Mission Héliographique, Part One


Mission Héliographique: Origins

Part One

One of the major problems raised by the French Revolution was the status of the Catholic Church. With everything old swept away, including the monarchy, the nobility, and religion itself, the brave new world of the Revolution was totally secular. The Revolutionaries took their revenge upon their religious oppressors and began to dismantle the power of the Church along with the power of the monarchy. Like the Church in England before the Dissolution, the religious institutions of France, worked closely with the State, held about six precent of the land, collected agricultural tithes and was exempt from taxes. In the fall of 1789, the legal disentangling of Church and State began, and at the beginning of 1790, the new Revolutionary government took over the lands and possessions of the Church, closed its religious houses, removing the Catholic Church as the official state religion. In 1792, it was decreed that all traces of “feudalism” should be removed from public spaces. “Feudalism” indicated the Church and the privileges of nobility–all of which was to be erased and extinguished in the face of a new history beginning in the Year One.

But it was the secular years of 1793-94 that constituted the “dechristianization” of France in which religious symbols were outlawed and churches, cathedrals, and ecclesiastical libraries were destroyed. The program of deliberate destruction on the part of the outraged people was tactfully termed “deconstruction” by the Revolutionary government. The citizens of the new France attacked the Church of Saint-Denis. Located just out side of Paris, this edifice was the place where French monarchs were buried, and in a clear statement of the destruction of the ties between church and state, the mob broke into the crypt and into the tombs, strewing the bones of royalty in the grounds of the church, even making off with souvenir bones. Although the remaining bones were later gathered up and buried in a common grave under the direction of Napoléon, by the early 1790s, the sight of wanton destruction had already concerned wiser heads in Paris and all eyes turned to the Bishop of Blois, the Abbé Henri Grégoire (1750-1830), who was asked to produce a report on the desecration of church property.


Ossuary of Saint-Denis where the bones of the kings and queens of France are collected.

A high-minded principle-driven religious leader and defender of the people, Henri Grégoire was instrumental in installing an unprecedented religious tolerance during the Revolution and is better known today as a staunch abolitionist. However, he should also be remembered as the man who came up with a new an unprecedented concept: that a nation and its people were responsible for the preservation and protection of its cultural artifacts–its own defining history. It is under his pen that a new word emerged in the wake of the dismantling of an entire history at the hands of mobs throughout France: “vandalism.” The term emerged during the Revolution, coined by Joseph Lakanal, who was a member of the Committee of Public Instruction and as such presented a report to the Committee on the national heritage which was systematically being destroyed. It was Abbé Grégoire who popularized this new word. In 1990, Joseph Sax wrote about this remarkable moment in time in the Michigan Law Review with his article, “Heritage Preservation as a Public Duty. The Abbé Grégorie and the Origins of an Idea.” Sax began by asking a question of his own, “How did protection of cultural values come to be viewed as a proper public concern in a modern world centered on the liberty and autonomy of the individual?”

It took a long time for the idea of heritage to be formulated as a public concern and to become the subject of public discourse. And when it happened, it did so in the most unlikely setting. The place was revolutionary France and the year 1794. Out of a reign of destruction came a plea, a theory, and a plan for protection of cultural artifacts, the genesis of modern preservationist thought..Beginning in August of 1794, Grégoire produced the three reports to the National Convention for which he is best known. The first is entitled Report on the Destruction Brought About by Vandalism, and on the Means to Quell It. Each report was originally requested only as an account of the losses the nation was sustaining. But Grégoire used the opportunity to consider a question that had never before been the subject of legislative attention: Why should caring for paintings, books, and buildings be a concern of the nation? Why, especially in a republic that was beginning radically anew, should monuments redolent of the values of the old regime be respected? Grégoire’s reports, which have never been translated into English, stand as the first expression of what has become a modern public policy on cultural property.

Prior to Abbé Grégoire, there was no clear policy towards historic buildings which could fall into neglect and ruin and could be torn down and replaced and updated. But, acceding to Sax, Grégoire used the ideas of the revolution itself to protect the cultural heritage of the nation. It was not the objects themselves that should be destroyed and condemned simply because of their patrons. Rather the art works should be preserved and celebrated as symbols of the nation’s artistic genius that would only continue to flourish under the guidance of the Revolution. As Sax explained,

Grégoire saw cultural properties as central to the political life of the country in another sense, however. The Revolution, after all, was remaking the nation without the institutions of the crown and the church that had essentially defined it. How was the new Republic to define its essential quality? Grégoire answered that the essential quality of the Republic reposed in the genius of individual citizens as revealed in the achievements of science, literature, and the arts. The body of artifacts that embodied the best of the people was the quintessence of France, its true heritage and patrimony. Those who were willing to see these artifacts destroyed, or sold abroad as if the nation cared nothing for them he said, were imperiling the most important symbols of the national identity, those things that spoke for what France should aspire to be.

The Church, linked to hereditary privilege and corruption and to the oppression of the people, was condemned and pushed to the social background, but in the midst of the rush to the future, a national respect for the past was installed and became one of the unexpected legacies of the Terror. Of course, dismissing religion is easier said than done, and when Napoléon came into power at the beginning of the nineteenth-century, he readmitted exiled aristocrats and the disgraced Church back into French culture. His actions thwarted ongoing demands that ecclesiastical architecture be destroyed, along the lines of the English Dissolution. Napoléon, ever a nationalist, was distressed over the destruction of the European Medieval heritage and wanted to sake a claim for a French (Gallic), rather than a “Roman” civilization. Predictably, when the monarchy was restored after Waterloo in 1815, there was a wave of nostalgia for the vanished past, swept away by a violent Revolution. As often happens when starting over, the past becomes a source of inspiration. The yearning for a mythic historical stability reached backwards to the Medieval period, safely beyond the rule of the recently deposed monarchy, and as far back as the site of the origins of the nation itself, the time where France began to acquire its unique characteristics. Nowhere could this uniqueness be better viewed than in the architectural remains of Gothic architecture, from cathedrals to churches to forts to castles. The religious buildings that had barely escaped destruction became objects of veneration by the Romantic period of the 1840s, and, in the Salons, faux Medieval troubadour paintings flourished.


Musée des monuments français Today

The realization that an age had passed and a new era was beginning can be traced back to the late eighteenth century when in 1795 actual architectural remnants from the Medieval and Renaissance periods were literally removed from their sites to the Musée des monuments français in Paris. After the Revolution the collection was limited to plaster casts and the collection changed its name to Musée national des Monuments Français. As early as 1831, the famous architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) toured France making exquisite drawings of French architectural history and in 1836-37 he took a similar tour of Italy. Clearly there was a perceived need to commemorate a culture before it disappeared or disintegrated and the drawings of Villiet-le-Duc were considered exemplary for their accuracy. At his suggestion, the plater cast collection was moved to a new site, the palais du Trocadéro in the vacated grounds for the Exposition universelle of 1878. But not everything was movable and plaster casts could give only so much information about entire structures. It was deemed necessary to catalogue, illustrate, and record the entire historical patrimony of France. This survey would be a massive task undertaken by the famous Mission Héliographique, which for the next fifty years amassed some six thousand images, most of which never saw the light of day in their own time. The Mission’s work would be dutifully executed and catalogued and deposited with the government and forgotten only to be rediscovered in 1980.

The next post will discuss the work of the Mission’s first photographers.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Part One

JEAN-LÉON GÉRÔME: History Painter

Part One

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904) was on the wrong side of history. Many people have been on the wrong side of history, and, like the segregationist Senator, Strom Thurmond, they deserve to stay there. However, art history is more subjective than history-history, which is supposedly based upon verifiable facts. Art falls into the perilous zone of subjectivity and art and artists are subjected to the rise and fall of critical preferences and of aesthetic judgments. Gérôme was art history’s most vile villain, most reliable enemy to all things Modernist. He was the perfect foil to Édouard Manet (1832-1883), Claude Monet (1840-1926), and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), not because he was a popular and successful Salon artist but because he railed against his Impressionist counterparts, often and in public, on the record. But since the 1980s, a “younger” generation of art historians, in search of new material for dissertations, began to revive the dead dinosaurs of “official” French art. And Gérôme was among the Salon artists most in need of revision. Without championing Gérôme, it can be said that it is necessary for him to be re-placed in the history of Nineteenth-century art, if only to better understand the Modernist artists and their accomplishments and their courage. It is important to understand the vast differences between Gérôme and the Impressionists in terms of painting techniques and the subject matter in order to comprehend the reception of the art audience and Salon goers.

When the real art history of the Second Empire and the Third Republic in France was restored by the new art historians, it was revealed that Gérôme was genuinely popular with the art audiences and collectors of his time because his art was immensely innovative, decidedly novel, technically proficient (not outstanding but good enough), and, above all, featured sex and violence. A can’t miss combination. The reason why he fell off the art history pantheon was, as all art historians know, because of the Theory of Modernism. Beginning somewhere around the art critic, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), migrating to the British critic, Roger Fry (1866-1934) and culminating in the American critic, Clement Greenberg (1909-1994), this theory put forward an entity called “Modernism,” both a state of mind and a period of time, that produced an artistic attitude called “art-for-art’s sake,” which led to avant-garde art, a reaction to modernité.

According to the teleology of Modernism, the founding fathers (no mothers allowed) were Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Édouard Manet (1832-1883) and their progeny, the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists and all the “isms” of the twentieth century, climaxing with Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). Any artist, no matter how historically famous and successful, could not be a Modernist unless he (not she: women were not considered) was part of that select group. The artists of the Salon were eliminated, the “official” artists were purged, English and American artists were left out, and only a small group of French male artists were allowed to be part of the club. The result was an art history based upon an evolutionary theory of a progressive march taken by art from representation to abstraction. The Greenberg story of art was an excellent metanarrative, as Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998) would later call it, but it was not a proper history of art. Modernism was a construct, a convenient fiction, complete with heroes and villains.

The Artist and the Public

Art Historian Gerald Ackerman (1928-), whom I met while I was in graduate school, began the revival of Gérôme’s art if not his reputation. At the time, Ackerman told me he had been working on Gérôme for twenty years and it is his pioneering effort that is the foundation of scholarship for today’s writers. Current scholars point out that, even in his own time, Gérôme was as controversial with the critics as the avant-garde artists. Like the latter, Gérôme had to court and please the bourgeoisie, and the career-minded artist created a juste milieu path between erudite, orthodox, high-minded history painting and low-caste genre scenes of everyday life (“Molière Breakfasting with Louis XIV,” 1862). Taking a page from the playbook employed by Ernst Meissonier (1815-1891), Gérôme rethought history painting and made it accessible and entertaining to the middle class art audience (“The Tulip Folly,” 1862). In place of classical knowledge, understandable to scholars and specialists, the artist inserted carefully researched archaeological and ethnographic detail (“Solomon’s Wall, Jerusalem,” 1876). In place of the relentless ordinariness of Realism and the remorseless observation of Naturalism, Gérôme substituted panoply of information, educating the viewer. Instead of heroes and noble characters, he created a cast for his theater of history and used the actors to tell arresting stories about life in another place and another time.

Gérôme’s art presents the viewer spectacle on two levels, echoing the culture of scopophilia and observation of the Other that was the basis of Second Empire power and Third Republic imperialism and the control of men over women. First, Gérôme’s art provided the kind of sheer spectacle that once held sway during the Roman Empire and moved it to the Salon for the delectation of the art public. Bread, circuses, food and entertainment–if you provide the people with these two necessities, they will tolerate any amount of tyranny. Whether or not this conscious policy is smart or despicable depends upon one’s political point of view. To the middle-class French people, survivors of multiple revolutions and uprisings among the disempowered, a firm hand on the wheel may have seemed a good idea. Second, there is no reason to assume that Gérôme was trying to anything more than present interesting subject matter to his audience. There was probably not much sub-text in his work. Indebted to his imperial patrons, Gérôme was a conservative who would be unwilling to offend his collectors. All he asked of the viewer was to look and enjoy. Clearly he had worked out a formula: sex and violence sells; and the exercise of imperialism in the direction of helpless people comforting to a second-class power.

Gérôme’s paintings of the Roman Empire enshrine the pleasure of looking, of seeing violence that happens to others and not to you, a pleasure called by philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the “sublime.” That heightened and intense emotion that Edmund Burke wrote of was, not incidentally, in relation to the excitement of the French Revolution. For excitement, beheadings notwithstanding, sheer terror and scenes of violence, nothing has out-classed the Roman Empire in its ruthless suppression of any and all acts of dissent or disturbance. No Empire has ever been more blatant in its faithful provision of circuses for its well-fed citizens, even in the provinces. The site of a panoply of horrors was the arena, a word meaning “sand,” which covered the floor in order to absorb the inevitable blood. In the Roman arena, there are no victors, only victims of a system of witnessing what was an imperial display of the Emperor’s power over life and death, preferably death.


The gladiators, who were slaves, saluted the Emperor before they died in Ave Caesar, Morituri, Te Salutant (1859) and the Christians, who in actuality were prosecuted in very small numbers, provided the fledgling religion with its first martyrs, were favorite characters for the artist. It should be pointed out, that while Christians were expendable, gladiators were not. Expensive to train and to house, the fighters were investments on the part of their owners and it was rare that any of them died in what was usually staged combat. Indeed, Maxime de Camp (1822-1894), photographer of the Middle East, complained that Gérôme was inaccurate, and the artist did, indeed, take liberties for dramatic effect. His painting of Christian martyrs showed human beings used as torches but the scene is set in daytime, while the Emperor Nero put on such a show only at night. In The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayers (1863 – 1883), the lion approaches the huddling worshipers.


Much has been written of Gérôme’s prediction of film and his use of the long pause in a narrative and, indeed, the viewer can see the emerging head of other felines coming into the sand surface of the Coliseum. Like the martyrs, we wait. As opposed to Gathering up the Lions in the Circus (1902), in real life, animals had no interest in attacking humans and had to be taught, even forced to pounce. During these centuries of arena entertainment, wild animals, entire species were either wiped out or put in danger, due to the overindulgence of the Romans who did love their spectacles. The Roman audience in Pollice Verso (1872) came to the arena to be entertained. Some commentators and historians have since suggested that the blood lust acted as a kind of drug, dulling the senses, reducing human carnage to a mere theatrical exercise. There was an endless supply of slaves and criminals to put to death in an exercise of punishment and control.


Although Gérôme could not have imagined modern film, his paintings of the Roman Empire became sources of inspiration for Hollywood film directors, from movie directors C. B. De Mille (1881-1959) to Ridley Scott (1937-). But that observation raises a rather interesting question: why are we still so fascinated with an imperial power, which used human beings as stage lights, crucified even the most insignificant dissidents, rewarded the few and persecuted the many, keeping everything in balance through constant spectacles of blood and violence? Why does Hollywood not make movies about the Greeks, unless they are fighting the Persians in tiny leather uniforms? Do we conclude that we are superior to the Romans in the arena because we are addicted only to movie violence?

In a world where schools have long since sidelined history, most of us learn of the past from the History Channel and Oliver Stone (1946-). Today we could call Gérôme a “popularizer.” If he were a history professor today, he would be complimented for helping the students identify with the events of the past. However, history painting in nineteenth-century France was not necessarily supposed to be popular, only revered and respected. Unlike Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), who dis-respected the Salon system by portraying unattractive uninteresting modern types on a large scale, reserved for history painting, Gérôme kept most of his works small or medium sized. He was, in effect, using the rules to create a new space for what the system had already approved. In the end, he slipped past his many detractors and found fame, fortune, and many honors. As Scott Allan pointed out in his “Introduction” to Reconsidering Gérôme, the artist was “appointed professor at the newly reorganized École des Beaux-Arts in 1863…. (was given) a seat in the Institut de France in 1865…(and was) nominated grand officier of the Legion of Honor in 1898.” Son-in-law to the grand impresario of art reproduction, Adolph Goupil, Gérôme was one of the most reproduced and widely distributed artists of the nineteenth-century. But was he a “good” artist?

The Artist and Technique

Technically speaking, Gérôme was an odd mixture. On one hand, he could handle paint only in a limited manner, for he was essentially a drawer who painted and colored in the lines. On the other hand, he never won the Rome Prize for good reason–he was almost blind when it came to the classical approach to the human figure. Only when he removed himself from the Beaux-Arts tradition did he become at ease with the people he painted. His nude women are borrowed entirely from other artists, especially from Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) and Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856) (Character Study for a Greek Interior, 1850), and are boneless and airbrushed to a peculiar blank flatness. But when Gérôme clothed his females, he was completely at ease. His portrait of the daughter of Betty de Rothschild, who was painted by Ingres in 1848, Portrait of Madame la Baronne Nathaniel de Rothschild (1866) is not as stunning as an Ingres portrait, but Gérôme held his own with the master. His Portrait of M. Édouard Delessert (1864) with the subject nattily dressed in blue argyle socks is a genuine character study.


Gérôme. Portrait of Madame la Baronne Nathaniel de Rothschild (1866)

Despite these near-great portraits, Gérôme seemed to have had a hard time integrating actual sites with imaginary people. For example, there is a wonderful trio, featuring Napoléon in Egypt. Napoléon and his General Staff in Egypt (1867) imagines a very large General on a very dainty camel, but it is not the size disparity, it is the startled expression on Napoléon’s face that makes today’s viewer smile. Oedipus (1863 – 86) also plays havoc with scale: Napoléon is on a tiny horse, standing in front of a shrunken Sphinx. But most interesting is Napoléon in Cairo (1867 – 68), a simple little painting with the General standing in full uniform with Islamic mosques in the background. In real life, Napoléon was short and rounded, but here he is tall and slim. The viewer is given a level of information that Meissonier would envy–the details of the uniform are exquisitely rendered and one learns, thanks to the deep shadows of selective folds of his trousers, that the future Emperor “dressed” left. There are probably several reasons for the disparity of scale and proportion in Gérôme’s paintings. One would certainly be his academic training, which taught students to think in pastiche and collage and to “paste,” as it were, standard studio poses into grand backgrounds. Another cause would have been the artist’s use of photography as his source. Photography tended to make minute details available to the human eye, and when Gérôme copied these details, the effect was to flatten the surface with non-hierarchal information that overwhelmed the displaced figures and threw off the scale.


Gérôme emerged onto the Parisian art scene as the leader of the “Neo-Grec” school (according to the critics of his day) with The Cock Fight in the Salon of 1847. The genre painting tells a story of cocks, both seen and unseen, as a young boy orchestrates a contest between two roosters while a young girl shrinks away, as well she might. However, Gérôme did not confine himself to antiquity and the choice of his subjects says a great deal about what was going on in France during his career. Just as his mentor Paul Delaroche (1797-1856) spoke obliquely about the French Revolution (matricide and patricide) with The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833), Gérôme saluted the Second Empire by celebrating the current Emperor’s uncle, Napoléon I, in a number of paintings, some direct references, some indirect. The rather marvelous The Reception of the Siamese Ambassadors at Fountainebleau (1864) was a direct steal of Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoléon (1807). Two other wonderful paintings, The Grey Cardinal (1873) and the Reception of the Duc de Condé at Versailles (1878) were painted after the fall of the Second Empire and could be interpreted as a warning against secret power (the Cardinal and by extension the late Empire) and a plea for reconciliation (Duc de Condé) after rebellion, but, given the inherent political and painterly conservatism of Gérôme, the works could be more comfortably read in relation to the nostalgic Bonapartism and a desire for a monarchy, which marked the unsteady early decades of the ill-fated Third Republic.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Jean-François Lyotard and the Sublime, Part One

Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (1991)

Part One

The way in which the mind of Jean-François Lyotard worked was slow and systematic and thorough. The notion of the potential injustice in language games appeared in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) and was fully explored and applied to the Holocaust in The Differend (1983) where Lyotard brought up the Emmanuel Kant’s discussion of the sublime in the Critique of Judgment (1790). Although almost two decades separate these two books, and Lyotard’s Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime continued a discussion on Kantian aesthetics that would culminate in a protracted encounter with the sublime in the avant-garde which played out in his late works. It is this culmination of the sublime into the avant-garde that has most interested contemporary writers who tend to avoid the more difficult work of 1991 in preference for the occasions where Lyotard wrote more directly of specific works of art. But, like most of Lyotard’s work, this book on the sublime has a long gestation.

Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime was proceeded by several earlier books and by shattering political events that cast a shadow over much of Lyotard’s writing through the 1980s. The uprising of May 1968 seemed so significant at the time but, in retrospect, it is the aftermath of failure and a return to the “normalcy” of rule by Charles de Gaulle and the reactionary 198s0s that would inform Lyotard during that decade. Against this backdrop, the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy held a seminar at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris and Lyotard, post his work on the “Postmodern Condition,” gave a paper called “Enthusiasm” in 1981 * and entered into his mature phrase. Post-Freud and post-Marx and post-May 1968 this short paper by Lyotard returned to Kant who attempted to interpret the ongoing French Revolution and the wave of feeling that swelled and filled Europe with a sense of political change and hope for the future as free people. Kant’s meditation on the “enthusiasm” that surrounded the Revolution was embedded in a small section in the Critique of Judgment, his chapter on the Analytic of the Sublime; and it is with this detail that Lyotard picks up a political discussion that led him to The Differend, which led him to Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime.

The intellectual journey of Lyotard to philosophy was a political one. In the beginning of Peregrinations. Law, Form, Event (1988), he explained witty that, due to his early marriage and fatherhood, becoming a monk was impossible, his next choice of vocation, art, was rendered moot due to “lack of talent,” and, finally, his desire to be a historian was thwarted by a weak memory. Philosophy was his last choice, and Lyotard spent years as a civil servant teaching high school students in France, but he gave up all but political writing in the service of the forthcoming Marxist revolution. In a way, it was the collapse of the “Days of May” that sealed the fate of Lyotard to evolve into a philosopher who sough a way to reenter politics without being (too overtly) political. The Critique of Judgment was a far more political document than the Critique of Practical Reason within Kant’s oeuvre, but his thoughts on politics never resolved themselves into a fourth book on, say Political Reason. On one level what Lyotard was attempting to do was to write a Kantian fourth critique, a political one in which political theory was elevated to the level of a philosophical critique. The former road for political critique, Marxism, seemed less clear, but Kantian thinking provided a higher ground from which to consider politics.

It is very Lyotardian to prepare the way to a new work over a period of years, moving from one territory to the other, and it was this 1991 excursion into the dusty and neglected topic of the sublime (and the beautiful) that shook aesthetics out of its formalist slumber. The problems Lyotard faced in returning to Kant were extensive, for fully two centuries had passed since the 18th century philosopher attempted to synthesize and surpass the earlier tentative writings on aesthetics. The 20th century philosopher re-entered Kant through the path of the “event.” The event of his century was, for Lyotard, the Holocaust, the event that stopped history and forced subsequent “history” to be written in a different fashion. The event of his century was, for Kant, the French Revolution. What connects these two “events” was that both were apocalyptical–both ended in disaster–and neither was witnessed nor experienced by the philosophers. However, what pulls the events apart was the fact that the French Revolution was a deliberate spectacle with thousands of witnesses and the Holocaust produced, not witnesses, as Lyotard asserted, but victims and perpetuators, both equally silent.


The storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789

Lyotard explained the Kantian concept of the Event, which is a “sign of history,” residing as part of but beyond the narrative of history, by writing

..what Kant called a Begebenheit, an event or “act of delivering itself which would also be an act of deliverance, a deal (une donne), if you will..The sought-after Begebenheit would have the task of “presenting’ free causality according to the three temporal directions of past, present, and future. What is this enigmatic, if not contradictory, “act of delivering itself?”

Kant’s event, Lyotard reported in Le Differend, was not a “momentous deed” or a revolution. The event, Kant asserted

“..is simply the mode of thinking (Denksugnsart) of the spectators (Zuschauer) which betrays itself (such verrät) publicly (öffentlich) in this game of great upheavals (Umwandlungen, such as revolutions), and manifest switch a universal, yet disinterested sympathy (Teilnehmung) for the players on one side against those on the other..Owing to its universality, this mode of thinking demonstrates (beweist) a character of he human race at large and all at once, and owing to its disinterestedness, a moral (moralisch) character of humanity, at least in its predisposition (Anlage), a character which not only permits people to hope for progress toward the better, but is already itself progress insofar as its capacity is sufficient for the present.

Despite the disasters of the Terror and the Final Solution, these Events started the Modern and the Postmodern respectively. The French Revolution gave rise, despite the bloodbaths and rolling heads in city squares, to the Modern era and both responded to and gave rise to modern philosophy, while the Holocaust brought all the hopeful optimism of modernity crashing down. In a general sense, in Lyotard’s différend, the Holocaust is sublime because it defied comprehension, but he continued his discussion of the sublime in The Differend through the avenue of “enthusiasm” or Kant’s way of trying to understand the “feeling” of the French Revolution. The odd word, “enthusiasm,” was intended to connote the sense of being caught up in an “event” that was stronger than any one human being who might be swept up in the hope of the Revolution. Notably, Kant wrote the Third Critique years before the Terror broke out, so this sublime feeling of an enthusiastic response to the spontaneous outbreak of proletariat rebellion, like May 1868, utterly failed when Napoléon became Emperor. In his extended discussion of Kant in this book, Lyotard wrote that

Enthusiasm is a modality of the feeling of the sublime. The imagination tries to supply a direct, sensible presentation for an Idea of reason (for the whole is an object of an Idea, as for example, in the whole of practical, reasonable beings). It does not succeed and it thereby feels its impotence, but at the same time, it discovers its destination, which is to bring itself into harmony with the Ideas of reason through an appropriate presentation.

Kant’s Third Critique attempted to deal with judgment over human conditions and situations that defied reason and involved the domain of feelings, or what we today could call psychology, but which cannot be reduced to personal reactions and must be brought into the realm of universal judgment. This in-between zone, between the pure and the practical, needed its own critique in which Kant sought to investigate the grounds for judgment where the elements are indeterminate. There are certain objects (art) that give rise to feelings of pleasure, but there are experiences that give rise to displeasure, a level of displeasure that,when it exceeds the pleasure of agreeable beauty, is called the “sublime.” In the typical Modernist fashion, there is a structured binary, suggesting that the beautiful and the sublime can be contrasted along the lines of pleasure/displeasure or weak/strong and so on, but Lyotard seized upon a small part of the Critique, the Analytic of the Sublime and, within that section, one concept “enthusiasm.”

The feeling of enthusiasm was, par excellence, the experience of the sublime, sublime because the feeling could not be presented. The inability to present is related to the fundamental incompatibilities within the sublime itself, a clash between an intensity of pleasure that becomes pain. Enthusiasm is a knife edge sensation that teeters on the verge of what Kant called “dementia” or a kind of insanity, hence his odd insistence on disinterested sympathy, as a bulwark against a fall into madness, which is exactly what happened in France during the Terror. Despite the excesses of the French Revolution, the spectacle of the Fall of the Bastille, the drama of the Oath of the Tennis Court and the promise of the Declaration of the Rights of Man excited the imagination of those level-headed (disinterested) enough to see to the future. In other words, the Event of the French Revolution was less as sequential (and predictable) series of occurrences and more of a Begebenheit or a “sign of history” “delivering itself.” This is the sublime, Lyotard explained,

Great changes, like the French Revolution, are not, in principle, sublime, by themselves..the sublime is best determined by the indeterminate..The Begebenheit which ought to make a sign of history could be found only on the side of the audience watching he spectacle of the upheavals..The spectators, placed on other national stages, which make up the theater hall for the spectacle and where absolutism generally reigns, cannot on the contrary, be suspected of having empirical interests in making their sympathies public (öffentlich), they even run the risk of suffering repression at the hands of their governments..The Teilnehmung through desire is not a participation in the act. But it is worth more, because the feeling of the sublime, for its sake, is in fact spread out onto all national stages.

Closely related to the Differend, then, is the Sublime, a topic which Lyotard continued in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, which will be further discussed in the next post.

*Published as Enthusiasm. The Kantian Critique of History by Stanford University in 2009.

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Friedrich Schiller


Friedrich von Schiller (1759 – 1805)

Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Man, were literally a series of letters written in 1793 to the Danish Prince, Friedrich Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Augustenborg. According to William F. Wertz, some of these letters burned in a fire a year later but Schiller rewrote and published them in a journal he founded. Schiller was writing at a time that seemed only a few years away from Kant’s writing, yet despite the swiftness of the distribution of Kant’s ideas, the entire world had changed since 1790. The French Revolution, once seen as the uplifting expression of freedom had collapsed into mob rule and a bloodthirsty terror. The question was how should one obtain freedom? For Schiller, this was not a practical question to be manifested through laws, as demonstrated by the American revolution, but one of how humans can be brought to freedom. Who can rise to the challenge? One must pass through the Aesthetic and become ennobled, enhanced, improved, and uplifted by the moral experience. In viewing the exciting and terrifying French Revolution, one would be tempted to attempt to determine who deserved freedom–The dangerous mob, which was venting rage born of centuries of suffering. The aristocrats who were already elevated persons, undeserving as they seemed? For Schiller, the path to freedom and self-actuality was art. Art, in Schiller’s view, was capable of being independent–in principle–from the state and the artist could, in fact, rise above the times and express the age itself.

Schiller, then, would critique Kant for espousing freedom while at the same time making it a distinctly apolitical quality. Schiller’s mission, therefore, would be to reposition Kant’s suggestions back into the real world. “Art” and what the term means and how the object is apprehended and the discourse that surrounds its objects emanates out of aesthetics, which is a branch of philosophy. The discourse about art, art criticism, art history, and art theory all are variations on philosophy. Kant’s use of aesthetics was to establish the grounds for the viewing of art—disinterestedness—the grounds for beauty—necessity—and absolute universality of aesthetic criteria. In many ways, his philosophy is divided. On one hand, there is absoluteness and rules of judging; but, on the other hand, there is the new Romantic artist who is called upon to “play” and to create new “rules” for art by breaking rules through creative invention. It will be up to Friedrich Schiller to expound upon this gap in Kantian philosophy by concentrating on the artist.

Schiller, then, would critique Kant for espousing freedom while at the same time making it a distinctly apolitical quality. Schiller’s mission, therefore, would be to reposition Kant’s suggestions back into the real world. “Art” and what the term means and how the object is apprehended and the discourse that surrounds its objects emanates out of aesthetics, which is a branch of philosophy. The discourse about art, art criticism, art history, and art theory all are variations on philosophy. Emmanuel Kant’s use of aesthetics was to establish the grounds for the viewing of art—disinterestedness—the grounds for beauty—necessity—and absolute universality of aesthetic criteria. In many ways, Kant’s philosophy is divided. On one hand, there is absoluteness and rules of judging; but, on the other hand, there is the new Romantic artist who is called upon to “play” and to create new “rules” for art by breaking rules through creative invention. It will be up to Friedrich Schiller to expound upon this gap in Kantian philosophy by concentrating on the artist and rewriting the role for art from a subjective one to an objective (real world) endeavor.

It was Schiller who aestheticized morality, linking moral actions to the ability to appreciate the beauty of such idealism. In the Letters, which were rewritten for wider publication in 1795 for his magazine Die Horen, he stated that, “it is only through Beauty that man makes his way to Freedom.” Schiller was writing his essays at a pivotal moment in time. Germany was not yet a unified or modern country, nor did it have a powerful middle class. As a nation it had yet to be industrialized and faced another century and a half of autocratic rule, and, yet Romanticism with its emphasis on the individual somehow managed to thrive in artistic circles. He wrote to his princely patron in terms that one would not readily assume would find favor with one so powerful, yet, in Letter II, Schiller laid out his ultimate goal, stating that he wanted to direct that attention of his patron to “a loftier theme than that of art” and that “the most perfect of all works of art—the establishment and structure of a true political freedom” would be the center of his discourse.

Like Winckelmann, Schiller admired Greek culture and imagined that the ancient society was fully integrated with the natural, unlike modern culture which separated humans from nature, thus “alienating” men and women from the ground of their own making. Schiller died four decades before Marx would re-define alienation but the poet foresaw what the philosopher would witness, the splitting of the modern personality, rent and torn between intellect and emotion. Schiller’s stress on the emotional aspects of alienation is best understood in response to the subjectivism of the Romantic era and as an answer to the highly artificial age of the Enlightenment, which stressed reason and rationality in the name of nature, creating an overly mannered society through rules–the source of the aching alienation. Schiller took to heart that which is suggested in Kant–that art should have a higher role in society, creating a progressive society that would be “aesthectic” in itself, achieving harmony and unity in a world where nature and humans are one. Acutely aware of the modern agony of alienation, Schiller sought to lead humans towards wholeness through art, where intellect and emotions could be resolved into a healthy and united whole. Art allows all aspects of the mind to indulge in “free play” and creates a place where reason and passion can become balanced into a perfected form. In Letter IV, he compared what he called “mechanical artist,” a common term at that time, referring to the despised academic artist, to the engaged artist who works with society itself. He wrote, “The political and educating artist follows a very different course, while making man at once his material and his end. In this case the aim or end meets in the material, and it is only because the whole serves the parts that the parts adapt themselves to the end. The political artist has to treat his material man with a very different kind of respect from that shown by the artist of fine art to his work. He must spare man’s peculiarity and personality, not to produce a deceptive effect on the senses, but objectively and out of consideration for his inner being.”

Schiller followed not just the lead of Kant but also the lead of Alexander Baumgarten in writing aesthetics for the Romantic period. Kant wrote of the abstract arabesque as his ideal form of the beautiful, but Baumgarten had envisioned art as having a more central role in human life as did Schiller. “On the Aesthetic Education of Man” concerns itself with the importance of the “aesthetic” that is the sensuous as a counterpoint to the intellectual for the development of the human being. Kant’s Critique of Judgment was the capstone of his epistemological theory, but Schiller was concerned less with theory and more with the predicament of modern life. Beauty, for Schiller, is the possibility that human beings can re-create themselves into higher beings. If Kant is the “head” or “intellect” of aesthetics, then Schiller is the “heart” of art philosophy. While Kant’s discussion of art was strictly conceptual and abstract, Schiller was a poet himself and knew of the problems and rewards of creation. But Schiller was also a playwright and a philosopher who was aware of his condition as a “hermaphrodite” or a hybrid creature: the artist who was also a philosopher. Schiller the artist appeared in his philosophical writings only in his poetic and rhetorical tone, for he rarely wrote on art itself. The Letters, for example, were political and moral documents.

One of the earliest translations of Schiller’s Letters into English was presented with an elegant Preface by the translator John Chapman who wrote in 1845, the word “aesthetics” “..as used by Schiller..expresses that state of humanity which manifests a harmonious and equal development of its entire nature, exclusive of the will, comprehending the circle of its sensuous, intellectual and moral attributes. It supposes an absence of all constraints from any particular law, or more truly such an equable and perfect action of all laws of nature which centre in humanity that none dominate–there is no tendency in any particular direction–hence an equal aptness and capacity in every direction. It does not embrace the idea of any special kind of doing, but the universal ability to do. The complement of this development is aesthetic Beauty.

In this 1845 English edition of The Philosophical and Aesthetic Letters and Essays of Schiller, the translator, J. Weiss, provided his own Introduction. “These Letters,” he said, “stand unequaled in the department of Aesthetics, and are so esteemed in Germany, which is os fruitful upon that topic. Schiller is Germany’s best Aesthetician, and these letters contain the highest moments of Schiller.” Schiller was not a follower of Kant, but he was an astute reader of the last Critique and he picked up on the Kantian term “play,” or the inventiveness of the genius. Schiller himself coined the phrase “play impulse” a theory that Weiss regards as “the chief nerve of his aesthetic system.” Schiller wrote in Letter XV, “The object of the sensuous instinct, expressed in a universal conception, is named Life in the widest acceptation: a conception that expresses all material existence and all that is immediately present in the senses. The object of the formal instinct, expressed in a universal conception, is called shape or form, as well in an exact as in an inexact acceptation; a conception that embraces all formal qualities of things and all relations of the same to the thinking powers. The object of the play instinct, represented in a general statement, may therefore bear the name of living form; a term that serves to describe all æsthetic qualities of phænomena, and what people style, in the widest sense, beauty.” And then he states emphatically and movingly, “For, to speak out once for all, man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.”

Schiller was concerned about the fullest development of human potential through Aesthetic Education. He understood that as a civilization lost refinement (Beauty), and, in drifting away from taste, the culture began to decline. Indeed, after the horrifying experience of watching the deterioration of the Revolution into violence, Schilller gave up on the idea of reforming society through overthrowing one government in favor of another and looked instead to the re-formation of people, society, into evolving humans who would be informed (reformed) through aesthetics, which would, eventually, enoble the citizens. People would change and evolve through an elevation of morals and ethics, which in and of themselves were a form of beauty of becoming something greater. The question of improving society is a practical one, combining the rational side and the sensuous side, overcoming the duality or the dialectic through a third force, the play-impulse or the Spieltriech. Anticipating and inspiring Hegel, Schiller suggests a play, as it were, of opposites, a dialectic, thesis, antithesis, to be reconciled by a third force or synthesis. He suggested that the Stofftrieb or the material drive and the Formtrieb or the form drive would be mediated by the Spieltrieb. As Weiss explained, “The aesthetic Art-impulse will never unfold itself, if the Play-impulse has not first become active.”

While Kant set up charts and establishes oppositions, Schiller established evolution through activities of the dialectical. In Letter XX, he wrote, “Thus, to pass from sensation to thought, the soul traverses a medium position, in which sensibility and reason are at the same time active, and thus they mutually destroy their determinant power, and by their antagonism produce a negation. This medium situation in which the soul is neither physically nor morally constrained, and yet is in both ways active, merits essentially the name of a free situation; and if we call the state of sensuous determination physical, and the state of rational determination logical or moral, that state of real and active determination should be called the æsthetic.” In his A Companion to the Works of Friedrich Schiller, Steven D. Martinson remarked, “For Schiller, the salvation of the human species lies neither in religion nor in science but, in art. Art alone is capable of effecting a balance between all of one’s individual faculties. Clearly, Schiller’s work marks a profound shift in German culture. He is the first to replace religion with art explicitly in theory…One of Schiller’s foremost contributions is the knowledge that practical reason operates in concert with aesthetics. The actualization of moral knowledge in the present that is gained in the process of aesthetic education means that the ideal of humane humanity serves as a regulative idea for the improvement of individuals and societies over time. Schiller’s ideas are not mere abstractions that await their realization in a distant and unforeseeable future. Rather one strives to enact the moral knowledge that one has acquired affectively in and through aesthetic education.”

Later Georg Lukács would complain that Schiller avoided political involvement by denying the State any role in this “aesthetic” education. But presumably humans would never evolve on their own if this education was controlled by the state. It is possible, therefore to free the arts from the state for the artist to achieve an aesthetic education, while at the same time the artist can put art to practical and political purposes. From a Kantian perspective, Schiller is internally contradictory but from a Schillerian perspective, the freedom of art from the state and its use in culture–practical use–is a resolution of the dialectic through the play-impulse. Thus for Schiller aesthetics and politics become seamlessly entwined into a synthesis.

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The Artistic Revolution in France


By the eighteenth century being part of the beaux-arts rather than being involved in “crafts” was often a matter of class. Artists tended to come from the middle class and shared the aspirations of upward social mobility typical of the bourgeoisie. Eager to please and desiring to succeed, these artists were disciplined by way of the long-standing academic training and system of rewards and punishments. For nearly a century and a half, artistic production, the education of the artists and the quality of the arts was under the auspices of the state. Each artist and every object was evaluated and all artists were trained to respond to patronage and prizes. The academic system, as restrictive as it was, was, if one played by the rules, a stable and predictable means of earning a living. But two social events would impact artists and art, especially in France, and upend the promise of guarantees. The first event was the French Revolution, which forced artists to choose between King or country, aristocracy or citizens, and, which, during the Terror, eliminated the traditional patrons, the Church and the aristocrats. The second event was a long, ongoing process: the rise of the middle class as a group that would dominate the state economically and politically and thus would constitute a new buying public for art. In the decades before the French Revolution, the middle class had made itself known to the artists through the Salon exhibitions, a major cultural event in their time. Although impressed by prestigious history painting, this new class was interested in domestic themed art that reflected their ordinary lives suitable for middle class interiors. If they responded to large works of art or the grandes machines, this public wanted the narratives to be comprehensible and were puzzled by erudite classical themes the artists were rewarded for. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, artists looked, not just to the State for support but also to the patronage of private citizens. Such patronage depended upon the artist obtaining a place in the Salon, gaining notice and finding new collector who would have their own demands. One could dream of making a splash in the Salon, like Jaques Louis David did with The Oath of the Horatii, but the artist was increasingly beholden to the opinions of art critics.

The artist had to master numerous obstacles to achieve success and make a living from a competitive profession. Most young men began the serious study of art as teenagers and spent years achieving mastery, and the Academy would have been the equivalent of a contemporary high school, dedicated to the arts. The elite training was then, as it is today, the key to success. Any artist who wished to be fêted in the Salon had to go through a set of educational and professional motions, including being trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and perhaps winning the Prix de Rome and then, capping off these student years, with the longed-for recognition in the Salon by the established powers–the State, the Church, and the wealthy patrons. The French Revolution upended the state-based system of educating and rewarding artists, but only for a time. During the Revolution, artists either participated in propagandizing the aims and ideals of the revolutionary cause or risked being denounced and imprisoned by zealots. One of the most important painters for the French Royal family, Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), proved to be an agile and adroit political opportunist and quickly turned his (royalist) coat and put himself in the service of the Revolution. He even went to far as to sign warrants which led to the imprisonment of his colleagues while he designed and built huge works of public art, rather like the Rose Bowl floats of today, that advertized the Revolution and awed the spectators. At the end of the worst part of the Terror, David joined his imprisoned colleagues in the Luxembourg Palace. He was lucky not to have been beheaded–the fates of his sponsors.

David emerged from prison somewhat chastened but quickly attached himself to the next rising star, Napoleón Bonaparte, already a patron to Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1825), who had befriended the young general in Italy. David’s pupils, Jean-Antoine Gros and Anne-Louis Girodet Roussey de Trison, were able to ride out the Revolution in Italy, safely away from the changing fortunes of artists unwise enough to play politics. But to survive in this inverted world of newly minted leaders, the artist had to be wily to survive. The fin-de-siècle was an age of hero worship and Napoleón rewarded those who worshiped him. Once (relative) sanity returned to the streets and government stability replaced civil war and chaos, the new régime, the Directory, quickly restored the system of art education. The École des Beaux-Arts, the Rome Prize, and all of the academic rules and regulations that, if followed, would lead to Salon success, were all resurrected. But the demands upon the artist had changed. The old aristocratic patrons were gone and new powers awaited the artists. Now governed by a militaristic “man of the people,” the state under Napoleón embarked upon nearly two decades of propagandistic art, celebrating the new Emperor and his court and the glories of war and conquest. Neoclassicism, already an important style before 1789, had been employed as the style of the Revolution by David, who was, under Napoleón, the most important artist of the Empire. Responding to the needs of the new military heroes, Neoclassicism retained its carefully classical style—-clear outlines and cool colors and balanced composition–but was drafted into the service of battle paintings, dramatized and exciting narratives of military exploits, suitable to Napoleónic narratives of victory.

It is here, in these military panoramas, that the germs of Romanticism can be discerned. Early Neoclassicism did not favor diagonals and action and motion, but under the Emperor, excitement and drama ruled and a certain Baroqueness slid back into history painting. That said, the official style of the Empire–bombastic and extravagant–was given over to the same traditional role as had always been expected of artists–supporting the established powers. Although during these Napoleónic years, ideas of Romantic aesthetics from Germany were imported to France, art-for-art’s-sake and artistic freedom were still in the future. The artists had to please new masters, the Emperor, the Salon jury, and the bourgeoisie. Most of all, the artists had to conform to the Salon system itself, now refined and, without the possibility of private commissions from aristocrats, was more important and more competitive than ever. By the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the bourgeoisie, was firmly in social, economic, and political power, and despite the comings and goings of various emperors and kings, would remain in power. This middle class was an art-loving class. They knew little about art but knew that they like to be entertained. Thousands came to art exhibitions, the Salons, which were the only avenue of economic opportunity for the French artist who needed to make a living. Scheduled for every year or every other year, depending on which régime was in power, the Salons were huge exhibitions drawing from artists around the world attracted to the prestige of France. Jostling with the French artists, seeking recognition, Americans and British painters and sculptors, not to mention Italians and Germans, pushed into the prestigious contest. Expecting to be delighted and amused, rather like we are pleased (or not) by contemporary film, the French public crowded into the exhibition spaces by the thousands, freely expressing their more or less uninformed opinions.


Salon of 1785

For the French artist, the annual Salon was the one chance to show and to become known. To be refused—rejected from the Salon–was to be a failure, a refusée, until the following year. Merely being accepted was not a guarantee of success. Paintings were hung floor to ceiling and, of course, each painter wanted his/her work to be hung at eye level and not “skied,” that is, hung high, or hung low. Prominent artists could demand that their works be hung where the public could see them easily but those less well known were at the mercy of the installers. The most successful painters were those who pleased both the public and the Academy juries. Sculpture in the Salons adhered to the Neoclassical style but what the audience saw were small-scale works or casts or maquettes for future public projects. Often the smaller works would be placed upon a crowded table and the sculptors suffered from the same kind of limitations to ideal viewing as the painters.

The Salon was a site of hierarchies. History painting reigned supreme, prized because the difficult and didactic compositions, crowded with ancient notables, mostly partially nude, displayed the artist’s erudition and education and artistic skills. Only an artist educated in the École would be capable of drawing and composing a group of figures. Only an artist educated in the École would be educated enough to understand the minutia of ancient history, literary and historical topics favored by the juries. Other artists, especially women, would be confined, due to lack of academic education to lower ranking genres, such as genre scenes and portraiture and still lives, none of which required knowledge of the nude. In these years before modern art galleries and adventurous collecting, the Salon was the only game in town and artists had little choice but to accept the rigorous rule of a conservative elite, disinclined to be open-minded to new artistic ideas. But such new ideas were already present to those who were alert to new styles and new cultural trends. The clash of realism and romanticism was present in the propaganda art of Gros, the blatant eroticism of Girodet stunned the prudish, and the offbeat choice of content by Théodore Géricault, who loved horses and frequented carnal houses disturbed the politically correct. The French Revolution may have ended in yet another oppressive regime under a new Emperor, but it had introduced the idea of individual rights and freedom. Neoclassicism, as a ruling style, essentially ended with the reign of Napoleón, and an artistic revolution that would be called Romanticism began to emerge. Denied political rights and freedom, artists began to resist the demands for the status quo and the edicts issued by the Salon juries and took a more independent path, seeking to attract the attention of the public. Born of political disillusionment, a new attitude began to take shape. The artist demanded the right to freedom of expression as an art maker, which, in these early years of Romanticism, played itself out mostly along the lines of style and the way in which materials were handled.

Both inside and outside the Academy, there was the pressing and urgent quarrel between the Poussinistes (the proponents of line in art and discipline in society) and the Rubenistes (the proponents of color in art and individual freedom in society). This quarrel was a (political) challenge to the dominance of Neoclassicism and the Salon system, which controlled artists. But the quarrel was more than stylistic; it was generational and cultural and political. The dominant art form–controlled and contained Ne0classicism–was connected to the dominant social system, which controlled and contained the populace. These artistic conflicts, no matter how they are labeled, seem to break down into philosophical positions, which seem to extend far beyond any disagreements as to style or subject matter. Neoclassicism vs. Romanticism is really a conflict about emotion vs. reason, which is really a conflict about which should be supreme in art, color (emotion) or line (reason)? The question of line versus color is really a political conflict about who should rule, the people (feelings) or the state (order) were social conflicts concerning democracy vs. the ruling caste. The conflict over individual freedom opposed to the state’s traditional control over the art makers is really a conflict between the lone, romantic genius artist inventing new forms as opposed to the powers of the Academy. During this era, the beaux-arts had a far more important and prominent place in society than today; and the State government of France kept careful control over artistic production, understanding all too well that an artist could speak directly to the people.

Also read: “The French Academy” and “The French Academy: Sculpture” and “The French Academy: Painting”

Also listen to: “The Academy and the Avant-Garde

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]

Revolution and Terror in France


The Revolution and Terror in France

When the American Revolutionary War was waged, the conflict was unpopular both in England and America. Only one third of the colonists supported and participated in the War. And yet the Revolution was won—astonishingly—by the upstart colonists; and suddenly America was on its own, as the “United States,” embarking on one of the most revolutionary governments of all time, a democracy. It cannot be exaggerated how experimental this new nation seemed to the Europeans. America was an unprecedented ideal realized and many observers predicted failure and chaos. It also cannot be exaggerated how much Europeans distrusted the very concept of “democracy,” or rule of the “mob.” “Government by the people, for the people,” as Lincoln said later, was a horrifying concept in Europe. And with good reason, from the perspective of the sober middle class, the “dangerous” lower classes were to be feared. Those fears were manifested in France, only a few years after the formation of the United States of America, when another Revolution erupted in 1789. All fears of the wrath of the lover classes were realized, and, in France, this revolution was bloody and violent, utterly without common sense or reason.

Unlike the American Revolution, as much as it was a revolution against a King ,the French Revolution was a civil war, a war between the classes. For centuries the lower classes had been repressed and kept under the delicate high heels of the aristocracy, which refused to part with any of its age old privileges. Those with titles lived in a world of the past, frozen in amber, clinging to a past, unaware of the dangers of the present. The middle class, literate and educated and ambitious were steeped in the revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment. The real civil war in France was between the past and the future, with the Revolution as the blood midwife of the present, giving violent birth and presiding over gruesome death. The American Revolution pitted one restive nation against an oppressive parent nation, but the French went war with themselves as class fought class for survival and dominance. The reasons for the French rebelled against King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were quite different and more personal compared the the distant antagonism of the Americans to a far-away King George III, who suddenly tried to tax them. Their political cry–“no taxes without representation”–was a demand for equality, but the slogan fell on deaf ears. It was quite possible that if the Crown had negotiated with the colonists, an agreement might have been reached, but in France there was no possibility of reasoning with the angry proletariat. Although inspired by Enlightenment philosophy, the French Revolution began, not with the middle classes, but with the lower classes. The sans coulottes, or the proletariat, had suffered under the unbending rule of the aristocracy and were struggling with the impact of a change in climate, known as The Little Ice Age, which brought years of crop failure and famine. In addition to the lowering of temperatures, a volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1783 resulted in devastated harvests. After years of dramatically cold winters and devastatingly hot summers, there was a significant shortage of grains and bread riots began in 1789. The starving proletariate demanded that the inert government act to protect its people.

The lower classes, the peasants, tired, overworked, and hungry, and they spontaneously rose up to protest their hardships. The proletariat was not inspired by ideas of their “natural rights;” they were starving. When the ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers filtered down to them, these modern ideas were rejected by the lower classes, who felt threatened by modernity and its attack on a traditional way of life. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, it was the well-educated aristocrats in France and England supported the Revolution, acting from a moral and philosophical point of view, never thinking they would be in danger. Those of the upper class who were wealthy and prospering from new economic opportunities had everything to gain from establishing a constitutional monarchy along the lines of the arrangement in England. Although the heroes of the American Revolution, Washington and Lafayette, were greatly admired in France, the ultimate model for the French Revolutionaries was Britain, which had a constitutional monarchy and an established aristocracy. America was too democratic for French needs.

By 1788, France was in a crisis of confidence concerning the incompetent rulers, King Louis XVI and his Austrian Queen, Marie Antoinette. As if the bloodline of French royalty and thinned into this indifferent couple which was positively incontinent when it came to spending money. But it was not the extravagant Marie Antoinette and her famous diamond necklace which bankrupted France. The French monarch actually cost the French people half of what the British monarchy cost the English. Ironically, the nation’s financial troubles stemmed from its alliance with the American colonies in the War of Independence. The saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” could have been applied to the unhappy French royal family after America became independent. Not that the French were supporting democracy; the French were fighting England for continental and international dominance. The French had gone into debt to finance the Seven Years’ War with England and the desire for revenge had propelled them into another war, using America as their pawn. All the French wanted to do was to slow the dominance of the British Empire but the law of unintended consequences came into effect: as a result of supporting the American cause and humiliating the British, the nation was bankrupt and there were severe food shortages with no money to pay for imported food.

The war fought for American independence, told from the French perspective, is unrecognizable to an American: the powerful and competent French won the war for the incompetent and stalemated Americans, but great cost financially. The difficulty of recovering from a costly war is a also modern problem, and, even today, recovering from the expense of a war can easily take a decade. For example, it took America some twenty years to recover from the expense of the Vietnam War, hence the prosperity of the 1990s. But France was reeling from the impact of climate change, and the nation was a largely feudal nation faced with the coming of modern capitalism but still lacking the modern financial instruments to solve their problems. Then, as now, no one wanted to be taxed to pay for the war, even a war that was so full of celebrated and adored heroes, such as Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis de Layfayette. The war had to be paid for and the King was persuaded to call representatives of the people together to work out a workable tax system to pay for the war.

The philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau had taken such a hold on the imagination of the ruling class that the King was forced to bend to the logic of “natural law” and “natural rights.” An amateur watch maker, Louis XVI seemed to genuinely want to be the kind of good ruler demanded by the Enlightenment and he made he mistake of calling together the Estates General, a representative body with a medieval ancestry. The Estates General, which had not been called since 1616, consisted of the First Estate, the nobles, the Second Estate, the clergy, and the Third Estate, the middle class. The representatives were supposed to solve the problems of France by raising taxes on the people, but the men who gathered together began to imagine a new system of government entirely. The problem was that the three estates had equal votes and the first and second estates aligned themselves against the third estate. After six weeks of contention, the Third Estate pulled out and declared themselves the National Assembly, meeting on a tennis court, jeu de paume, to take an oath to stay together until, like the Americans, they wrote a Constitution. In the end, rather than helping the King solve the problems of the nation, this distaff group eventually deposed the monarchy. Once painter the the aristocrats, Jacques Louis David, depicted the dramatic moment of the oath taking, showing the excitement of runaway emotion and demonstrating his flexibility in the face of a changing client base.

Jacques-Louis David. The Tennis Court Oath (1791)

The word of the hour was “citizen,” which also meant patriot or someone who served the patrie or nation, not the King. Originally intended to be an inclusive term, it would later be an excluding term. While the aristocrats limited their revolutionary gestures to divesting themselves of their titles (not their lands or wealth) and privileges, the sans coulottes (who did not wear breeches and hose but the long trousers of the working class male) desperately needed help. It is one thing to be unhappy with your rulers; it is another thing entirely to be hungry with no prospects for change. The French Revolution began in 1789, the same year the Americans were writing a Constitution, opening dramatically on July 14 with the storming of the Bastille, an infamous but largely empty prison. From the start, the Revolution was an unstable entity, driven by mob anger, which led to the Terror of 1793-94. The transfer of power from the aristocrats to the middle class ended with the execution of the King and Queen and the annihilation of a large portion of the aristocratic class. Thousands of people, the wealthy, the well-born, and their servants died under the new invention, the guillotine, at the hands of a blood thirsty mob. Indeed, many of those titled men who had so passionately supported the Revolution lost their heads to a new invention, the guillotine, because, as aristocrats, they could never be “citizens.”

As though the regicide of the King loosened something in the French people, the year of the execution of Louis XVI opened the Reign of Terror under the auspices of the Revolutionary Tribunal over 30, 000 people perished under the blade of the guillotine. The instrument of Terror was the Committee of Safety, where the major leaders of the Revolution, Robespierre, Danton, and Sainte-Juste, took away all of the rights won by the early years of the Revolution and reinstalled all of the oppressive practices of the monarchy. The reasons for setting up this deadly tribunal were, according to Sophie Wahnich, was to turn the attentions of the French people from unruly vengeance to the task of defending the Revolution against the European powers threatening to invade France and end the Revolution. But there were enemies within as well who much be purged so that the people could see that the leaders were preventing “injustice.” As Wahnich wrote in 2012 In Defense of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution,

The Terror presupposed quick action so as to defeat the enemies before they destroyed the Revolution so that the people would not be disgusted by injustice, and wold not have to take up unheeding injury in their exercise of the sovereign exception, and to effectively restrain this founding sovereignty. The exercise of Terror was thus a race against time. It was undoubtedly here that the project became impossible:to give the expected justice a form that was at the same time controlled–and do so at lightening speed.

The French were unfortunate in their leaders, or rather, their lack of real leadership or moral or ethical guidance. This revolution thrust up rabble-rousers and demagogues, ambitious and unscrupulous men, all determined to ride the wave of revolution into greater power. In the end, they all wound up victims of the very rage they had stirred up. Although the notorious Committee of Safety was in charge, no one was in control. There were only those who aroused the mod, like Maximilien Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat, Georges Jacques Danton, and Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Juste. The result was that the Revolution ran wild as the lower classes vented their anger on the aristocrats and ordinary people, during the years known as the Terror from 1793 to 1795. As Robespierre thundered, “Softness to traitors will destroy us all.” Actually Robespierre was involved in an internal struggle among the revolutionaries over who would control the Revolution and he attempted to ride the tiger he set loose. As every demagogue finds out, it is dangerous to unleash the passions of the mod, because the same crowd that lifted him up can cast him down. Marat was assassinated, Robespierre and Saint-Juste, “the archangel of the Revolution,” were executed in the Thermidorian Reaction, Danton created the Committee of Public Safety and then warned that the Revolution was spiraling out of control, only to be executed by the Committee he founded.

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon. Louis Antoine de Saint-Juste (1793)

The French Revolution degenerated into horror. Added to surveillance, spying and denunciation were massacres, mass executions and near genocide of a single class. In the end the leaders of the mob all went to that instrument of a human and “democratic” death, the guillotine. The question is when did the French Revolution end? Unlike the American Revolution, there was no moment of victory or surrender but a slow and disorderly internal struggle with in the new “government” formed in 1795, the Directory, to retain power among themselves and to keep the “mod,” still hungry and still angry and still powerless, under control. The “official” end, if there was one, was the Coup of Brumaire in 1799. Under the leadership of Director Emmanuel Joseph Sieyés, who installed an undefeated general, named Napoléon Bonaparte, he though was controllable and Pierre-Roger Ducos, who had supported him in the Coup. The three formed the Consulate and the military took control.

The rest, as they say, is history. The power vacuum left behind by the killing of the king was to be filled by a new leader, who could bring order out of chaos by protecting the French from the European armies, which were advancing towards the country to put an end to the savage rebellion and restore the monarchy. Napoléon Bonaparte waited politely for three years before he removed his fellow counsels and reinstalled the idea of total power being held by one man, ending the goals and the ideals of a Revolution gone wrong.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]

Podcast Episode 3: Jacques-Louis David


Jacques-Louis David, the most prominent Neoclassical painter in France, shifted his artistic allegiances from a king to a revolution against that king to an emperor. Was the artist a man without principles or was he a man of his own time, caught up in the tides of history, taking opportunity as he found it? The major works of art by David will be discussed within the context of his turbulent historical times. David developed a heroic and masculine style of Neoclassicism that proved to be well-suited to an era of war and revolution. Through his sheer talent (or effrontery) David managed to move with adroitness through political waters but with the fall of his final master, Napoléon, the luck of the painter ran out and he died in exile in Belgium.


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

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