Appeal of the last victims of the Terror at Saint Lazare prison

Appeal of the last victims of the Terror at Saint Lazare prison

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Call of the last victims of the Terror at the Saint Lazare prison in Paris on 7-9 Thermidor year II.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

In the summer of 1794, the "Great Terror", put in place by the laws of Prairial Year II (May 1794) [1], ruthlessly raged. Immorality was everywhere, while the virtue of the state was extolled.

Image Analysis

The lists of the last victims of the Terror had been published in the issues of Monitor of 7 and 9 Thermidor year II. This was the starting point for the painting by Müller, a former pupil of Gros. The artist did not attempt to reproduce all the guillotines, although he published these lists in the booklets of the exhibitions where his painting was presented to the public. To these lists Müller added the account of the roll call of victims which Thiers reported in his History of the French Revolution (1823-1827). We should also mention the undoubted influence of Louise Desnos, an artist who exhibited a painting on this subject at the Salon of 1846, whose intimacy Müller succeeded in magnifying. Finally, Vigny's account of the death of André Chénier, published in Stello (1832), was decisive for the artist. The bailiff, "the big pale", as well as the Commissars of the Republic and the jailers described by the writer are perfectly visible in Müller's canvas. Like Vigny, it is to Chénier that the painter gives the leading role by placing it in the center of the painting. All of this came together in Müller's mind to create a vast historical fresco. Still a romantic spirit, the artist was enthusiastic about the misunderstood poet that Chénier was, a solitary genius isolated in the foreground among the other prisoners, unlike the poet Jean-Antoine Roucher, also represented on the canvas, much more famous while Chénier, but devoid of creative power. We recognize on the right “the young captive” celebrated by Chénier, Aimée de Coigny, kneeling imploring the Abbot of Saint-Simon. The prisoners that Müller has retained are moreover for the most part aristocrats (the Marquis de Montalembert, the Countess of Narbonne-Pelet, the Princess of Monaco, etc.), while the lists of the Monitor mostly give names of craftsmen and sans-culottes.

Several errors can be noted historically, in particular the mixed presence of men and women, while they were separated in revolutionary prisons. But Müller wanted the efficiency, the drama, the tragic. Its composition is rigorously symmetrical, opening onto a single central door through which the light rushes in and through which the Princess of Chimay comes out, dragged by the guillotine. Because even this light exudes horror: there is no hope in this work. To the shuddering of the prisoners hidden in the shadows and whose anguish we perceive, is opposed the assurance displayed by the commissioner who calls the call. Ordered around groups from which only Chénier stands out, the work is punctuated by shadows and lights, inverted in their symbolism: shadow is life, and light is death. Thus, on the right, a guard points to the Princess of Monaco, whom a white light tears from the dying shadows that surround her.
Chénier, meanwhile, waits. He reflects on the meaning of all this horror. His attitude resumes that of Brutus by David (Louvre Museum), but unlike his predecessor, Müller puts the hero at the center of the action. Chénier opposes the common feelings of the other characters around him: fear, survival reaction. He who had to say: "Yet I had something there", slapping his forehead, a philosopher on the absurdity of this terrible blind repression.

Interpretation

If the Revolution and the Empire were present at the Museum of the History of France in Versailles, Louis-Philippe had nevertheless carefully chosen to omit the memories of the Terror, and thus the Republic, except with the representation of the battle. de Fleurus in the Gallery of Battles. The social consensus sought by Louis-Philippe rejected excesses, and the Republicans did not forgive him for this exclusion. With the revolution of 1848, the Republic was finally evoked, but it was so linked to the Terror that those nostalgic for this period found themselves caught in their own trap. Hindsight was still lacking to correctly evoke this first Republic. It was in this context, where the most contradictory political opinions were expressed, that Müller's painting appeared. Highly noticed at the Salon of 1850, the work was nevertheless criticized. Its composition was at first considered anecdotal and picturesque, it was criticized for multiplying the expressions to the detriment of a central point and, finally, of being without great significance. Exhibited with other paintings on a revolutionary subject - the Last Banquet of the Girondins from Philippoteaux (Vizille) and The enrollment of volunteers de Vinchon (Vizille) -, the painting was also criticized for revealing in broad daylight what one would have liked to hide in 1850, that is to say the Terror. Defenders of the revolutionary heritage did not accept the revival of political tensions over such a dramatic period. Political hatred was exacerbated through these paintings, it was estimated. In fact, Müller, who could pass for a royalist, opposed Vinchon: he did not blacken the Revolution, on the contrary he glorified the enthusiastic devotion of the people leaving to defend the motherland.

Nowadays, Müller's painting, known to all, is considered the best representation of prison scenes under the Terror, while Hubert Robert had painted pictures of prisoners when he himself was arrested (Louvre museum) . It turns out to be the symbol of this period that the general public actually sums up as that of the guillotine. Quite embarrassing in Versailles, the royal castle, it is on deposit at the Vizille museum where, in a room with a historical reconstruction character, it is displayed alongside the works of Vinchon and Philippoteaux. The consensus around the Terror still does not seem certain, two hundred years later.

  • French Revolution
  • Vigny (Alfred de)
  • Danton (Georges)
  • Robespierre (Maximilian of)
  • Thiers (Adolphe)
  • Louis Philippe
  • Revolution of 1848
  • Hébert (Jacques-René)

Bibliography

Philippe BORDES and Alain CHEVALIER Museum of the French Revolution: catalog of paintings, sculptures and drawings Paris, RMN, 1996, p.147-150.François FURET Thinking about the French Revolution Paris, Gallimard, 1978, reed. “History Folio”, 1985. Patrice GUENIFFEY The Politics of Terror: an essay on revolutionary violence Paris, Fayard, 2000. Patrice GUENIFFEY “Terreur” in François FURET and Mona OZOUF, Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution Paris, Flammarion, 1988, re-ed. "Champs", 1992.

Notes

1. At the initiative of Couthon, this law which punished the "enemies of the people" suppressed the right for the accused to have recourse to a defense or to witnesses, and allowed the judge to base himself on denunciations and to pronounce a judgment based on his moral conviction.

To cite this article

Jérémie BENOÎT, "Appeal of the last victims of the Terror at Saint Lazare prison"


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