by Luca Einaudi
The first portrait is of Honoré Gabriel Riquetti, comte de Mirabeau, who was the leading parliamentary leader of the first two years of the revolution until his death in 1791 by natural causes. His decline was as fast as his ascent, because with the invasion of the Tuileries in August 1792, a secret batch of documents from the King proved the corruption of Mirabeau, who had been paid by Louis XVI to advise him secretly against the Assembly. The backlash was so strong that Mirabeau’s coffin was withdrawn from the Pantheon and his name disappeared in the first years of the Republic. The portrait shown here is a profile engraved by Levachez and is part of a series of prints dated an VI (1797-98), associated with a short text and small lively scenes by Duplessis Berteaux, depicting the greatest events in which each politician had been involved. In the case of Mirabeau, the scene represents his great refusal to disband the Etats Généraux despite the order of the King, responding to the Master of Ceremony escorted by the troops: “Slave, go tell your master that we are here by the will of the people and we will leave only through the force of bayonets”.
Another leading figure of the moderate revolutionaries was Silvain Bailly, astronomer and mathematician. As a member of the Tiers État at the États Généraux he presided over the famous oath not to disband until a Constitution had been approved, and was elected first mayor of Paris a few days later, immediately after the storming of the Bastille. As the Revolution moved leftwards he was marginalized and guillotined, after testifying in favour of Marie Antoinette during her trial. In this small pointillé print, coloured in acquatint, anonymous, he is shown in his black costume of Representative of the Tiers État and praised in the text as new mayor “for opening the way to happiness and the keys to Paris that glory offers to him are those of Honour and Liberty.”
Moving to the so-called “Martyrs of the Revolution”, the icons of the left wing Montagnards who dominated the National Convention throughout the period of “Terror” in 1793-94, we find a different treatment, in line with the objective of spreading the cult of republican virtues and self-sacrifice, equality, liberty or death. In the first image we find Le Pelletier and Marat, crowned as martyrs, assassinated by counterrevolutionaries, in a coloured acquatint printed on paper and then framed with an allegory of Equality on the reverse. In the second image there is a coloured octagonal chalk profile of Marat, alone, his head covered by a piece of textile due to his chronic skin disease, contracted during his activity as an opposition journalist hiding in cellars and sometimes even in sewers. The third image shows a small popular print of Bara, a young boy in military uniform, a drum on his back, wearing a bicorn hat with a cockade.
Louis-Michel Le Peletier Marquis de Saint-Fargeau (1760-93) was an aristocratic lawyer who joined the Jacobins, and was a member of the National Convention where he worked on educational reform. He was assassinated on 20 January 1793 in a café at the Palais Royal by a bodyguard of Louis XVI, after having voted in favour of the execution of the King.
Jean-Paul Marat (1743-93) was a physician turned politician and journalist, who represented the most radical and violent positions within the clubs of the Jacobins and the Cordeliers. A supporter of the extension of terror and the execution of moderate republican Girondins, he was stabbed to death on 17 July 1793 by Charlotte Corday, who was close to the Girondins.
Joseph Bara (or Barra as in the print used here) was a 13 year’s old boy serving as a drummer in a unit of cavalry (hussars), to maintain his mother, a widow with ten children and no income. He died in December 1793, in combat with the monarchist insurgents of the Vendée. Robespierre took up his case and promoted it as a symbol of republican bravery against all odds, asking to have him buried in the Pantheon. The cult of the heroism of Bara inspired prints, paintings, statues, songs and plays.
Jacques-Louis David painted the death of the three martyrs, following requests by Robespierre and Barère. The first two were exhibited at the Convention, but while Marat’s famous portrait is now at the Musée du Louvre, the painting of Le Peletier is lost, probably destroyed by his daughter, a dedicated monarchist. The painting of Bara, never finished, is held at the Musée Calvet in Avignon and is based on a heroic nudity, very far from the more conservative representations in prints circulating at the time, like the one represented here.
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