22 Le Vachez's Marat

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

Jean Paul Marat ; Marat porté en triomphe, après avoir été acquitté par le Tribunal Révolutionnaire (Marat carried in triumph after having been acquitted by the revolutionary tribunal) , 1802

Etching, engraving and aquatint

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

‘Marat! What a name, what a man … or more like, what a monster!’ So opens the text written to accompany Marat’s portrait and illustrative vignette, in which he is described as hideous of body and of mind, (‘a ferocious being’, ‘an evil scum vomited forth by the Revolution’). ‘Who knows how far his thirst for blood would have carried him?’ it asks the reader. Yet this will always remain a rhetorical question for, the text continues, a ‘heroine’, Charlotte Corday, freed the earth from him when she stabbed him in his bathtub on July 13th 1793. Any reserve tempering the otherwise celebratory discourse written to accompany the print in this series depicting Corday is abandoned when discussing the reviled Marat!

Little of Marat’s ‘vile’ character is perceptible from his portrait, which, if anything, depicts him in a favourable light. He is shown in the motion of turning his head to towards something that has caught his attention or imagination, a pose that suggests not only lively interest, but according to eighteenth-century pictorial conventions, inspiration. The fact that his forehead is illuminated by light from an unidentified source also suggests the workings of an active, intelligent mind. Marat is portrayed in his trademark turban, worn for medicinal purposes, yet no mark of illness is visible on his countenance: on the contrary, he is shown healthy and strong. This discrepancy between written and visual portrayal could result from the fact that Levachez’s portraits were usually posthumous and he had to draw on existing imagery. In Marat’s case the bulk of this was produced in the wake of his death to glorify the martyred Marat for a radical audience.

Interestingly Duplessi-Bertaux also chose to depict Marat in a triumphant moment, namely when he was found innocent of the charges brought against him by the Girondins on 24th April 1793. We see him carried aloft by a huge crowd who had gathered to celebrate the victory of the Friend of the People. This, and ironically, his murder, (which conferred on him the glorious status of a martyr of the Revolution), were the high points of Marat’s revolutionary career. Might Duplessi-Bertaux have chosen to depict his acquittal instead of his murder because the latter scene was used in the print of Corday? After all the two prints were issued for purchase as a pair, as advertised in the Journal général de la Littérature de France in Nivôse an VII (December 1798/January 1799).

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