- Portraiture and Politics in Revolutionary France by Amy Freund
Other than Tony Halliday’s Facing the Public: Portraiture in the Aftermath of the French Revolution (Manchester, 2000), studies that treat portraiture as a genre in France during the Revolutionary period remain surprisingly scarce. Scholars have examined portraits of major figures in the context of monographic studies of artists — most notably Jacques-Louis David — but such approaches fail to present a broader view of the role portraiture [End Page 362] played in society during the political upheavals of the French Revolution. Amy Freund’s Portraiture and Politics in Revolutionary France is a long overdue and welcomed study, attending to portraits not only as an art historical concern, but also as a key aspect of visual and material culture. As Freund notes in her introduction, portraiture’s explicit concern with personal identity makes it a particularly fruitful lens for demonstrating the French people’s shift from subjects of the king to citizens of a Republic. Under the ancien régime, portraiture played a key role in demonstrating the social status of the sitter and, accordingly, the main concern of public portraiture was society’s most significant figures, namely the king, military heroes, and other grands hommes. The Revolutionary ideals of individual liberty and social equality, however, claimed everyone was significant, and portraiture became an important tool for newly-minted citoyens to literally picture themselves as participants in Revolutionary politics.
A central theme of Freund’s book is the relationship between portraiture and the rhetoric of transparency, both political and personal, that was central to the new political regime. French citizens were required to visibly demonstrate their commitment to the Revolution, and good citizens allowed themselves to be scrutinized at all times. Portraiture was exceedingly well-suited to such a mind-set, thanks to its ability to represent not just an individual’s physical form, but also the clothing, accessories, and material objects of popular consumption that became crucial to the new Republican identity. As Freund highlights in the first chapter, portraits themselves were part of this burgeoning consumer culture; they were affordable to people of a variety of backgrounds, and an important source of income for artists during a period when state-sponsored commissions of large-scale history painting had all but dried up. Portraits were displayed in public settings such as the Salon exhibition or in more private and semi-private sites in the sitters’ homes or artists’ studios, and were made available for public consumption in print format. According to Freund, the display and consumption of these objects invited close scrutiny from viewers, and the intimacy fostered by examining portraits closely resonated with the Revolution’s rhetoric of transparency.
Throughout the book, Freund considers her case studies within the frameworks of formal innovation and economic practices, and as representations of changing ideas about subjectivity. She achieves this broad analysis by triangulating between the three major players in a portrait’s lifecycle — the artist, the sitter, and the viewer. Her analysis of these images is informed by not only the contemporary politics of the Revolution, but also by portrait traditions of the ancien régime, allowing her to highlight key ruptures and continuities in the formats and iconography of portraits as they relate to evolving ideas of selfhood and political participation. The book is divided into two parts separated by a short interlude [End Page 363] that focuses on the Terror. The first half, which addresses print portraits of the National Assembly by Nicolas-François Levachez (chapter two), and images of the National Guard (chapter three), focuses on groups of portraits that navigated the tensions between the representation of individual identity in a society that was redefining itself as a collective in the early years of the Revolution. An interstitial essay on the Terror highlights the complexities of political self-representation for both sitters and artists during the most radical phase of the Revolution. While one might imagine that the declaration of the French Republic would open the door to new expressions of...