17 Introduction to the Tableaux historiques de la Révolution française

Introduction to the Tableaux historiques de la Révolution française:

The Tableaux historiques de la Révolution française was without doubt one of the most significant artistic achievements of the revolutionary period, set apart from other print series commemorating the events of the Revolution by virtue of the numbers of engravings included in it, their size, and their exceptional artistic standard. This inevitably kept their cost high and limited their distribution. Yet between 1791 and 1817, five editions of it were printed, and each was extended beyond the quantity originally advertised, suggesting a great demand for such luxury editions: commercially speaking, the Tableaux were hugely successful.

The Tableaux consisted of a numbered series of engravings illustrating dramatic moments from the Revolution, each accompanied by a four page written narrative. The 145 engravings included in the different editions were the result of the collaboration of a large number of artists attached to the project at one point or another during its sixteen-year history. In the edition of 1802 a series of 60 portraits of the period’s protagonists was added, each of which followed the same format, of a portrait roundel by Charles François Gabriel Levachez, and a vignette by Jean Duplessi-Bertaux depicting the defining moment of their life. Below them, a short discourse extolled the virtues or crimes of the subject.

At first glance the engravings have a documentary quality and appear visually accurate and topographically precise depictions of particular events. Their truth would seem to be corroborated by the fact that Jean-Baptiste Prieur, who executed the first 48 tableaux, claimed to have been an eye witness at, and even to have participated in some of the events he depicted. However many of the scenes were manipulated, not just with an eye to composition or the creation of visual drama for example, but to express specific ideas about the nature of the event. Far from simply depicting moments from the Revolution, these prints actively construct them. Thus, as regimes changed and theTableaux were reprinted so alterations to the series were made in order to reflect changing attitudes towards events in the recent past. Remarkably, editions of the Tableaux date to the periods of the Terror, the Directoire, the Consulat, Empire and Restoration . The study of these different editions, which has been most comprehensively and meticulously undertaken by the French-Canadian scholar, Claudette Hould, therefore provides a fascinating way of tracing shifting attitudes towards the events and the people that they depict. [1]

[1] Claudette Hould, La Révolution par la Gravure: les Tableaux historiques de la Révolution française, un entreprise éditoriale d’information et sa diffusion en Europe (1791 – 1817), ex. cat. Musée de la Révolution française, Vizille, 2002; Claudette Hould, La Révolution par l’Écriture: les Tableaux historiques de la Révolution française, ue entreprise éditorial d’information (1791 – 1817), Vizille, Paris, 2005.

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