French Revolution Political Cartoon Analysis Essay

The following is a guest post by Woody Woodis, Cataloger, Prints and Photographs Division

Today, in honor of Bastille Day, or La Fête Nationale, marking the beginning of the French Revolution, we feature highlights from the French Political Cartoon Collection. This small but exemplary collection of 365 prints spans almost two centuries and touches on every aspect of French political culture from Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, to Napoleon III, the last emperor to rule France. The Library of Congress obtained the prints from a variety of sources; many came as part of a substantial purchase of the Windsor Library collection in 1926.

Suggesting the conditions the led to revolution, Calendrier royal indiquant le cours du soleil (1706) shows Louis XIV sitting on a crude throne at the center of the sun whose rays are filled with text that often present the low-lights of his reign; in the upper left corner, reference to the eclipse of 1705 further casts a shadow on the dimming light of the Sun King’s final years.

Calendrier royal indiquant le cours du soleil. Hand colored etching, 1706. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.06705

Commemorating the storming of the Bastille in July 1789, Adieu Bastille (ca. 1789) presents the rise of the peasantry as an enormous, imposing figure who treats the aristocracy and the clergy as figures in a child’s game, while in the background,  workers dismantle the Bastille.

Adieu Bastille. Hand colored etching, 1789. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.07187

Pariser Poisarden (ca. 1794) illustrates the role of women during the insurrectionary days of the French Revolution. Here a Parisian fishwife strides forward, hand-in-hand with a young, aristocratic woman, possibly an early Marianne figure, driven by a menacing harpy representing the anger and violence of working class women.

Pariser poisarden. Aquatint and etching by C. Katz, 1794. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c00359

In France, censorship of the press was a major issue throughout the 19th century, Descente dans les ateliers de la liberté de la presse (1833) is a good example of the extent to which the king and his officials went to silence the criticism from the press, here Louis-Phillippe, himself, is shown stopping the mouth of the printer.

Descente dans les ateliers de la liberté de la presse. Lithograph by J.J. Grandville and August Desperret, 1833. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.13649

Descriptions are available online for all of the prints in the collection and nearly half have been digitized. So while some may be following the Tour de France in real time this month, here’s an opportunity to take a visual tour of a tumultuous period of French history.

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The French Revolution was principally caused by the growth in dissatisfaction among the poor and middle class of French society towards the nobility and the clergy, comprising, respectively, the Second and First Estates. French society was heavily structured to provide the maximum political power to the two percent of the population represented by the First and Second Estates. The cartoon, which depicts representatives of the First and Second Estates being carried on the back of the representative of the Third Estate, symbolizes the exploitation of the poor and middle class by the elite. In fact, the hunched over representative of the Third Estate is depicted leaning on a pick-axe, further symbolizing his peasant origins and status, a particularly significant point given that this estate included, as noted, the middle class as well as the poor.

To fully understand the causes of the French Revolution, and the significance of the political cartoon, it is important to keep in mind the precariousness of the First and Second Estate's positions despite their wealth and power. Any time two percent of a population controls the other 98 percent--and, in addition, the fact that the Third Estate paid virtually 100 percent of the taxes, with the Second Estate paying no taxes at all further served to inflame passions against the ruling elite--the odds of the two percent's survival are precarious indeed. Even the structure and practices of the nation's Parliament, comprised of a majority of representatives from the Third Estate, were heavily tilted against that majority. Toss into the mix the continued profligacy of the monarchy, despite the financial strains it was under courtesy of its support for the American Revolution, particularly the financial recklessness of Queen Marie Antoinette, and France was ripe for revolution.

The political cartoon, in conclusion, illuminates the burden endured by the Third Estate to the benefit of the two percent of the population comprising the First and Second Estates. That pick-axe the guy is leaning on is not just a tool, but, in the hands of a really angry peasant, a potential weapon of some lethality.

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