Sunday, July 26, 2015

Portraits of Charlotte Corday: From Counter-revolutionary Soft Porn to the Picture that Churchill Used to Chide DeGaulle

On 13 July 1793, Charlotte Corday stabbed the French Revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat to death in his bathtub. On July 17, she went to the guillotine.

For counterrevolutionaries, she was a great heroine and tyrannicide. Even many French and foreign supporters of a moderate Revolution viewed her with some sympathy, though the issue of assassination remained a moral and political dilemma that they did their best to finesse. Personally, I've always favored the terse characterization of the episode by the great radical journalist Egon Erwin Kisch (1923):  "the agitated hysteric, Charlotte Corday, a stupid person, stabbed him to death."

counter-revolutionary soft porn

Portraits of Corday issued soon after the event, and especially in the nineteenth century, tended to romanticize or infantilize her, as this selection from an earlier post will show.

I described one of them as "Victorian counter-revolutionary soft porn: a little bondage, a little rain and wind—Joan of Arc in a wet t-shirt."

By contrast, this engraving, based on a sketch that the artist Jean-Jacques Hauer made while she was in prison, is the most distinctive if not most attractive. Both she and her contemporaries regarded as the most accurate.

And the best thing about it is that it had a strange second life. Winston Churchill had this engraving on display in his home in order, when dealing with de Gaulle, to remind him of the fate of arrogant Frenchmen.

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