Events

Sunday, July 24, 2011

July Anniversaries: Execution of Charlotte Corday, 17 July 1793

On 17 July 1793, the counter-revolutionary Charlotte Corday went to the guillotine for the assassination of the radical revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat on the 13th.

Both became, in their way, martyrs of their respective causes: the embodiment of slain virtue for a holy cause. Commemoration of Marat assumed the status of a virtual cult, in part because of his genuine popularity, and in part because the regime encouraged it. By contrast, the veneration of Corday could at first flourish only underground and in exile.

Here, a depiction of Corday in the tumbril on the way to her death, from the first edition of Alphonse de Lamartine's History of the Girondists. The work ran to 61 "books" divided among 8 volumes, whose publication (Paris: Furne et Cie.,1847-50) coincided with the outbreak of a new revolution, in which the Romantic poet and liberal politician himself briefly played a key part. It was accompanied by 39 steel engravings of Revolutionary figures, along with a portrait of the author. The plates, drawn by Denis August Marie Raffet (1804-60), engraved by various artists, and printed by Plon, were issued separately in 13 installments costing 1 franc each, from 1848 to 1850 (sheet size: c. 19.5 x. 25.7 cm)


Charlotte Corday, drawn by Raffet, and engraved by Mme, Fournier
The image takes some liberties. The clothing would indeed appear to represent the red garment of the condemned, and we are told that she wore a scarf or kerchief. However, according to all contemporaneous accounts, her hair was, as the practice dictated, shorn before she left the prison to go under the blade. The only controversy involves whether the executioner cut her hair (as one would expect) or (as others assert) she herself boldly did so, an act that would certainly reinforce the image of stoic heroine in the mold of characters created by her ancestor, the tragedian Corneille.

In general, though, the image certainly comports with Lamartine's description of the event:
As she mounted the fatal cart, a violent storm broke over Paris, but the lightning and rain did not disperse the crowd who blocked up the squares, the bridges, and the streets which she passed. Hordes of women, or rather furies, followed her with the fiercest imprecations; but, insensible to these insults, she gazed on the populace with eyes beaming with serenity and compassion.

The sky cleared up, and the rain which wetted her to the skin, displayed the exquisite symmetry of her form, like those of a woman leaving the bath. Her hands bound behind her back, obliged her to hold up her head, and this forced rigidity of the muscles gave more fixity to her attitude, and set off the outlines of her figure. The rays of the setting sun fell on her head; and her complexion, heightened by the red chemise, seemed of an unearthly brilliancy. . . .
The cart stopped, and Charlotte, at the sight of the fatal instrument, turned pale, but, soon recovering herself, ascended the scaffold with as light and rapid a step as the long chemise and her pinioned arms permitted. When the executioner, to bare her neck, removed the handkerchief that covered her bosom, this insult to her modesty moved her more than her impending death; then, turning to the guillotine, she placed herself under the axe. The heavy blade fell, and her head rolled on the scaffold. One of the assistants, named Legros, took it in his hand and struck it on the cheek. It is said that a deep crimson suffusion overspread the face, as though dignity and modesty had for an instant lasted longer even than life.
The strong diagonal in the composition of the image, with the upward sland of the rails and sword of the pale but threatening guard in the background, emphasizes the physical and figurative upward trajectory: the orientation of the body, kneeling yet poised to rise—to ascend the scaffold, but also to redemption—and the reverent heavenward cast of the face, which forms the focal point of the image.

Even most of Corday's defenders were reluctant to voice outright approval for political assassination, but in what variously amounted to ambivalence or disingenuousness, they usually found a way to exculpate her or at least pointedly relativize her guilt in comparison with that of Marat. Lamartine found one of the most creative escapes by simultaneously criticizing the act and depicting it as a cosmic as well as moral mystery just perhaps partaking, like the actions of Lucifer himself, of the workings of the divine:
In the face of murder, history dares not praise, and in the face of heroism, dares not condemn her. The appreciation of such an act places us in the terrible alternative of blaming virtue or applauding assassination. Like the painter who, despairing of rendering the expression of a mingled sentiment, cast a veil over the face of the figure, we must leave this mystery to be debated in the abysses of the human heart. There are deeds of which men are no judges, and which mount, without appeal, direct to the tribunal of God. There are human actions so strange a mixture of weakness and strength, pure intent and culpable means, error and truth, murder and martyrdom, that we know not whether to term them crime or virtue. The culpable devotion of Charlotte Corday is among those acts which admiration and horror would leave eternally in doubt, did not morality reprove them. Had we to find for this sublime liberatrix of her country, and generous murderess of a tyrant, a name which should at once convey the enthusiasm of our feelings toward her and the severity of our judgment on her action, we would coin a phrase combining the extreme of admiration and horror, and term her the Angel of Assassination.
A British contributor to Notes and Queries nearly half a century later said of Raffet's drawing, "Her expression is proud, determined—nay, almost fierce," noting the marked contrast to the majority of (to his mind) prettified portraits, which "generally agreed in representing her as a gentle, charming-looking girl, very different from the portrait in Lamartine."  I myself find the image more cloying than fierce, but the overall representation of Corday is a somewhat peculiar one, which manages to render her at once conventionally demure and ever so slightly wild. The viewer seeks to reconcile the pious gaze and lingering youthful plumpness of the face with the wind-blown locks—which, depending on context and intent, can symbolize either girlish innocence or seductiveness—and the womanly body under the clinging drapery.

It adequately represents another type of ambiguity and ambivalence. It's a sort of Victorian counter-revolutionary soft porn: a little bondage, a little rain and wind—Joan of Arc in a wet t-shirt.


Somewhat to my surprise, last year's post on Corday's execution and depiction in portraiture proved to be one of the more popular.  Here it is again.

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