18 The Massacres

Pierre Gabriel Berthault (1748 – 1819) after Jacques François José Swebach-Desfontaines (1769 – 1823)

Massacres des 2, 3, 4, 5 et 6 Septembre 1792 (Massacres of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th September 1792) , 1794

Etching and Engraving

Published in the series Tableaux historiques de la Révolution française, 1791-1817 (first included in the edition of 1794)

Swebach-Desfontaines’ tableau, (the 72nd in the series), depicts the first of the massacres that took place in Parisian prisons between the 2nd and the 5th September 1792 (not, as the print suggests, between the 2nd and the 6th). The killing spree had been sparked off by the fear of the Austrian army’s impending arrival in Paris following the French defeats at Longwy and Verdun. Believing the Revolution was in imminent danger, the Paris Commune (the radicalised municipal government) urged the city’s sans-culottes to enact popular justice and target the republic’s enemies still at large in the city. Marat also fuelled the public frenzy with his usual effectiveness, before pointing the mob in the direction of the Paris jails, urging them to seize the priests, Swiss guards and their accomplices held there and ‘run them through with a sword’. The mob carried out his instructions faithfully, going first to the Abbey prison and then proceeding to the Carmelite convent where some 150 prisoners were being held. Over the following days, other prisons fell victim to the violence, which claimed the lives of between 1,000 and 1,500 men and women. Even if the government had wished to intervene and put a stop to matters (and different factions within the government took different points of view), they were powerless to do so, for it was the Commune that controlled the actions of the people.

Swebach-Desfontaines has depicted the massacre at the Abbey prison: a few sans-culottes armed with clubs can be seen beating their victims; bodies lie scattered in the foreground; a decapitated head, mounted on a pike, is paraded amongst the crowd. Certainly he has not shied away from the grisly facts of the episode. Yet the drama remains understated and the representation toned-down: there is little sense of revolutionary frenzy, and as Warren Roberts has noted, should the bodies be removed from the composition, all that one would be left with is a crowd idly milling around. [1] Given the anxieties that surrounded the power of the people, which had on this occasion escaped the control of the revolutionary authorities and manifested itself in the most alarming way possible, it is little wonder that Swebach-Desfontaines created what is a cool, dispassionate representation of events. Above all the Tableaux historiques was a commercial project: an image depicting the reality of a ragged and enraged crowd might easily have alienated subscribers reluctant to be reminded of the bloody excesses inspired by the Revolution.

[1] Warren Roberts, Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Louis Prieur: Revolutionary Artists, New York, 2000, p.181 – 2.

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