11 Trying Out the Guillotine


Essai de la Guillotine (Trying out the Guillotine) , c. 1793

Etching and aquatint

Publisher unrecorded

This is a highly enigmatic print whose meaning has become obscured over time, although we can assume that it would have been obvious to its originally intended audience. It is probable, for example, that members of the crowd (cockerel and puss-in-boots excepted) were caricatures of well-known personages yet today their identities remain ambiguous. The only exceptions might be Louis XVI with his head beneath the guillotine and the fourth and fifth figures from the left who, on the basis of their physiognomy we might guess are caricatures of Lafayette and Bailly, (once commander of the National Guard and Mayor of Paris, respectively). Their speech-bubbles do not help clarify their identity, nor do they explain the nature of the scene depicted, in part as a result of their deployment of slang and ambiguous references. The dialogue between the figure of Louis XVI and a lawyer (recognisable from his dress and baton) is particularly puzzling: the lawyer states to the king: ‘I have not changed my profession’, to which Louis replies simply, ‘despite Chabroud?’ This is surely a reference to Jean-Baptiste-Charles Chabroud, one time president of the National Assembly and advocate of legal reforms who sought to limit the powers of the king through the nomination of judges. Yet the exact meaning of their exchange remains unknown.

The print’s joke would seem to be at the expense of the crowd of men who watch the king go to his death whilst making callous remarks. One of them (Lafayette?) says ‘dormez tranquillez’ – sleep well; another (Bailly?) notes ‘Paris a reconquis son roi’ – Paris has re-conquered its king. Yet they do not appear to notice that, manacled at the wrist, they are next in line for the chop. It seems possible, therefore, that this print was counter-revolutionary in character, mocking those who tried to control the Revolution’s early development and who are now about to be consumed by the monster they created. Yet a counter-revolutionary reading of the print is compromised by the inclusion of a strange creature in its foreground who, at the sight of the king’s execution, cries out ‘Ahi Coco’, ‘Ah, villain’. This half-bird, half-woman might be a caricature of Marie Antoinette, who was sometimes depicted as an ostrich (une autruche), a word play on her status as ‘l’Autrician’ – the Austrian. This caricature also took root in the popular imagination because it was believed that, like the bird, she had buried her head in the sand, remaining oblivious to the suffering endured by the French people and to the need to reform the monarchy. Surely a counter-revolutionary (and therefore presumably pro-monarchy) audience would not be receptive to seeing the queen thus defamed? The exact politics of the print (and its audience) therefore remain uncertain and open to interpretation.

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