The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact

By Gail M. Schwab; John R. Jeanneney | Go to book overview

26
Marianne Revisited: Anti-Republican Political Caricature, 1880-1900

Willa Z. Silverman

The republican iconography generated by the French Revolution forms a rich visual tradition, now two centuries old. The tricolor flag, pike and sheaf of fasces are familiar symbols in works evoking revolutionary and republican themes. But the best known (and most controversial) icon from the revolutionary era is Marianne. Over a two-hundred-year period, this female allegorical figure has come to represent the separate or combined values of liberty, the Revolution, the Republic and France itself.

Since the Revolution, Marianne's image has adorned postage stamps, currency, war monuments and contemporary busts of the Republic resembling Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, and now Chanel model Inès de la Fressange. All these representations glorify this tutelar deity of the Republic.

The sanctification of Marianne was especially visible during the early decades of the Third Republic. For republicans the new regime fulfilled the messianic revolutionary promise of liberté, égalité, fraternité. The political class explicitly proclaimed itself the inheritor of the revolutionary legacy and sought to legitimize this claim by promoting a secular cult of republican civic virtue. This cult sought to strengthen its authority through the proliferation of traditional republican images, including that of Marianne.

Yet Marianne's image has served not only the champions but also the enemies of the revolutionary and republican heritage. Among these adversaries were the Third Republic's opponents on both the Right and the Left, who viewed the regime as ineffectual at best, corrupt, perverse and exploitative at worst. They expressed their opposition not only through political agitation and writing, but again also through visual symbols. From 1880 to 1900, during the so-called Opportunist Republic, gifted caricature artists exploited generic republican symbols, most notably that of Marianne. Yet they infused them with new meaning in order to accentuate their anti- republican stance.

Revisiting Marianne at the end of the nineteenth century, then, means witnessing the visual profanation of an icon. The nature of this profanation may indeed reveal something about the status of the republican idea at that time in a nation where political conflict is often expresesed symbolically.

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