by Amy Freund. Penn State University Press, July 2014. 312 p. ill. ISBN: 9780271061948 (cl.), $84.95.
Reviewed January 2015
During and after the French Revolution, the political identity of French citizens went through dramatic change. In this well-researched and intelligent book, art historian Amy Freund demonstrates how this change was reflected in the portraiture of the era.
Before the French Revolution, the portraiture of the ancien régime embodied the tradition of grand gesture and was mainly the purview of kings and aristocrats. In this new age of political transformation, it is argued that revolutionary portraiture represented new ideas of selfhood and the individual that were expressed through portraits of newly anointed citizens and active participants in the new French state. During the period of 1789-1804, portraiture reflected a fragile and changing new social and political order that articulated the idea of the "revolutionary self." In addition, it is argued that this desire to express individual identity was reflected in consumer culture by fueling the market for portraiture.
Freund builds her discussion around paintings and works on paper by lesser known as well as more famous artists of the period, such as Jacques-Louis David. The most compelling portrait discussed in this book is the Citoyenne Tallien in a Prison Cell at La Force, Holding Her Hair Which Has Just Been Cut, painted by Jean-Louis Laneuville, and which was shown at the Salon of 1796. The discussion of this painting evolved from an article published by the author in the Art Bulletin (September 2011). In this portrait, the assumptions about the female self during the Revolution are challenged. Arrested and imprisoned for her political views, including advocating for women to hold the same political rights as men, Madame Tallien was released from prison and saved from the guillotine after the overthrow of Robespierre. By portraying a female sitter in the unusual setting of prison, the modes of male and female representation were being subverted. The sitter becomes a vital political actor in the French Revolution and a citizen of the French state, again expressing the revolutionary ideals of transparency.
While intended for a scholarly audience, this book is written in a clear manner that is also accessible to non-specialists and those unfamiliar with this period of French history. Extensive footnotes and bibliography are also included as well as nicely reproduced images in color and black and white. This text is highly recommended for academic and research libraries.