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Building the first 14th July

I’ve long been fascinated by prints of the construction of the Fête de la Fédération of 1790 (i.e the first 14th July celebration). The construction, sometimes called journée des brouettes, took place over a fortnight during which hundreds of Parisians of different backgrounds worked together to create the venue for the Fête de la Fédération itself. The work involved erecting a large amphitheatre capable of containing eight hundred thousand citizens. This collaborative effort was heralded as a symbol of a nation working in harmony to achieve its Revolution, but what I particularly enjoy are the rather irreverent early responses to it by etchers depicting noblewomen, monks, soldiers, and children, all chipping in to make sure the construction is achieved in time for the Fête.

The construction itself is quite an entertaining nose-up to officials who were proud of the perfectly sober long procession, mass, and oath-swearing ceremony they had organized for the day itself. The Chronique de Paris reports for instance the police and civil servants’ numerous attempts to discourage citizens from volunteering to aid the construction. Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for us, their attempts to harness the enthusiasm of the populace failed miserably, and there are now at least twenty different print representations of the construction, not counting depictions achieved in different mediums or the numerous copies in which the original prints were slightly modified. This is a significant number. By comparison, contemporary depictions of the Fête approached sixty different representations (including plans of the site and allegories).

One of my favourites is ‘Aristocrates vous voila donc F…’ (Aristocrats you are now f…), a rough hand-coloured etching which has possibly been made and sold whilst the festivities of the Fête de la Fédération were still ongoing. We know it’s popular as it survives in several copies (one of the few markers we have for a print’s success is how often it’s been plagiarized). The print depicts a few workers in a close-up study of a production line, with a particular emphasis on smartly-dressed female workers engaged in various manual tasks.

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The most obvious festive element in the print is in the text, with lyrics of songs included within and above the image. Damning anti-aristocratic lyrics appear above the image: ‘Aristocrates vous voila donc F… / Nous baiserons vos femmes / Et vous nous baiseré le C…’ (Aristocrats you are now f… / we’ll fuck your women / and you’ll kiss our ar…..). Within the print, variations on the refrain of the Revolutionary anthem ‘Ça ira’ follow the workers. The lyrics are superimposed on the workers giving the impression that the artist wanted to recreate the atmosphere of the works as infused with singing (which would be accurate according to the reports). In this sense, the print went beyond a simple portrayal of the event by urging the viewer to hear the event happening, and perhaps even to perform a representation of it themselves. There is also a sense that the print mocked as much as it praised these ladies—the derogatory song above the image clashes with the text below eulogizing the efforts of the various volunteers.

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In crowd scenes such as ‘Vue des Travaux’ (possibly made by Pierre Gentot), the focus is on the joyful disorderliness of the workers. This print is slightly more elaborate in execution, using aquatint as well as etching but it doesn’t dampen the energy.  The eagerness of the workers is such that they are displayed tripping and falling over each other in their attempts to help. The image contains many characters and storylines cohabiting within a single frame, such as the woman who has been knocked off her wheelbarrow and is exposing her buttocks, or the vainqueur de la bastille turning up in costume….

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What strikes me when looking at these prints created closest to the event is that they captured a recklessness and immediacy lacking in the more high quality scale engravings, such as the ‘Travaux du champ de mars pour la Fédération’ from the Tableaux Historiques de la Révolution Française, drawn by Jean-Louis Prieur and engraved by Pierre-Gabriel Berthault (delivered circa 1793-1796). In Prieur’s engraving, the construction is carefully framed and depicted from a remote vantage point. Respectability led to the viewer’s removal from the crowd. However, it is significant that the earlier prints were anonymous, whereas Prieur put his name to his work. With anonymity came greater freedom of expression. This realization is enhanced by the knowledge that Prieur, an active Revolutionary, was guillotined on 7 May 1795 in the aftermath of a popular uprising. His offense, according to James Maxwell Anderson, was to draw ‘the heads of those accused by the Revolutionary Tribunal (of which he was also a member)’ covered in blood. His claim that he had only been sketching ‘silly things’ was not considered a strong enough basis for acquittal, and his patriotism and links to Robespierre further secured his post-Thermidor fall. This emphasizes the dangerous nature of caricatures in a time where political power constantly shifted under the feet of artists.

Further Reading

Emile Campardon, ed., Le Tribunal Révolutionnaire de Paris, 2 vols. (Paris: Plon, 1866).

Chronique de Paris, 5 July 1790, 11 July 1790.

Claudette Hould, ed., La Révolution par la gravure : les “Tableaux historiques de la Révolution française”, une entreprise éditoriale d’information et sa diffusion en Europe, 1791-1817 (Paris: Musée de la Révolution française, 2002).

James Maxwell Anderson, Daily life during the French Revolution (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007).

Warren Roberts, Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Louis Prieur: Revolutionary Artists: the Public, the Populace and Images of the French Revolution  (New York: State University of New York Press, c2000).

Claire Trévien, ‘Le Monde à l’Envers: the Carnivalesque in Prints of the Construction of the Fête de la Fédération of 1790’, French History 26.1 (March 2012), 34-52.

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