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  • Protecting IdentityViolence and Its Representations in France, 1815–1830
  • Ralph Hage (bio)

After Napoleon's final defeat of 1815 and before the beginnings of the second great wave of French colonialism in the 1830s, during a period of great internal political crisis, French society produced an object called The Death of Sardanapalus. This painting represented what was then a somewhat familiar figure, the "Oriental," an outsider behaving badly and set to die for it.

Based on the mimetic theory, this essay argues that in the relation it determines with its viewers, this painting's representation of violence is a form of ritualistic activity, one that allows for contained and predictable events of unifying violence against outsiders. Among the effects of the French political conflicts was a crisis in such ritualistic containments. An analysis of the scandals surrounding the works of Géricault and Delacroix and comparisons with Ingres's more successful forms of containment shall serve to apprehend it.

The essay further argues an underlying unity of both symbolic and real external acts of violence during that period and that both were responses to the same political context. At about the same time that Delacroix was showing his work, preparations for the war of Algiers were underway. The war, which [End Page 49] was eventually carried out in 1830, was consciously and explicitly an attempt to recreate the lost political unity of France through a unifying act of external violence.


The French political conflicts of 1815–1830 were the context of changes in the art world that structured form and subjects of artworks and forced artists into new strategies of communication.

The Restoration under Louis XVIII had brought about a period of relative but very precarious stability. Until 1820, the King was somewhat anxious to appear willing to compromise. A constitution was put in place by the victorious allies and contained limited recognition of some of the liberties gained by the French people. To facilitate his own return to the throne and placate opposition from the bourgeoisie, Louis XVIII consented to a parliamentary system similar to that of Britain, with a Chamber of Peers named by the King and a House of Commons elected by the wealthy section of the population. These members of the upper bourgeoisie were desperately looking for stability,1 and in 1815, after Napoleon's Hundred Days, the first parliamentary elections brought about an overwhelmingly Royalist chamber, indicating the bourgeoisie's support for the new government and the relief they felt at the demise of the Empire.

The Ultra-Royalists in the chamber quickly organized themselves as the first official party. Proponents of an absolute monarchy, they believed it was possible to return to the political system that was in place before the French revolution. Being "More royalist than the King,"2 they wanted to go much further than Louis XVIII thought he could. They agitated in favor of confiscating all the lands that were taken from the aristocracy and the clergy during the Revolution, forcing the King, who was afraid that such an act would lead to revolution, to disband the chamber and call for a new election in 1816. From 1816 to 1819 the Liberals were able to consistently increase their gains in the House of Commons. Their share of 10 deputies in 1816 became 30 in 1819, causing great anxiety among the Ultra-Royalists.

When the Comte d'Artois became King Charles X in 1824, reactionary policies were introduced. He increased the influence of the clergy and enacted laws that punished acts of sacrilege with death. But he soon met with strenuous opposition. His attempt to enact a medieval law, thumb mutilation before the execution of a death sentence for sacrilege,3 met with horrified and vocal [End Page 50] opposition and was successfully blocked. He also attempted to reintroduce other outdated laws such as that of primogeniture, giving rights of inheritance exclusively to eldest sons. This law, which was conceived to protect the large agricultural domains owned by the aristocracy from fragmentation through successive inheritances, was not adapted to the bourgeoisie's predominantly merchant economy. It met with great liberal resistance. Other policies included...


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