Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Visual Rhetoric of Jean-Louis Prieur

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Visual Rhetoric of Jean-Louis Prieur

Article excerpt

From the beginning of the French Revolution the people of France were aware that they were living through a time of momentous change, and they understandably wanted a visual record of the events that marked the beginning of a new era. In the absence of the camera the only way to create that record was through prints. The most ambitious and successful of the commercial ventures that offered prints illustrating revolutionary events for sale to the public was the Tableaux historiques de la Rivolution francaise, comprised of 144 engravings covering the period 20 June 1789 to 18 Brumaire of Year VII in the revolutionary calendar. The first illustrator for the Tableaux historiques, Jean-Louis Prieur, provided drawings covering the period from 20 July 1789 to 2-3 September 1792. Altogether, he made sixty-nine drawings, of which sixty-seven were engraved by Pierre-Gabriel Berthault.

Little is known about Prieur, whose drawings for the Tableaux historiques are his only known works (six have been lost). He was born in Paris in 1759, may have studied under Cochin or Moreau the younger, and became actively involved in revolutionary politics; he was a Jacobin, a member of the Revolutionary committee in the Poissoniere Section, and in September 1793 he was appointed to the Revolutionary Tribunal. It was because of his role as a juror on the Revolutionary Tribunal that he was arrested after the uprising of 12 Germinal (1 April 1795) and went to the guillotine with Fouquier-Tinville and fourteen others on 7 May 1795. During Prieur's trial the clerk-recorder of the Revolutionary Tribunal, Wolff, accused him of bloody-mindedness ("le caractere le plus sanguinaire") and gave evidence to substantiate the claim: he said Prieur insulted those he condemned and during the hearings he did not bother to listen but drew the heads of the accused, which were completely covered with blood. Prieur replied that he had been calumnied and that he took notes on whoever might have appeared before him. As to the other charge, he said, "Sometimes I drew caricatures, beastly little things (cochonneries), small trifles (petites betises), that is all."(2)

Prieur's pictorial account of the Revolution is not objective, even though he was surely an eyewitness to many of the events he illustrated. It is useful to think of him as a rhetorician whose language was his art, and whose images are projections of his own attitudes, feelings, and responses to the great events of the Revolution. A good part of the interest in Prieur's tableaus lies in their partisanship, much as can be said of the journalism of a Marat or an Hebert, to mention but two writers who come to mind while tying to locate approximate counterparts for Prieur. The importance to the historian of Marat and Hebert is not just what they said but how they said it and the same is true of Prieur. Another obvious connection between Prieur and his journalistic counterparts, Marat and Hebert, is that both he and they identified with the popular revolution. Each did so in his own way. Marat retained a classical diction even as he gave himself over to outpourings of anger directed at the enemies of the people. Hebert, by contrast, adopted an artificially popular journalistic style that was heavily laced with foutres and bougres, and whose syntax and diction was far removed from that of Marat.(3) For his part, Prieur had an ability, unique among illustrators, to capture the movements and body language of the populace, and to project in his images the actual sense of a revolutionary journee, including its violence and sardonic humour.

In his illustrations of the Paris uprising of 12-14 July 1789 Prieur employed a rhetoric that dramatized the role of the people in their struggle against the German Guards who defended the capital. To achieve the effects he sought he took liberties as he scripted the scenes he portrayed. An example of his scripting is Tableau 5, The Busts of the duc d'Orleans and Necker are carried in triumph and broken in the Place Louis XV (fig. …

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