10 Marie-Anne-Charlotte Corday

Pierre-Michel Alix (1762 – 1817) after Jean-François Garneray (1755 – 1837)

Marie Anne Charlotte Corday, 1793

Stipple engraving with hand-colouring

Published by Drouhin, Éditeur & Proprietaire des Antiquités Nationale, Rue de Christine, no. 2., [1793]

In the months following Charlotte Corday’s execution for the murder of Marat, images of her that stressed her beauty, virtue and stoicism began to appear in the moderate press. These constructed her as a saviour who had rid the nation of a terrible monster. Such images were unequivocally denounced by followers of Marat who, fearful of a cult forming around Corday, wanted the memory of her consigned to oblivion. Yet the popularity of such prints was hard to suppress given that she had actively set about the construction of her own legend during her trial and imprisonment. This legend not only survived the immediate aftermath of her actions but endured throughout the nineteenth century.

Corday is portrayed here with hair cropped short in preparation for the guillotine, yet no fear is detectable on her countenance. She is depicted fresh-faced and rosy-cheeked, her cool grey eyes staring calmly from the oval frame. Corday had amazed her contemporaries with the composure and sang froid that she exhibited at her trial and on the way to the guillotine. Her sympathisers revered these qualities and one Girondin who witnessed her performance noted, ‘she is leading us to our death, but she is showing us how to die.’

The curve of Corday’s breast is carefully delineated by the engraver, which draws our attention to her youthful feminine charms (another talking point), and serves to construct her as a nurturing, perhaps even maternal figure. This is at odds with the fact that a post-mortem revealed she was a virgin, a point used by the radical left to denounce her as ‘unnatural’. Although French women married at an average age of 24-26, and Corday’s virginity was not in any way exceptional, according to revolutionary rhetoric, a woman should have produced a brood of little revolutionaries by the age of twenty-five. The inclusion of her full Christian name, Marie-Anne-Charlotte is perhaps significant in this respect. It evokes that other paradoxical virgin, the Holy mother Mary, and places Charlotte’s character and actions under her protection. Corday’s full name also evokes the Republic’s emblem, Marianne, the goddess of French liberty.

This print was one of a pair, and the publication line specifies that a portrait of Marat in the same size and format will be published within two months. Might the order in which they were published suggest that, among the publisher’s clientèle, there was a greater demand for a portrait of Corday, than for the one of Marat?

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