coins of the month - july 2023
The image of Rousseau and the French Revolution
The ideas of the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau from Geneva played a fundamental role in the development of the French Revolution, shaping ideas of democratic participation and the challenge to autocracy in its early years and then inspiring the leaders of the radicalisation of 1793-1794. The enormous fame and controversy that accompanied Rousseau from the publication of the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men in 1755 to the Social Contract, Principles of Political Right in 1762, made him the leading inspiration for those putting forward the goal of égalité.
Many revolutionary medals suggested that liberté was founded in 1789 (the transfer of power from the King to the Assemblée, after the storming of the Bastille and the retreat of foreign mercenary troops in the service of Louis XVI), while egalité was founded in 1792, after the arrest of the King and the proclamation of the Republic. While Mirabeau, Voltaire and Montesquieu were regarded as the leading intellectual influences for a constitutional monarchy, sought until 1792 by the moderate Feuillants such as Lafayette and Bailly, thereafter Rousseau and Mably were the leading inspiration for the republicans. Rousseau had been an important intellectual reference from the beginning of debates on sovereignty, constitution and representation, Rousseau et la Revolution, Exposition à l'Assemblée Nationale, Gallimard, 2012.but his influence reached its apex in 1792-95, during the Convention, corresponding for about a year with the rule of the Jacobins and the Montagnards, who sought a more democratic and egalitarian society, despite the dramatic distortions provoked by internal and external war (chouans, vendéens, federalists, Austro-Prussians, British, Piedmontese, etc...).
During the French Revolution, effigies and sculpted portraits of great men and allegories of great principles were of the utmost importance and were widely used. One of the main events which set in motion the assault on the Bastille in July 1789 was a cavalry charge of the Royal-Allemand, led by the Prince de Lambesc in the Park of the Tuileries against a peaceful demonstration carrying the busts of Necker and Philippe d'Orleans against the removal of Necker from the direction of the government. Busts of Voltaire, Rousseau, Mirabeau and Benjamin Franklin were exhibited in public buildings, parades and events, and welcomed in political clubs and assemblies in 1789-92. Mirabeau's image was removed after the discovery in 1792 of his compromising correspondence with Louis XVI. New republican heroes were then added. These included in particular the founder of the Roman Republic, Brutus, and the new French Republican martyrs, Marat, Le Pelletier, Chalier and the child martyrs Barra and Viala. Rousseau was the only intellectual figure to maintain his central role throughout the Revolution, until his eclipse after the conquest of power by Bonaparte.
The busts of Rousseau acquired therefore a growing role as the revolution progressed. The image of Rousseau had begun to be produced and commercialised as soon as the early 1760s, given his great fame and despite persecution for his ideas.
In 1778, however, a sculptor who was to become the greatest portraitist of the enlightenment and of the Revolution, Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), displayed in Paris a full scale portrait of Voltaire, only days after the philosopher's death. The enormous success of the exhibition, where visitors had the impression of being able to pay homage to the great man himself, created the early fame of Houdon who went on to portray the leading philosophers and political figures of the time in France (Louis XVI, Diderot, Condorcet, Lafayette, Necker, Mirabeau, Bailly, Napoleon) and in the USA (Washington, Jefferson, Franklyn). In order to continue his cycle of the most prominent philosophers, Houdon tried to approach Rousseau for a portrait, but failed.
Shortly after, however, Houdon received a call from Ermenonville. Rousseau had just died there, and the Marquis Girardin, who had invited Rousseau to live in a cottage on his property only a few weeks earlier, urged Houdon to come urgently to make a death mask. Guilhem Scherf and Séverine Darroussat, Jean-Jacques Rousseau et son image sculptée 1778-1798, livre publié à l'occasion de l'exposition L'hommage de la Révolution française a Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Musée de la Révolution française à Vizille, 2012.Houdon used a cast of Rousseau's face to produce several types of portraits, as an ancient philosopher (with natural hair held by a band and a toga), à la française or à la moderne (with a wig and 18th-century clothing) or in a natural state, without clothing or other relevant period details.
Houdon's striking result became the standard and the model for subsequent productions, incessantly copied thereafter.
After his death a cenotaph protecting Rousseau's embalmed body was erected by Girardin on the "Island of the poplars", at the centre of a small lake in the Ermenonville property where Rousseau had spent his last days as a guest. A production of romantic depictions of his burial produced a flourishing of souvenirs (prints, gilets; here we have a picture of the top of a tobacco box). The National Convention in 1794 ordered that his ashes should be transferred to the Pantheon in Paris, to honour him as one of the founding inspirations of the Republic. The decision was taken by the Montagnards but implemented by the Thermidoriens. Napoleon thought of taking him out of the Pantheon and returning him to Ermenonville, because of the damage he thought Rousseau's ideas had produced during the Revolution, but ultimately did not proceed.
Some examples of the enormous corpus of images are here depicted, beginning with a nineteenth-century edition of Houdon's portrait of Rousseau as an antique philosopher, followed by some smaller imitations.
A token was produced privately by Monneron in 1791, depicting a Houdonian profile of Rousseau, quoting the Social Contract ("La puissance legislative appartient au peuple et ne peut appartenir qu'à lui"), with the precise indication of the source, "CONTRAT SOCIAL LIV. 3, CHAP. 1.", in the manner of religious quotations from the sacred scriptures, highlighting the quasi-religious status of Rousseau's writings for many.
Rousseau as the philosopher also appeared in Revolutionary playing cards, along with other cards depicting a Sans-culotte with his characteristic pike and freedom cap.
We show here also a painted inkwell in ceramic, depicting a seated Rousseau, dressed in contemporary fashion, with black short culottes and a brown jacket, writing a text (in other versions he is writing musical partitions, as he was also a composer).
We have a bust representing Rousseau in Armenian fashion, here pictured in white pottery. Rousseau had for some time been wearing heavy, long colourful clothes, made of wool, fur, cotton and silk in Armenian fashion, including a papakha (Caucasian tall wool hat) and costume. See Chakè Matossian, «Et je ne portai plus d'autre habit». Rousseau l'Arménien, Genève, Droz, 2014, pp.150. Marisa Ferrarini, «Chakè Matossian, «Et je ne portai plus d'autre habit». Rousseau l'Arménien», Studi Francesi [Online], 176 (LIX | II) | 2015, online dal 01 août 2015, consultato il 29 juin 2023. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/studifrancesi/830; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/studifrancesi.830 Such clothes were known in Europe especially through Armenian merchants. Between 1762 and 1767, Rousseau, who had very few financial resources and needed to seek hospitality, chose to dress in Armenian costume, stating in his autobiographical Confessions that this served to cover the implements needed to address his urinary problems. Other interpretations suggest a desire to show his estrangement from the civilization surrounding him of which he was so critical. He certainly dedicated a large correspondence to the receipt of cheap but elegant products, discussing in great detail fabric, fur, colours, design, and style, with the purpose of dressing cheaply, warmly, and comfortably, without appearing to be a beggar but trying instead make some impression. Voltaire anonymously produced libels accusing Rousseau of showing up dressed as a clown. However, Rousseau's Armenian clothing remained one of the main ways of representing him and distinguishing him from Voltaire.
A full size sitting bronze sculpture of Rousseau, also pictured here, seems to embody the romantic and naturalistic feelings of the last pensive days of Rousseau, while he was writing his last book, Reveries of a Solitary Walker. The philosopher is portrayed seated, leaning sideward, holding a cane, his head slightly down, lost in his thoughts, probably surrounded by his beloved nature and aloof from the confusion of society. His favourite activity was botanic excursions, during which he would collect flowers and plants, and then carefully place them in herbariums, some of which he would use as gifts.
The membership card of the Section du Contrat Social (Paris, quartier des Halles) shows a bust of Rousseau on a half column, surrounded by his most popular books (the Contrat Social and Emile, de l'éducation), facing an allegory of liberty and equality, leaning on a plinth entitled "la Patrie", carrying a table with the declaration of the rights of man and the constitution. The motto was «Le gouvernement républicain est le seul légitime», followed by the date of the foundation of the French Republic, 21 September 1792.
Despite a relative eclipse in Rousseau's influence after the creation of a military regime under the Consulate and the Empire of Napoleon I, followed by the restoration of the Monarchy for 33 years, Rousseau's image was still an important symbol in the mid-nineteenth century. As late as 1848, 70 years after Rousseau's death, on 2 January, a few weeks before the February revolution in Paris which gave birth to the second Republic, an anonymous artisan felt the need to produce a new example of Rousseau's medal after Houdon's portrait, taking the very unusual step of inscribing on the back the draftsman's name and the date, still proudly associating ideas and revolutionary upheaval 70 years after the death of the reclusive philosopher.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics