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By special guest writer Philippa Campsie, Toronto, Canada

Palais Royal, Paris by Barbara Redmond fine art paintings of Paris

Palais Royal, Paris by Barbara Redmond

July is a good month for national days. July 1 is Canada Day, July 4 is U.S. Independence Day, and July 14 is Bastille Day in France. There will be fireworks and feasts and celebrations in each country. Yet we can’t help noticing some interesting differences in what is being celebrated.

Canada Day commemorates the day in 1867 when a group of men known today as the Fathers of Confederation signed a document to unite four provinces into the Dominion of Canada. Similarly, on July 4, 1776, the American Congress (another group of men) approved the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.

France is a woman

In contrast, Bastille Day is the only celebration of an equal-opportunity event that involved women (and even children). In July 14, 1789, a mob of Parisians stormed an almost-empty medieval fortress that had long been used as a prison. They had come from the Palais Royal (shown above as it looks today), which was the centre of revolutionary sentiment and discussion among the people of Paris. The troops guarding the fortress fired on the crowd. The violence escalated from there.

In the end, the only person killed defending the fortress was its governor, but almost 100 of the attackers – men, women, and children – died in the mêlée. The immediate outcome was that King Louis XVI agreed to the crowd’s demands: he reinstated a popular official he had previously fired, acknowledged the legitimacy of the National Assembly, and promised to demolish the Bastille. Three days later, he came to Paris and was met with enthusiasm; the tricolor was created from the red and blue of the coat of arms of the City of Paris and the white of the Bourbon royal family.

Marianne: feminine symbol of liberty and republicanism

Bastille Day celebrates an ambiguous and very local event – several hours of intense violence by a group of people most of whom were never identified, a temporary truce with the king, and the creation of a flag containing the colours of the capital city and a royal dynasty. Very different from the sedate and notably masculine national days of Canada and the United States.

Perhaps this is why the national emblem of France is also a woman. Her name is Marianne. Town squares throughout the country feature a statue of this feminine symbol of liberty and republicanism. Before the Euro replaced the franc, she appeared on coins, and she is still sometimes seen on French stamps. Her profile is part of the official logo of the French government. She is usually depicted dressed like a classical Greek goddess, with the addition of a Phrygian cap – a soft, cone-shaped red cap with its top pointing forward, a symbol of the “common people” of France.

A French historian has argued that the French have a feminine emblem simply because the French word for republic (la république) is feminine (and so is the name of the country, La France), but we think there is more to it than that. You just can’t imagine this sort of thing in North America, where our human emblems consist of Johnny Canuck and Uncle Sam.

There are many theories about how she got her name. Some say it comes from a popular song. Others say she was named after a pretty young woman who tended the wounded during the Revolution and wore a Phrygian cap. Or it might be that since Marie-Anne was a popular name at the time, the name of the allegorical figure was chosen to represent Everywoman (rather as we might refer to Jane Doe for a typical person in North America).

France’s image of Marianne

The image of Marianne has evolved over time and draws from various sources, including Delacroix’s 1830 painting of Liberty Leading the People, which features a bare-breasted Marianne, and the statue of La Marseillaise on the Arc de Triomphe, which depicts a demented, shrieking, winged warrior maiden in full armour.

In 19th century, the French government launched a competition to develop a standardized way of portraying Marianne. Two versions emerged – a peaceful one surrounded by symbols of the country’s wealth and progress, and a more militant (véhemente) one with arm raised and breast bared. You can see elements of both types in the statue created by the sculptor Dalou for the one hundredth anniversary of the Revolution in 1889 in the Place de la Nation.

Marianne has had her ups and downs. During the Second Empire of Napoleon III, symbols of republicanism were repressed. And during the Vichy Regime in the Second World War, many bronze statues of her were melted down or removed from public places. When Général de Gaulle became president after the war, he used her image frequently, but in calmer-looking, less militant forms. For the two hundredth anniversary of the Revolution in 1989, Président Mitterand decided to avoid her image in favour of something less, well, revolutionary.

After all, that bared breast is troubling. It’s not so much the nudity, but the fact that she is neither fully dressed nor fully naked, but in an in-between state. Marianne represents change, not stability, a state that tends to scare off most politicians.

Thus when the French gave a symbol of liberty to the United States, they went for a fully clothed woman with a radiant crown rather than a Phrygian cap, her raised hand holding a torch rather than clenched in a fist. The 1886 Statue of Liberty (La Liberté éclairant le monde) is not Marianne. Her stern face is handsome, but not very feminine.

Modern Marianne: Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve…

Originally, images and sculptures of Marianne were created using anonymous models, but modern depictions of Marianne have drawn on the features of famous French beauties. This trend began with the choice of Brigitte Bardot as a model in 1969. Thereafter, every few years, the image of Marianne has been renewed by association with a contemporary Frenchwoman.

Previous “Mariannes” have included singer Mireille Mathieu, actress Catherine Deneuve, fashion designer Inès de la Fressange, actress and model Laetitia Casta, and talk-show host Evelyne Thomas. There is even an unnamed North African young woman who has posed for a version of Marianne that represents a multi-ethnic France. Apparently French mayors have a choice when they commission a statue and are not required to use the latest incarnation of Marianne. Catherine Deneuve thus remains a popular choice.

Marianne persists as a popular symbol, although perhaps more outside Paris than within the city, but her image still presides over the Place de la République and other important public spaces in the capital. Judging by the number of representations of Marianne you can see in a day’s walk around the streets, it’s still A Woman’s Paris after all.

Vocabulary: French to English translations

Bleu blanc rouge: Colors of the French flag are always named in the order of “bleu blanc rouge,” since the color blue is the one closest to the flagpole.
Le bonnet phrygien: Soft, cone-shaped red cap with its top pointing forward, a symbol of the “common people” of France.
Le bras levé: Raised arm.
Un sein nu: Bare breast.

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Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond
All rights reserved.
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