by Luca Einaudi
The faces of late eighteenth century participants to the French Revolution are known to us on a scale without precedent in previous historical periods. They include the obvious candidates for traditional representations, the protagonists of the Royal court (Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette), parliamentary titans (Bailly, Mirabeau, Danton, Marat, Robespierre), leading ministers (Necker, Fouché, Talleyrand), young generals (Hoche, Bonaparte, Jourdan, Moreau) as well as popular heroes and martyrs (Bara, Viala, Lepelletier, Charlotte Corday). What is even more striking, however, is the abundance of iconography in relation to individuals who played minor roles in politics and society, as well as to a crowd of unknown men and women -- more than in any other historical period before photography appeared and became popular in the second half of the nineteenth century. Portraits in miniature, inserted in circular or oval metallic frames, included an image normally somewhere between 5 and 10 centimetres of width, protected by glass. They could be carried or worn like medallions, they could be framed and placed on the walls of private spaces, or they could serve as covers for snuff boxes. They offer a variety of portraiture which is much more abundant than coinage or medals were ever able to provide.
This is due to the combined effects of technical developments, the new social demands of political participation in a democratising society and, at the private level, the development of a new, “pre-romantic” sensibility. The quality of miniature portraits painted in colour had improved, but other forms of mechanical reproduction were growing, with mass production of typographical engravings of all the main political figures of the time, as well as individual but reproducible portrait engravings following the physionotrace system. The first two types of representation were meant primarily for private use or the self representation of rising classes, while the latter was meant to satisfy the nascent curiosity to know the new protagonists of the emerging democratic process or the desire to exhibit support for one or other faction or political ideology of the time.
Miniature portraits were of course not a novelty of the French revolution. The Altes Museum in Berlin hosts a marvellous miniature portrait of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 AD), surrounded by his wife Julia Domna and his children and successors, Caracalla (211-217) and Geta (211), painted on a wood panel in around 200 AD. The technique was developed at the English court in the sixteenth century, and later in France. In the eighteenth century the Venetian painter Rosalba Carrera introduced ivory as a perfect surface to reproduce the smoothness of the human skin. Gouache and watercolour on ivory presided over the relative democratisation of the process, well beyond the Royal Court and the aristocratic origin.
In 1787, French market opportunities were integrated with the creation of the Physionotrace, a semiautomated technique to reproduce the likeness of the sitter using a wooden frame, a pantograph (an instrument that duplicated mechanically an image on a different scale, through several mobile wooden arms, concluded by a pencil), and then engraving the scaled down likeness on a copper plate, again using the pantograph and limiting the intervention of the artist. Several thousand different portraits were produced in a few years. The customer received twelve printed copies and the copper engraving with the possibility of producing more copies if he wished. The effect was a close anticipation of a photographic portrait, with the indication of the name of the artist, the address, and sometimes the name of the customer and his social position. Collections of portraits of politicians and military officers were produced by a number of publishers in the province and especially in Paris. There was particular activity at the Palais Royal, next to the Louvre, which included a commercial development full of cafés, restaurants, booksellers and clubs, created in 1780 by Philippe d’Orleans, who had later rallied to the cause of the revolution, and sat in the Constituent Assembly in 1789-91 (with the Jacobins).
The revolution was also documented with medals in metal or even in chalk. The private use of miniature portraits was associated with the domain of intimate relations and feelings, to maintain and nourish close relationships, but also to keep the memory of loved ones through time and after departures.
In those troubled times, however, even the private use of painted miniature portraits was never very far from the public and political sphere. For the enemies of the Revolution (or for those simply scared by it) miniature portraits were often associated with traumatic departures for emigration, to imprisonment or to violent death. As the famous French miniaturist Jean-Baptiste Isabey observed, some private portraits, rapidly painted before departure in a single sitting, could be considered “portraits de consolation”, to unite the hair locks of children and the portrait of a father or husband who left France because of his association with the monarchy, the aristocracy or other privileged classes. According to the Tansey Miniatures Foundation, these were “small, transportable and personal likenesses, and the miniaturists responded to the keen demand for likenesses by increasing their output and becoming exceptionally inventive”
A known example is that of Madame Roland (Vicountess Marie-Jeanne Roland de la Platière), wife of a leading member of the moderate republican Girondin group, the interior Minister Jean-Marie Roland. She had developed a particular attachment to another Girondin member of the Convention Nationale, Buzot, and the two had exchanged their respective miniature portraits in 1793. After she was guillotined, the portrait of Buzot she owned ended up in the Musée Lambinet in Versailles. Buzot was said to have carried her portrait as he escaped arrest by the Jacobins, until he committed suicide in order to avoid the guillotine the following year.
Another famous example is Napoleon I, who, while prisoner in St Helena from 1815 until his death in1821, was frequently described in the island as being surrounded by miniature portraits on snuff boxes of his family, and showed particular attachment to those representing his wife Marie Louise, son and sister Pauline, some of them painted by Isabey. Napoleon tried to transmit them as part of his heritage to his son, the Duke of Reichstadt, known by the French as Napoleon II, held in Vienna, but the Austrian government prevented it.
The surviving portrait miniatures in private hands are probably the most widely held visual memories of the French revolution in homes in France and elsewhere.
We will now see some examples of the different types of techniques, styles and medium utilized. We begin with two of the early protagonists of the Revolution, who were rapidly overtaken as excessively moderate (Mirabeau and Bailly), followed by the martyrs of the Revolution as idealized by the Jacobins and objects of a specific cult (Le Pelletier, Marat and Bara).
The monarchist party is then represented here by a miniature of the King Louis XVI, a portrait of the duchess of Polignac, of an emigré in uniform supporting the restoration, and of a former magistrate demoted by a coup d’État.
The following sections show mainly anonymous French citizens, portrayed privately, first as citizens in arms, proudly exhibiting their uniforms, then as patriots displaying cockades and official badges, and finally as men and women who lived during that time and are portrayed without obvious political or military affiliation.
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