 16th April 1792 in Journal d'une bourgeoise (1881)  p.68).

Le Barbier at first hoped to fund his project with a subscription to an engraving.  In December 1790 he submitted his preliminary studies to the Assembly and the engravers secured permission to dedicate their work to the "Representatives of the French  People".  A part of the proceeds from the sales was promised to the widows and orphans of the Nancy affair.   Philippe Bordes notes that subscriptions to engravings were launched concurrently in the Jacobin Club for Le Barbier's picture and David's Tennis Court Oath (Bordes, Le Serment du Jeu de paume (1983), p.50-51).

The British Library preserves a  Prospectus, dated 20th December, for an engraving after Le Barbier by Pierre Laurent: 
"...a society has chosen M. Le Barbier the elder, painter to the King, who has journeyed to Nancy to draw the view of the place where this young officer gave such a great example of courage.  He has consulted several soldiers who witnessed the action, and has neglected nothing to represent it with exactitude and fidelity." (quoted, Bordes, note 112, p. 103). 
Subscribers were charged an immediate down payment of 24 livres; 30 livres on receipt.

A second engraving, by Laurent Joseph Julien ("Julien le neveu") also enjoyed official status and, since it shows a very similar scene, was possibly again sanctioned by Le Barbier.

In contrast to David's venture, which was not a success, the engravings after Le Barbier were widely diffused, with examples in many collections. The popularity of the subject is attested by the existence of numerous  copies  - four directly after Laurent (Pupil, A5-A8) and a dozen others with obvious borrowings. There seems, however, to have been some delay in marketing Laurent's work.  It was not until  17th April 1792, that is after the triumph of the Swiss, that the Assembly accepted a presentation copy of the engraving.  On 27th April 1792 the Courrier des 83 departements confirmed that the work was finished and available for sale chez Laurent and at all print shops. (See Pupil p.83.)

There are two extant versions of Le Barbier's preliminary drawings, one in the Carnavalet and the other, in brown wash and chalk, formerly in the Musée Lorrain, now temporarily in the Louvre collections [Pupil, Catalogue iconographique (1976), A1 and A2]

Death of the chevalier Dessilles at the porte de Stainville in Nancy [Pupil, A2]

He also designed a more fanciful print,  published in December 1791 [E5], which shows Désilles received by Henri IV in the Elysian fields.

Desilles is presented par Minerva to Henri IV "aux Champs Elisées", engraving by Romain Girard after a design by Le Barbier.

The "apotheosis" of Désilles
In January 1791 Le Barbier was presented with the opportunity for a more elaborate piece of self promotion.   Désilles's host on the Place Royale,chanced to be a young artist from Saint-Domingue named Mulnier - in all probability the miniaturist Jean-Baptiste-Ferdinand Mulnier (1757-1836).
The latter had taken a death mask of Désilles with the the idea of creating a portrait bust and offering it to the Assembly.  When he was obliged to return the colonies, Le Barbier took over the project and made himself responsible for the production and marketing of the bust.  

On  29th January 1791, at the request of the two artists, Gouy d'Arcy, the deputy for Saint-Domingue, made the planned presentation to the Assembly.  No doubt Le Barbier himself orchestrated the ceremony, which was an elaborate affair.  No less than 600 National Guards from the Battalion of Montmartre, where Le Barbier lived, processed to Assembly hall to the sound of drum rolls and military music composed especially for the occasion. The bust, adorned with Desilles's cross of Saint-Louis, was borne into the session on a raft of sabers.  Gouy d'Arcy gave a fulsome address in which he eulogised both artists.  The Assembly then voted a civic crown to Désilles; the bust was deposited on the secretaries' bureau and Le Barbier himself  placed the laurel wreath on its head.  

It was on this occasion that it was agreed, on the proposal of Le Camus, that Desilles  should be invited  to execute a full scale version of his composition at the expense of the nation, to act as a pendant to David's Oath of the Tennis Court. In this way the Assembly would emulated the King who had previously funded two pictures every two year to encourage the arts.  A submission of accounts in June confirms that Le Barbier had been awarded the sum of 2,800 livres.

Philippe Bordes (p.37) remarks on Le Barbier's financial savviness: not only was his co-operation with the engravers successful, but he managed to secure the expenses for his painting well before David, who did not receive funds for the Serment until 28th September 1791.

Even by the time of his official commission in January 1791, Le Barbier must have be  well-aware that  the political status of his subject was equivocal.  Advisedly, he did not make his completed canvas public until after the fall of Robespierre.  In October 1794 he was paid 1,800 livres for the finished work.  At a meeting on December 7th the Conservatoire, the governing body of the newly formed Palais National des Arts,  announced the purchase and two days later the picture was ordered to be put on exhibition.  It was shown at the Salon of 1795 (no.303).  The catalogue gave no description of its subject, but merely stated "This event from recent history  is so well known that it was thought unnecessary to give the details".  This reticence is has been taken to reflect the equivocal status of  Désilles's heroism in 1795, though this is only an inference.   We learn that the picture was not well received by the critics although La Barbier was awarded "a prize of encouragement" (Pupil, p.95)

Le Jeune Désilles a l'affaire de Nancy : le 31 aoust 1790.  Engraved by Pierre Laurent after Le Barbier.

The finished painting has several differences from the engraved version.  Désilles is shown without his helmet and the dated military uniforms, with their heavy buttoned gaiters, have been modified or abandoned - note particularly the mutineer in the centre of the canvas with his short curly hair and fashionably tight breeches. On the right, two soldiers with guns have been replaced by a barefoot man  with a pike, who is perhaps intended to be a civilian insurgent.  The civilian notables Desbourdes, Goeury and Nicolas have also been made more prominent, the first with a tricolour sash, the second with his arms outstretched and the third baring his heart.  The concierge's wife, a documented participant in events - is introduced, with her child, to the right.

It is usually inferred these alterations represent a change of political message, forced on Le Barbier by the rehabilitation of the mutineers.  Thus  François Pupil, writing in 1976: 

Le Barbier found himself in 1792 charged with representing a subject totally at odds with the preoccupations of the moment.  The assassins of Désilles had been rehabilitated and become the victims of the Nancy affair. The painter thus put off the execution of the commission and did not bring it to completion until June 1794.  The difficulties of payment and the work's reception, must have made him forget all the problems that he had encountered in envisioning the subject: a hero contested by his assassins and sufficiently equivocal to be pitied or blamed, soldiers who have become brave sans-culottes, a crowd that invades the field of combat and pushes the composition towards a scene of popular uprising - all that was new in the Salon painting, even though the" Courage héroique du Jeune Desilles" conserved the broad outlines of the scene invented in 1790. [Pupil (1976) p.82] 

According to Philippe Bordes :  In his first design he launched a moderate appeal for respect for the laws;  subsequently he modified the composition to adapt to the radicalism of public opinion and in 1795 he exhibited a work which had become more indulgent towards the people, which the Thermidorians did not much appreciate [Bordes, (1983) p. 37].

The same analysis is repeated on modern websites: 

[Le Barbier] submitted a initial drawing in late 1790. Désilles is central to the composition, shown as a true hero. The mutineers are depicted as rebels attacking Désilles, as an outrageous act. But between its commissioning in 1790 and the completion of the painting in 1794, the political situation in France was changing fast. The Revolutionaries having taken power, Le Barbier's initial project becomes suspect. The painter therefore has to transform the spirit of his canvas: the military insurrection becomes a justified popular uprising. In the final painting, Désilles is depicted with his helmet on the ground, he has lost his military prestige. In among the people, a woman appears: she is now the figure of peace, who extinguishes the cannon.
Musée Lorrain, Nancy (collections): "The Heroic Courage of Young Désilles, 30th August 1790, on the Nancy Affair" - Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier, 1794

[Between the preliminary sketch and the finished version] the Revolution had reversed the interpretation of events; the hero Désilles had become suspect to the Revolutionary cause, and the mutineers were perceived as martyrs.  Despite several corrections made by the painter to his initial composition, the painting still showed the rebel soldiers as factious and he received a cold reception.
Sabine Bouchy du Palut,"La Mutinerie de Nancy,  août 1790", L'Histoire par l'image, post of 03.2016.

Personally I am not  sure this "political" reading is really justified.  The changes to the scene seem mostly stylistic.  Certainly, there is no need to conclude that  Désilles's moral authority is undermined by the removal of his  helmet: perhaps Le Barbier simply wanted to focus greater attention on the young man's face?

It is also worth stepping back to consider the nature of Désilles's heroism.   A few radical commentators apart,  Désilles' intervention was not generally construed by contemporaries as an act of resistance to popular Revolution.  His  "heroic courage" lay in his intercession between the two sides in an attempt to prevent an act of lawless violence which, as the caption to one engraving put it,  "threatened the order of whole of France". As such, Désilles's example was never officially repudiated.  Indeed, as noted, even after the rehabilitation of the imprisoned Suisses, engravings of his action continued to be marketed.   

Robert Rosenblum, in his Transformations in Late Eighteenth-Century Art,  observes that in the late 1790s, under the Directory,  themes which suggested the establishment of peace and order enjoyed a new popularity, culminating in 1799 in Guérin's Return of Marcus Sextus and David's Intervention of the Sabine Women.    Even works which were overtly anti-Revolutionary in intention were officially welcomed.  Other paintings displayed in 1795 with Le Barbier's canvas included  Joseph-Benoît  Suvée's portrait of André Chenier on the day before his execution and an allegory by François-Nicolas Mouchet  in which the Genius of France reestablishes the Reign of Justice after the bloodletting of the Terror.[See Rosenblum (1967) p.81-92]. 

Le Barbier's later life

 By 1795, the aging Le Barbier found his work was no longer in fashion. He continued to exhibit and to design book illustrations, but confined himself mainly to historical and  literary subjects. In latter years he became an enthusiast for Greek style and an active member  the Celtic Academy, later the Society of Antiquaries.  He was also author of several books, on the art of paint and drawing.  In 1816, under the Restoration, he was made a member of the reconstituted Académie des Beaux Arts. 

His political feelings at the end of the Napoleonic period are succinctly expressed in a drawing in the Musée Dobrée, Nantes, which shows a weeping woman holding a fleur-de-lis shield and gauzing at a royal crown on the table beside her.  The sketch is dated 21st March 1815, the date of Louis XVIII's flight from Paris and Napoleon's return to the Tuileries [Standen (1989), p.271, and fig.25]. 

Le Barbier died on 7th May 1826 at the age of 87. He left two daughters, Élise and Henriette, who were both also commercially successful artists. 

The  painting of Désilles was given by the state to the Musée Lorrain in Nancy in 1872 and is now on display in the Museum of the French Revolution, Vizille.


Robert Rosenblum, Transformations in Late Eighteenth-Century Art (1967), p.81-92.

François Pupil, "Le dévouement du chevalier Desilles et l'affaire de Nancy en 1790: essai de catalogue iconographique", Le Pays lorrain, 1976, p.73-110.

Philippe Bordes, Le Serment du Jeu de paume de Jacques-Louis David (1983)

Edith A, Standen. “Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier and Two Revolutions.” Metropolitan Museum Journal, 1989, vol. 24: p. 255–74. Archived from the Metropolitan Museum website

General references for Le Barbier:
"Jean-Jacques Le Barbier" on

Catalogue raisonné [summaries on Amazon]

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