- Portraiture and Politics in Revolutionary France by Amy Freund
In his review of the Salon of 1798, art critic Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Chaussard described the change in portraiture’s status in relation to the end of the French monarchy. In such a system, in which one man stands for everything, portraiture is relatively unimportant. In a republic, however, a portrait should stand for both the individual and the collective, expressing political ideologies and moral values. In Portraiture and Politics in Revolutionary France, Amy Freund analyzes how portraiture fulfilled these dual roles between 1789 and 1804. In Facing the Public: Portraiture in the Aftermath of the French Revolution (1999), Tony Halliday argued that portraiture shown at the Salon transcended the category of private art to transmit public messages, an argument with which Freund agrees. Her exceptional focus on a handful of paintings offers a more nuanced treatment of the French art market and its patrons than is found in Halliday’s text. In a refreshing departure from dix-huitième scholarship, such canonical artists as Jacques-Louis David are treated as supporting actors, while artists who worked outside the Academy and the Salon often occupy center stage. [End Page 260]
Freund’s first chapter details key changes in the conception of selfhood within a consumer culture at the onset of the Revolution. The government no longer supported the arts, and individual dealers and patrons stepped in to replace it. Portraiture became a consumer good as it was utilized to sell a new type of citizenship for a new nation. In this new consumer culture, successful portraiture was truly multivalent, for portraits were used as political arguments, taking the place of history painting. While portraiture was singular and private in nature, it also had to express collective values, such as equality, universality, legibility, and transparency.
One of the chief challenges faced by the fledgling French republic was structural: How could a group of individuals represent a whole nation? In “The Legislative Body” and “Aux Armes, Citoyens!,” Freund focuses on several sets of portraits that struggled with this dilemma. In his portrait series of National Assembly representatives, for example, engraver Nicolas-François Levachez emphasized the collective virtues of equality, transparency, and masculinity by featuring proximate and informal views that were the opposite of monarchical ancien régime portraiture. David’s The Tennis Court Oath (1791) is both history painting and group portrait, and Freund’s rereading of it in the light of portrait series such as Levachez’s strengthens her argument about the ascendency of portraiture in the early 1790s.
Despite the fact that the Revolution brought about the legalization of divorce, most women gained little agency during this tumultuous time period. Freund does not often focus on them as sitters or artists, a shortcoming that she acknowledges in her introduction. Yet her discussion of Jean-Louis Laneuville’s The Citoyenne Tallien in a Prison Cell, Holding Her Hair Which Has Just Been Cut (1796) is a comprehensive case study of an exceptional woman who exercised political and artistic agency. The intersubjective collaboration between patron and artist resulted in a portrait whose message of collective citizenship was better equipped for the genre of history painting. Freund offers a refreshing analysis of a painting that was executed by a noncanonical artist. The failure of this painting at the Salon of 1796 can be partially explained by the fact that its female subject was depicted as a citizen, a role that was denied to her by the revolutionary political brotherhood.
Tallien, born Thérésia Cabarrus, was Spanish by birth and later married a French marquis, whom she divorced at the age of twenty. She wished to be an oil painter and miniaturist and may have studied with Jean-Baptiste Isabey. Becoming lovers with Jacobin deputy Jean-Lambert Tallien, during the Terror she published two essays that argued for full citizenship for women. She was close friends with Josephine Beauharnais and, in 1805, commissioned an insipid portrait by François Gérard. As Freund demonstrates, the failure of...