21 Le Vachez's Corday

Charles Francois Gabriel Le Vachez (1760 – 1820) and Jean Duplessi-Bertaux (1747 – 1819)

Marie Anne Charlotte Corday D’Armans ; Charlotte Corday assassinant Marat dans son bain (Charlotte Corday assasinates Marat in his bath) , 1802

Etching, engraving and aquatint

Published in the series Tableaux historiques de la Révolution française, 1791 – 1817, ( first included in the edition of 1802 )

The overall tone of this engraving is sympathetic towards Corday, who in Le Vachez’s portrait is depicted as a beautiful, natural woman, her long curls falling about her shoulders. In keeping with this, Duplessi-Bertaux has distanced Corday from the act that made her famous. Rather than showing her as she stabs Marat, which might have drawn attention to her capacity for violence and compromised her femininity, she is portrayed in the moments afterwards, when she is herself about to become the victim. The scene for her arrest is set and a large crowd of armed men bursts through the door take her away.

In this vignette we see Duplessi-Bertaux at his most theatrical, making use of exaggerated gesture to convey the character of the different personages depicted – Corday, head held high, defiantly rests her hand against the side of the bath, as if claiming agency for the act. Marat’s body is grotesquely slumped and his servants hold their hands aloft in horror. The guards enter with purposeful strides. The use of exaggerated gesture was perhaps especially necessary given the diminutive size of the characters. Yet Duplessi-Bertaux seems to play self-consciously with the dramatic potential of the scene. On the left hand side is a curtain that has been pulled back to let us see the drama with its heroine centre-stage.

Corday’s strong and virtuous character is described in glowing terms in the accompanying discourse, and her decision to come to Paris to kill Marat is contextualised. Yet its author holds back from justifying her actions, and in the final sentence notes that her memory has passed into posterity like those of all the guilty, ‘for one cannot pardon the assassin, even that of Marat.’ This disclaimer sits awkwardly with the rest of the text, and we can only think that it was added to bring the print in line with official opinions, rather than with the, by then, widely held beliefs about Corday.

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