Simon Schama’s CITIZENS

by Simon Schama, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1989, more than 200 illus­tra­tions, $29.95.

(Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Art New Eng­land, 1989.)

Simon Schama’s won­der­ful new book about the French Rev­o­lu­tion is espe­cial­ly fas­ci­nat­ing to peo­ple who care about art because it is in many ways a book about the pow­er of images. In CITIZENS, images and ideas dra­mat­i­cal­ly change the way peo­ple see them­selves and make deci­sions that trans­form the world.

Schama shows that the Rev­o­lu­tion was born in the last decade of the ancien régime from a new world of images:

“In this new world, heart was to be pre­ferred to head; emo­tion to rea­son; nature to cul­ture; spon­tane­ity to cal­cu­la­tion; sim­plic­i­ty to the ornate; inno­cence to expe­ri­ence; soul to intel­lect; the domes­tic to the fash­ion­able. The key word was sen­si­bil­ité – the intu­itive capac­i­ty for intense feeling.”

Some of this new world was designed by women for women. Dress­mak­er Rose Bertin “encouraged Marie-Antoinette to aban­don the stiff­ness (both mate­r­i­al and fig­u­ra­tive) of for­mal court dress for the loose, sim­ple gowns of white lawn, cot­ton, and muslin that she came to favor.” Artist Eliz­a­beth Vigée‑Lebrun invent­ed a new kind of infor­mal por­trait, show­ing women who wear shawls and straw bon­nets strewn with flow­ers, and who often are embrac­ing their children.

The cult of sen­si­bil­i­ty that began with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and first found expres­sion in the “tear-soaked can­vas­es of Greuze” soon became “the stan­dard voice of the Revolution.” Rev­o­lu­tion­ary lan­guage was filled with “appeals to the soul, to ten­der human­i­ty, Truth, Virtue, Nature, and the idyll of fam­i­ly life.” As the Rev­o­lu­tion pro­gressed, sen­si­bil­ité grad­u­al­ly hard­ened to a repub­li­can ide­al of Virtue that grew ever more implaca­ble, dark­ened by “the neo­clas­si­cal fix­a­tion with the patri­ot­ic death.” This trans­for­ma­tion was her­ald­ed by “the stern mas­cu­line deter­mi­na­tion of patri­o­tism” in Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of Hor­atii. Schama shows how the “body lan­guage” invent­ed in the paint­ing – the ges­ture of the out­stretched arm – was “appropriated” by the Rev­o­lu­tion for the Ten­nis Court Oath.

David was a major force in the Revolution’s pro­gram of repub­li­can instruc­tion and moral regen­er­a­tion. He designed rev­o­lu­tion­ary fes­ti­vals and funer­als as spec­ta­cles com­bin­ing music, the­ater, fire­works, and oceans of flow­ers. By the time David paint­ed Marat Assas­si­nat­ed, ter­ror and vio­lence were the order of the day. David’s Marat is a rev­o­lu­tion­ary saint in a pool of blood: “The blood of the mar­tyr is there in abun­dance, ren­dered with shock­ing clar­i­ty. Marat bathes in it. Every­where deep red and dead white are set togeth­er: blood stain­ing the puri­ty of the sheet, smeared on Corday’s let­ter; coat­ing the knife, the han­dle of which David has altered from wood to ivory, the bet­ter to sus­tain the contrast.”

CITIZENS is a spec­tac­u­lar sto­ry, vivid­ly imag­ined and beau­ti­ful­ly told. Schama’s nar­ra­tive brings back to life some of the men and women who lived and died two hun­dred years ago. As he told me in a recent interview,

“Just because they were real doesn’t mean they have to be per­ma­nent­ly dead.”

by Rebec­ca Nemser for

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