Revolution prompted a major renaissance in France’s Parisian-based publishing trade during the early 1790s. With official censorship and established networks of commercial exchange and patronage disappearing virtually overnight, French artists, writers and printers were driven into a frenzy of speculative publishing that was fueled both by a drop in many of the overheads associated with printing and rising demand for news and political commentary. This resulted in a veritable explosion in the quantity and variety of printed goods that were available to ordinary consumers on the streets of Paris and France’s other major cities. The content of much of this new material was almost exclusively political, with politics almost completely displacing the engravings of religious allegories, landscapes and portraiture that had dominated printed imagery during the ancien regime.

Both the revolutionaries and their opponents realised from the outset that the traditional media used for communicating complex ideological messages to the masses, such as paintings, architecture and organised public events, had been rendered obsolete by the speed at which events were unfolding in France. For example, Jacques Louis David was forced to abandon a planned painting of the Tennis Court Oath because many of the principle figures of 1789 had been condemned as monarchists and kicked out of the revolutionary movement by the time he had completed a preliminary draft of the proposed painting in September 1792. Print however offered a quick and cost effective means of keeping the population abreast of the current ideological orthodoxy and provided a medium for those who sought to shape and influence the opinions of the all important Parisian mob. Printed images were seen as being a particularly useful way of clearly and quickly communicating complex themes and ideas in an age of low literacy rates. The surviving minutes of the Committee of Public Safety indicate the the revolutionary junta was well aware of the value of printed satire, as it was willing to commission runs, usually numbering between 2,000 and 3,000 prints, of caricature designs by David, Villeneuve and Paul Andre Basset and others. “It has been observed” wrote the royalist publisher Jacques-Marie Boyer Brun in 1792, “that… caricatures have been used to mobilize the people and no-one could deny that this procedure is as treacherous as its effects are swift and terrible.”

The constant revision of the allegorical meanings associated with different pictorial devices and representations of individuals in revolutionary satire is perhaps most evident in images of the doomed French monarch and his family. During the early stages of the revolution French caricaturists continued to abide by many of the artistic conventions of the ancien regime; often placing the monarch at the centre of the image, physically elevating him above the figures that surrounded him and using caricature sparingly in order to preserve the royal dignity. However, such niceties had been almost entirely abandoned by the summer of 1791, with caricatures which depicted the King as a glutton, a drunkard, a pig and a mentally enfeebled cripple being produced on a fairly regular basis. By this time even moderate or royalist satirists demonstrated a far greater willingness to openly caricature the features and stature of the unfortunately Louis.

The two prints shown here provide us was an excellent example of the way in which the same image could be amended in order to keep pace with the vicissitudes of political events and public opinion. In May 1789 the court painter Nicolas-Andre Monsiau was asked to sketch the outline for an allegorical scene to celebrate the opening of the Estates General. The drawing was then worked up for publication by the talented Florentine engraver Vincenzo Vangelisti, who presented a copy of the finished print to Louis on behalf of the representatives of a grateful nation. In Monument to the Glory of Louis XVI the King is presented in full royal regalia, posing on a pedestal which identifies him as ‘Father of the Nation’ and ‘King of a Free People’. He is no longer wearing the ancient crown of France and is instead about to accept a couronne civique that is being weighed in the scales by Minerva (who kneels to his right) and blessed by Justice (at his left). The figures in the foreground represent the benefits of constitutional reform. Immediately below the pedestal we see Fanaticism is preparing to plunge a dagger into his chest after witnessing the final reconciliation between Religion, Tolerance and Truth taking place to his left. On the right of the image the crowned figure of Francia is receiving the grievances of the people and preparing to offer them the contents of a horn of plenty which rests at her feet. In the background we can just make out the supporters of constitutional reform presenting burnt offerings to the personification of Liberty. Finally, on the far left, we can see that Father Time has set down his scythe and hourglass and is ominously poised ready to strike a blow that will shatter the reign of feudalism.  

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Vangelisti after Monsaiu, Monument to the Glory of Louis XVI, May 1789

A new version of this print was then produced almost exactly four years later to celebrate the drafting of the Constitution of 1793. By then France had become a militant Republic whose political ideology was defined by the radical evangelism of The Terror and the expediencies of a war for national survival. In this context the quaintly reformist imagery of 1789 seemed not only irrelevant but dangerously counter-revolutionary and it was evidently necessary for the design to be heavily reworked in order to make it reflect the drastically altered realities of French politics. The new print was entitled The Triumph of Liberty and carefully edited in order to ensure that any visual reference to the now defunct Bourbon dynasty had been carefully expunged. Louis XVI and his entourage of female allegories have been replaced by the solitary figure of Liberty, who brandishes an olive branch for her supporters and the sword for her enemies. The figure combines several stylistic  features which were found on the images of Minerva and Justice in the previous iteration of the print which suggests that she holds a superior, almost divine-like status, elevating her above both the traditional deities of classical symbolism and the deposed monarch. The royal fleurs-de-lis have been wiped from Francia’s gown and the embodiment of the patrie now wears a Phrygian cap of liberty in place of her crown. The cross that was previously held by Religion has also been removed and the text which accompanies the image suggests that her conjunction with Tolerance and Truth is based on submission rather than reconciliation. The words engraved on the top of the triumphal arch at the right of the image have been changed, so that the text which once read “A La Memoire des Etats-Generaux de MDCCLXXXIX” is now a dedication to “A la Memoire de Peuple Francais qui conquit sa liberte le 14 Juillet MDCCLXXXIX”. An alteration which clearly reflects the wider narrative of proletarian self-liberation which the Jacobin movement sought to ingrain in the popular narrative of the Revolution during 1793-4.

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Delagardette after Vangelisti (?), The Triumph of Liberty, c.1793

The identity of the artist responsible for The Triumph of Liberty is unclear. The signature of a ‘Citoyen Delagardette’ has been added to the publication line at the foot of the design and it’s possible that this was Claude Mathieu Delagardette, a radical French architect who had returned to France from Italy in early 1793 with hopes of securing some form of official preferment from the revolutionary government in Paris. Delagardette certainly possessed the ideological credentials required to produce such an image and was also an accomplished engraver who would go on to publish a number of highly valued illustrated studies of classical architecture under the Directory and the Empire. However, the inclusion of an Italian translation of the explanatory text and the mention of Milan in the revised publication line may also hint that Vangelisti himself had played a part in revisiting his earlier work, as the former engraver to the court of Versailles had moved to Milan in order to teach engraving at the Brera Academy in 1790 and would remain there until his death in 1798.

These two images provide us with just one example of the rapid development of imagery and allegory that occurred in French prints during the Revolution. In the context of an uncertain political environment in which ideology was evolving at speed, the ephemeral nature of print could be seen as an inherent strength which allowed images to be quickly and quietly modified in order to reflect the prevailing ideological milieu and suit the needs of those who sought to manipulate public opinion for their own ends. The rapid turnover of printed images can perhaps therefore be seen as a physical embodiment of the revolutionary desire to compress political, economic and social reform into as short a space of time as possible.