1 Reunion de Trois Ordres


Réunion des trois ordres (Reunion of the three estates), 1789

Etching with hand-colouring

Publisher unrecorded

This print is in fact a combination of three etchings produced separately during the summer of 1789 to celebrate the overthrow of the political and social order in France following the Bastille’s fall and the legislative events of the night of 4th August. It seems probable that their juxtaposition by the publisher is not because they naturally belong together (only the central and right-hand image were ever paired as pendants, and they do not match the left-hand image visually or intellectually). Rather, their montage might stem from the publisher’s belief in their commercial potential: images of this type were extremely popular. The colouring is quite crudely executed suggesting that the print would have been intended for mass production and dissemination at a modest price.

The figures represented in each of the scenes are embodiments of the Three Estates. The First Estate (the clergy) is identifiable by his priestly garments and crucifix, the Second Estate (the nobility) by his sword and extravagant attire, and the Third (everyone else) by humble dress and the tools with which he tills the land. At the time of the print’s production, artists sought ways of representing the changing relationships between the orders in revolutionary France, employing metaphors provided by music, food, dance, and children’s games to help visualise essentially abstract ideas. In the central image A faut esperer qu ca finira ben tot (I’ve got to hope that I’ll be done soon) the engraver has chosen a backbreaking game of piggyback to allegorise the inequalities of the ancien régime, depicting the character representing the Third Estate – a peasant – single-handedly supporting the others through his labour. Bent double under the weight of the burden, his hoe doubles up as a prop. In the right-hand image J savait ben qu’jaurions not tour (I knew that we would soon have our turn) we see the tables turned and the First and Second Estates subjected to the treatment long endured by the Third, who is now carried aloft. The fact that he has killed the birds and caught the rabbit that nibbled at his crops in the central image (a reference to his new-found hunting rights, previously reserved for the second estate) is another sign of his triumph. Clues found among their dress and props inform the viewer that the coming of the Revolution can be credited with this reversal in fortunes: all three wear the tricolour cockade for instance.

Whereas the right-hand image gleefully showed the first two Estates humiliated and subjugated, the image on the left La Paix et la Concorde font la Prosperite des empires (Peace and harmony make empires prosper), depicts equality between the three orders. Each of them step beyond their prejudices and privileges (inscribed on papers beneath their feet) to unite in a single unit. The caption above their heads simply reads ‘Réunion des trois ordres’ ( Reunion of the three estates) . In fact all three images contain much verbal material which helps convey the print’s message in considerable detail, reducing the risk of misinterpretation by its audience.

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