Thursday, May 25, 2017

French Revolutionary Faces

Anonymous French painter
Family Portrait
ca. 1795-1800
oil on canvas
Musée de Tessé, Le Mans

"The French Revolution was made by the bourgeoisie.  By that I mean roughly what Burke meant at the time, when he said the "the moneyed men, merchants, principal tradesmen, and men of letters . . . are the chief actors in the French Revolution," though obviously I differ from Burke in thinking that the coming to power of such men was part of an irreversible change in the social and symbolic order. "Part of" is sufficient here.  Not "caused by" or "expression of."  I am not interested in a narrative of causes.  All I want or need to do, for my present purpose, is insist on the oddity of the word "People" in a revolution of this social character." 

"An image will do better than a thousand words.  There is a picture in Le Mans Museum that for years was thought to be by David himself, and that I think must have come from someone in his inner circle.  It is rightly held to be one of the most poignant documents to come down to us of the change that the revolution wrought in personal style.  Nothing I can say will rob, or is meant to rob, the man in the center of the picture of his plain dignity.  It is massive and touching.  But for that very reason I think we should attend to the contrast between the father's careful  symbolic déshabillé and the costumes of his sons and daughter, the china on the mantleshelf (one looks about for a terra-cotta Marat), the glimpse of picture-covered walls, the well-turned furniture, the spinet and the young girl's music lessons, the power to order this painting in the first place.  These people and their painter are anonymous, as I say.  But I take them to be representative of the political actors we have been looking at."

François Sablet
Portrait of a Revolutionary
oil on panel
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

"Compare, for example, the sans-culotte militant François-Pierre Beaudouin, president of the comité révolutionnaire of the Gravilliers section in Winter Year 2 (we know about him from his will).  Master decorative painter, employing six skilled workers, in charge of the section's war production, and leaving behind at  his death in 1795 a fine apartment in the rue Phélippeaux: several large rooms, opening onto a terraced garden, a kitchen with two ovens, walnut cabinets, inlaid hardwood floors, copper plumbing, crystal chandeliers, and goblets, settings in porcelain (terra-cotta Marats long since disposed of), tables of oak and marble.  Remember that Beaudouin existed quite far down Jacobin ranks, and in a sense outside them.  He was a "popular" leader.  To quote the verdict of the historian who discovered him, a leadership comprised of men like Beaudouin "was bourgeois in its social aggregate, and absolutely by comparison with the population it ruled.  It was so by its manufacturing and commercial capital, by its real properties and salaried incomes, by its skills in literacy, manipulation of ideological formulae, and governance.  It had the power to command labor on a large scale and to create dependencies, allegiances, and constituencies." . . . Of course the point is not to convict them of hypocrisy or even lack of self-knowledge.  I for one am sure David was horribly sincere.  It is to wonder what might have been involved for bourgeois individuals  what kinds of inventiveness, what sources of knowledge and ignorance  when they began to represent those whose labor they commanded." 

Louis Gauffier
Portrait of André-François Miot and family,
Envoy of the French Republic to the Grand Duke of Tuscany

oil on canvas
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

 quoted passages are by T.J. Clark from Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (Yale University Press, 1999)