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  • Absent Fathers, Martyred Mothers: Domestic Drama and (Royal) Family Values in A Graphic History of Louis the Sixteenth
  • Alexandra K. Wettlaufer*

Background: Propaganda in Prints

The relationship between art, politics, and family values, so familiar in America in the 1990s, played a no less polemic and perhaps even more dramatic role in the production of images in France and England in the 1790s. During the tumultuous decade of revolution and political upheaval from the fall of the Bastille to Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1799, art in the French Republic became synonymous with propaganda, as revolutionary leaders quickly recognized the instructive potential of popular imagery. Engraving, in the form of prints and caricatures, was embraced as the most efficient and inexpensive vehicle for the propagation of republican ideology and thus played an important role in what Lynn Hunt has identified as “an ambitious programme of public instruction that aimed at nothing less that the total regeneration of the French people.” 1 While most of us are familiar with both the negative images of the royal family via caricature (i.e., Louis as a pig or a drunk, Marie-Antoinette as an ostrich, a hyena, or in sexually compromising positions, etc.) and the more positive allegorical figures of Liberty, Equality, Nature, or the Republic that circulated throughout France in the form of revolutionary “mass culture,” counterrevolutionary propaganda is less often examined. 2 Yet these images, no more “real,” “factual,” or “accurate” than their revolutionary counterparts—for they too are propaganda—provide important insights into contemporary ideologies of class, gender, and violence while revealing strategies of containment and conservative political doctrine in the face of what was felt to be the very dissolution of the social body itself.

As the revolutionaries sought to formulate a new social order, inexpensive, mass-produced prints became an important vehicle for the promulgation of a new set of values to the popular classes, most of whom could not read. 3 While counterrevolutionary propaganda was also produced in France during the early years of the Republic, under the Terror engravings and prints of the royal family were seized and printers imprisoned or executed, and consequently the production of royalist images and propaganda shifted primarily to England, along with a large population of aristocratic and sacerdotal émigrés. If revolutionary prints were characterized by their “egalitarian” qualities—cheap, mass produced, widely distributed, [End Page 1] accessible, anonymous—the counterrevolutionary engravings generated in London took part in a booming print market where they were often produced in hopes of achieving popular success and profit. As early as 1790, the London dealer Hollande was advertising “the largest collection in Europe of political and humorous engravings, with those published in Paris in the French Revolution,” along with caricatures by Rowlandson and Gillray. 4

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Figure 1.

Luigi Schiavonetti, engraving after Charles Bénazech, The Last Interview between Lewis the Sixteenth and his Disconsolate Family. 51.4 x 64.4 cm. Published 10 March 1794 by D. Colnaghi.

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Figure 2.

James Gillray, Louis XVI taking leave of his Wife & Family, colored etching. 25 x 38 cm. Published 20 March 1793 by J. Aitken.

The wide appeal of these images in England is witnessed by the proliferation of scenes of Louis’ departure from his family—ranging from Bénazech’s dramatic tableau (Plate 1), which was reproduced by at least six different engravers, to medallions and tea mugs of the tearful parting—all of which are effectively parodied in Gillray’s famous 1793 caricature, Louis XVI taking leave of his Wife and Family (Plate 2). Gillray’s exaggeratedly lachrymose and gestural scene satirizes both the French royal family’s plight and, perhaps even more pointedly, the sensationalist, maudlin nature of contemporary images of them. 5 The English appetite for images of Louis’ execution was fueled by exhibits such as the display of a life-size working model of a guillotine in the picture gallery at Haymarket immediately after his death, and Bénazech’s 1793 painting of the king’s final moments was so enormously popular that Schiavonetti’s 1795 engraving was reengraved by Cardon in 1797, which suggests...

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