The most important collection in the world relating to the French Revolution is kept by the Musée Carnavalet.
- The estates general, 1789
- The storming of the Bastille, 1789
- The "fête de la Fédération", 1790
- From constitutional monarchy to the proclamation of the republic, 1791-1792
- The fall of the monarchy and the fate of the royal family, 1792-1793
- The measurement of time : the republicain calendar and decimal time
- The convention 1792-1794
- The directory 1795 - 1799
- Revolution and war, 1792-1799
- Destructions, obliterations and the invention of "National heritage"
The estates general, 1789
A society of orders
Just before the Revolution, France had a population of some 28 millions, divided up into three "orders" or "estates" according to levels of prestige. Praying for the king, and fighting for him, were considered more honourable activities than merely working. This is why the clergy made up the First Estate, the nobility, whose duties were military, constituted the Second. But 98% of France's inhabitants – the bourgeoisie, the tradesmen and manual workers of the cities, and peasants – belonged to the Third Estate.
This anonymous image from 1789 shows an old peasant, representing the Third Estate, being ground down by a member of the clergy wearing a cross, and a nobleman wearing a sword. The cartoon symbolizes the tax burden which, under the Ancien Régime (the Old Regime), was almost entirely borne by the people. The image denounces a double inequality: the poorest were also the most heavily taxed. In the late 18th century the gap between rich and poor was widening and this caused many protests. As the cartoon's caption indicates, the common people were hoping that change was not far off.
This kind of portrayal of the three estates circulated widely at the time, in many different forms.
Révolution française. Ancien Régime. Caricature sur les Trois-Ordres : Le Tiers-Etat portant sur son dos le Clergé et la Noblesse. 1789.
The tennis court oath
On June 20th 1789, at Versailles, the deputies elected by the Third Estate, accompanied by a few representatives of the nobility and the clergy, assembled at the Jeu de Paume indoor tennis court: the king had forbidden them the use of the chamber where they usually met. Together the deputies swore an oath not to separate until they had drawn up a Constitution for the kingdom. Their aim was a transition from an absolute monarchy, in which all power was held by the king, to a constitutional one, in which royal power would be limited by the Constitution.
To celebrate the Tennis Court Oath, the National Assembly – the name adopted by the "Etats Généraux" after June 1789 – commissioned a painting from Jacques-Louis David. What we see here is a preliminary sketch.
In the centre, future Paris mayor Jean-Sylvain Bailly is reading out the oath. The deputies are grouped together on the other side of an imaginary line, as if on a theatre stage: so as we look at the picture we have the impression of witnessing the event. This theatrical presentation is accentuated by the raised arms of the deputies as they swear the oath. Among them we recognise Robespierre, Mirabeau, Abbé Grégoire and Barnave. Seated to the right, Joseph Martin-Dauch, the only deputy who refused to take the oath, has his arms folded as a sign of protest. In the centre-foreground two representatives of the Catholic Church and a Protestant pastor illustrate the rapprochement between Christians of different confessions and the support given by part of the clergy to the plan for a constitutional monarchy.
The storming of the Bastille, 1789
The Demolition of the Bastille
For Parisians the fortress of the Bastille, which had been turned into a prison, had become the symbol of absolute royal power: you could be imprisoned without trial by an order from the king. The prison was virtually empty on 14 July 1789, when the rebels seized it in search of weapons and ammunition.
That evening building contractor Pierre-François Palloy sent his workmen to demolish this symbol of absolutism. He organised tours of the worksite and began making souvenirs out of fragments of the fortress. Among them were many models like the one shown here, carved out of blocks of stone from the former prison. Palloy sent these scale models out into France's 83 newly created départements. He also sent them to King Louis XVI and his ministers, and even to such foreign personages as George Washington, first president of the United States.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was adopted by the Constituent Assembly on 26 August 1789. The presentation of its 17 articles resembles the Tables of the Law on which God passed the Ten Commandments to Moses. The two columns are separated by revolutionary symbols: the fasces, representing unity and strength; the pike, the weapon of choice of the representatives of the people; and the Phrygian cap, standing for the newfound liberty of the freed slave. There is also a laurel wreath symbolising glory and a serpent biting its tail, signifying eternity. The declaration is flanked by two allegorical figures: to the left, France breaking the chains of royal absolutism, and to the right, Fame holding the sceptre of Reason. At the very top, the radiant triangle of Equality contains the open eye of Providence in an evocation of God surveying humanity.
Inspired by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the text specifies the "natural, inalienable rights of man". This document was intended as the basis of a new world founded on individual liberty and universal equality before the law. It also stressed the fundamental notions of freedom of speech, assembly and religion. The Declaration of the Rights of Man was to have a profound influence throughout the world.
The "fête de la Fédération", 1790
The "fête de la Fédération"
On July 14th 1790 a great national celebration was held on the Champ de Mars for the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. For this "Fête de la Fédération" 50,000 men and women from France's 83 départements paraded past the royal family and more than 400,000 Parisians. An enormous crowd then pledged allegiance to "the Nation, the Law and the King", an event depicted is this 1796 painting by Charles Thévenin. Massed together in a stand on the right, the deputies of the Constituent Assembly were to draw up the kingdom's first Constitution. On the steps we see Louis XVI swearing loyalty to the future Constitution, alongside Bailly, the mayor of Paris. Further back Queen Marie-Antoinette is presenting the five year old Dauphin, heir to the throne, to the crowd. In the left-hand part of the picture we see Mass being celebrated on the Altar of the Fatherland, symbol of the Nation.
While the people of France acclaimed the new ideas embodied in the Revolution, they remained very attached to their king. For several days Paris saw a succession of dances, celebrations and banquets, and the Revolution was thought to be over. But this apparent unanimity concealed major tensions, and riots and uprisings continued in a number of départements.
From constitutional monarchy to the proclamation of the republic, 1791-1792
The King Flees
After the image had been cut into the wood, it was coated with ink and printed as a poster on a sheet of paper. This technique is called wood engraving or woodblock printing.
Here Jean-Baptiste Letourmi depicts the arrest of the king and his family at Varennes. During the night of June 20th 1791, Louis XVI slipped out of Paris with the queen, his sister Madame Élisabeth, the dauphin, his daughter Madame Royale and the children's governess Madame de Tourzel. All of them were dressed as bourgeois. The king had sworn to uphold the Constitution, which had just been passed by the National Assembly, but in secret he was working to regain absolute power. The royal family fled towards Eastern France with a view to rallying loyalist troops or crossing the border and enlisting the support of foreign armies and émigrés from the French nobility. Along the way Louis was recognised by postmaster Jean-Baptiste Drouet, who set off after the coach and caught up with it in the small town of Varennes.
The royal family was brought back to Paris amid booing and catcalling. This episode was one of the Revolution's turning points: the king's flight was seen as treason and cost him the support of part of the population. The idea began to spread that the country no longer needed a king and could become a republic.
Painted around 1792, this portrait by Louis-Léopold Boilly is the first known depiction of a "sans-culotte", the nickname given to the revolutionaries, who wore wide trousers instead of the short "culotte" – the knee-breeches – of the nobility and the bourgeoisie. They also wore the Phrygian cap with a tricolour cockade, a reference to the freed slaves of ancient Rome. The striped shirt reflects a "revolutionary fashion" imported from America, but the pipe and the clogs reveal a man of the people.
As members of the urban underclass, the sans-culottes demanded an egalitarian republic based on the sovereignty of the people. They met and discussed in neighbourhood assemblies and radical political clubs. In favour of direct action, they took part in the storming of the Tuileries Palace on August 10th 1792, which led to the fall of the monarchy.
Here the "sans-culotte" is carrying a tricolour. A product of the revolution, this flag combined the red and blue of the city of Paris with the royal white. The three colours were initially brought together as a cockade, but in 1794 the governing National Convention enforced vertical stripes and the sequence of the colours. On the flag in the painting are the words "Liberty or death", which was at that time equally used as "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" that would become the motto of the French Republic.
Portrait du chanteur Simon Chenard (1758-1832), en costume de sans-culotte, portant un drapeau à la fête de la liberté de la Savoie, le 14 octobre 1792
The fall of the monarchy and the fate of the royal family, 1792-1793
The prison of the temple
The measurement of time : the republicain calendar and decimal time
Made around 1795, this is a rare kind of clock: it functions according to the decimal time established by the French Revolution. Under the Ancien Régime units of measurement differed widely from one part of France to another, which made everyday life complicated and hampered business. In 1790 the National Assembly asked experts from the Academy of Science to devise a single, simple system of weights and measures for the whole country. The results were the metre, kilogram and litre, all decimal-based. Henceforth everything, including time, was to be divisible by ten: weeks had ten days, days had ten hours, hours had a hundred minutes and minutes had a hundred seconds.
Most decimal clocks are of the skeleton type seen here, with mechanisms visible at the centre of the largest dial. This dial indicated decimal divisions – a day of ten hours – and the names of the months of the new republican calendar; the latter began on 1 Vendémiaire (September 22nd 1792), the day when the Republic was proclaimed. The decimal system was never really applied to timekeeping, but the republican calendar remained in force until 1 January 1806.
The convention 1792-1794
Maximilien de Robespierre
Originally a lawyer from Arras, Maximilien Robespierre was one of the Third Estate deputies elected in 1789. Known as "the Incorruptible", he earned fame at the beginning of the Revolution with his forceful personality and powerful oratory. Re-elected under the National Convention – the assembly that governed France from 1792 to 1795 – he sided with the far Left "Montagnards", who were close to the sans-culottes and receptive to popular demands.
Robespierre is depicted here not as a political man of action, but as a distinguished figure, elegantly dressed and with his hair scrupulously powdered.
As a member of the Committee for Public Safety, he played a significant part in the revolutionary government. Founded in the spring of 1793, this political organisation was intended to save a Republic then under threat not only from war outside France's borders, but also from uprisings within the country and conflicts among Republicans. Accused of tyranny, he was arrested on 9 Thermidor Year II (July 27th 1794) and guillotined the next day with a number of his followers.
This scale model is a faithful copy of a guillotine from the revolutionary era. It comprises two uprights slotted to hold a sliding blade. The condemned person was strapped to a horizontal board with his or her head held in place in the circular lunette. The severed head fell into a basket or leather bag and after the execution the body was placed in a wicker or wooden basket.
The guillotine owes its name to Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a doctor elected as a Third Estate deputy in 1789. He was not, however, its inventor: the idea for the machine came from Doctor Antoine Louis, working from a principle in use in France and other countries since the Middle Ages. It was Guillotin, though, who suggested that all those condemned to death, whatever their social status and crimes, should be guillotined as a way of reducing their suffering.
The guillotine was used for the first time on April 25th 1792, and its use became more frequent after the execution of Louis XVI on January 21st 1793. In France the last guillotining took place in 1977, prior to abolition of the death penalty in 1981.
The directory 1795 - 1799
"Incroyables" and "Merveilleuses" (Dandies and fine ladies)
Dating from the Directory period of government (1795–1799), this cartoon shows young bourgeois or aristocrats whose extravagant dress was intended as an anti-revolutionary statement.
The men, known as Incroyables – they pronounced it Inc'oyables, dropping the letter R because it suggested the word "Revolution" – wore huge neckties, short waistcoats, cocked hats and pointed, medieval-style shoes. They were also recognisable by their hair, which was plaited or allowed to fall over the temples in what was called the "dog ear" style. Their trappings also included the bludgeon-stick, a formidable weapon in street battles between royalists and republicans.
Their female equivalents, the Merveilleuses, wore flimsy dresses in an antique vein. As these close-fitting garments left no room for pockets, the Merveilleusecarried or wore on her belt a small bag known as a reticule. Her outfit was rounded off with expensive accessories: wigs, fans, pince-nez and hats with enormous peaks.
These fashions were generously publicised in cartoons such as this one by Jean-Louis Darcis (after Carle Vernet). The cartoons enjoyed great success and were frequently reprinted.
Revolution and war, 1792-1799
Recruiting for the army
This sign shows a member of the National Guard, a volunteer militia created on July 14th 1789 and commanded by the Marquis de La Fayette until 1791. The soldier is wearing the uniform of the French Guards, who shared in the storming of the Bastille. Attached to his jacket is the communal gold medal awarded to the French Guards for their part in that victory.
During the Revolution, this sign was used to attract volunteers for the numerous military campaigns of the time. On July 11th 1792 the National Assembly declared "the Homeland in danger" and summoned all volunteers to Paris. Naturally enough they lacked the experience and discipline of professional soldiers, but they were more than willing to fight for their country.
Even so, France quickly ran short of officers and men. When volunteers were no longer numerous enough, coercion was used. In 1793 the "levy en masse" conscripted all males aged 18 to 25 who were single or widowers without children.
On September 5th 1798 the Jourdan-Delbrel Law introduced compulsory military service on the grounds that "every Frenchman is a soldier and must help defend the homeland".
This bust is one of the first portraits of General Napoleon Bonaparte, destined to become Napoleon I, Emperor of the French. The young general, who had just covered himself with glory in Italy and was now leading the Egyptian expedition, was becoming steadily more popular. On Brumaire 18th, Year VIII – December 9th 1799 - he organised a coup d'état against the ruling Directory. The next day he was appointed provisional consul, and a month later First Consul.
Here Bonaparte is shown life-size, wearing his general's uniform and fitting with descriptions of him at the time: thin face, hollow cheeks, determined chin, long hair pulled back on the nape of the neck, with locks falling on the temples and forehead. The cape draped over his shoulder suggests the traditional ceremonial portrait: it was used to underscore the grandeur of princes and sovereigns shown in official or heroic poses.
The work of sculptor Charles-Louis Corbet, this plaster bust was an immediate success, and numerous marble and bronze copies would follow.
Destructions, obliterations and the invention of "National heritage"
the Musée des Monuments Français
This painting is of a room in the Musée des Monuments Français, which was created by the painter Alexandre Lenoir. It was one of the first museums in France and it grew out of the French Revolution. It opened to the public in 1795 in the buildings of the Convent of the Petits Augustins. At the beginning of the Revolution, it had been turned into a depository for goods confiscated from the clergy following the decree of 2 November 1789. Lenoir’s intention had been to save these new national treasures from revolutionary ‘vandalism’ and the destruction of the buildings, whose stones were now being used as building materials.
The museum was intended as a place of instruction. Inside, it consisted of several rooms in which mediaeval and modern carvings were presented in chronological order, to give the visitor an idea of the development of sculpture and architecture in France. The museum’s collections played a part in drawing up a new history of the French nation.
Each room was differentiated by its own particular decoration and atmosphere. The room devoted to the 15th century, illustrated here, for example, is richly decorated in the taste of that period. Close to the tomb in the centre of the room, Lenoir can be seen describing the monument to a visitor.
The destruction of the royal tombs at Saint-Denis
This painting depicts the destruction of the royal tombs in the Basilica of St Denis, which had been the main necropolis of the kings of France for several centuries. The destruction of the tombs was ordered by the National Convention to celebrate the first anniversary of the fall of the monarchy on 10 August 1792. The revolutionaries sought to wipe the slate clean by destroying the visible signs of the former regime (the Ancien Régime).
This painting shows them carrying the coffins out of the crypt with the aid of long ladders, before destroying the tombs and throwing the remains of the kings into communal graves. Through the destroyed underground gallery, one can make out the walls and the stained glass of the Gothic nave of the church. The painter has made much of the contrast between the darkness of the crypt and the light shining down into the vault. The painting is characteristic of Hubert Robert’s style. He was fascinated by the ruins of ancient Rome and, later, by those wrought by the French Revolution, gaining, in the meantime, the nickname Robert des ruines.