Nanine Vallain



a story of representation

Which is the image that tells the story of the French Revolution? Evidently, it is the famous popular painting with the bare breasted woman leading the people on to rebellion. A painting expressing the haste and verve of the period. Presumably also possible as a pin up poster.

A painting created almost forty years after the outbreak of the revolution and not by someone who took part in the events. So, is there an image painted by a person who did take part? But ought not such a work have been discovered and disseminated by critically-minded historians and writers? I search in literature and on the internet, doubtful to call into question something so acknowledged, established, and acclaimed as the image of the French Revolution.

Contrary to expectation, under the word liberté, a picture pops up which meets my requirements; La Liberté, Freedom. The artist is Jeanne-Louise “Nanine” Vallain (1767-1815), pupil of one of the period’s most celebrated painters, the neo-classicist Jacques-Louis David. Has the painting survived – does it exist in reality? Yes, says the copyright bureau, the work is exhibited at the Musée de la Révolution française in the town of Vizille in the south east of France.

Wonderful! Except for the fact that I have neither the time nor the finances to visit there. In any case, not presently. So I print out the two images in colour and put them beside each other; the popular speedy victorious painting by Eugène Delacroix from 1830 and the onerously beautiful painting by Nanine Vallain from 1793. Why are they so different to each other even though they bear the same title, are considered to be commenting the same time period, and picture the same allegory? Why is Nanine’s work residing in the shadow in literature and media? How can it be that a painting by a woman, created at the time of the perhaps most renowned historical event, is still largely unknown?

“Please help fill in the facts for this biographical entry.” It is difficult to find biographical facts about the artist. I detect a sentence here and there in French and British art encyclopaedias. Aside from that, near nothing. So, I return to the image, the masterpiece that was left in the cellar of art history for so long. Perhaps due to a happenstance, perhaps because some influential friend of Delacroix thought that one (1) masterpiece of the French revolution was enough. The exact reason is of lesser importance.

The painting is of importance. I sleep with it. It spins around in my head. The colours – the light blue and emerald sky, the blue blouse, the red cap, the stick, the pyramid, the urn in the background with the date of the storming of the Bastille and the Royal palace, the Human Rights Declaration in rolls, the broken chains on the ground at her feet: She, Liberté, barefooted, muscled, collected, assertive. Sitting. The composition is magnificent.

Forsaken and magnificent. I see before me all the colleagues of today in the category of women slowly but surely fade away from the collective consciousness of the future. A relay in which half of the runners and half of the front runners each is given a flamboyant bouquet of flowers. Only to be shown off the track into an existence of nullity. While the colleagues in the category of men, just as slowly and surely, fill the emptied space. (Presumably to the extent of around eighty-five percent, the situation today in Swedish school books in history, according to surveys by The Swedish Television and the Swedish daily paper Dagens Nyheter.)

However, exactly in that space, with a dramatic somersault from nowhere, it happens. The seamstresses, washerwomen, market sellers, fishermen’s wives, miners, agricultural labourers, maids, waitresses, actresses, prostitutes, writers, teachers, artists burst out of the gaping hole under the exit signs. The family slaves, the peasant slaves, the colonial slaves, the church slaves in the female category.

How surprised and darned they are at us feminists. We who have let them fall into oblivion. But they smile in such a cool manner. They wake me up from my sleep; they pull my ear: Why is the Declaration of Human Rights drooping in the right hand of Liberté? Why is the red cap placed on her pike, and not on her head? Why is she not charging ahead like the woman in Delacroix’ cherished and world-famous image?

Nanine Vallain’s master, Jacques-Louis David, the artist of the time, has numerous pupils, some from the category of women. He is a child prodigy. In his youth, he is invited to participate in the competitions of the Royal French Academy of Arts, however, when failing at his third attempt to win, he goes on a hunger strike. Now, as an adult, he is a dedicated revolutionary, one of the principal men, a friend of the lawyer Robespierre. Jacques-Louis has painted The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons in 1789 and has set the tone, especially for the young people of the Revolution. The Revolution must be prioritized, even in relation to one’s family and friends. The Revolution demands personal sacrifices. Objection and criticism are the same as treason. Unity is everything. You are for, or you are against. If you are against, you are dead. La Révolution ou la Mort.

Jacques-Louis David is the highest official responsible for the Republic’s artistic matters and propaganda – images and paintings and statues that aim to strengthen the people’s support of the young Republic. Hitherto the prime symbol of the people is the popular mastodon icon La Liberté. David replaces her with the classical antique figure Hercules, a gigantic machismo statue holding a miniature of Liberté in his hand. It is shocking. Liberté is the people, the nation, the Republic itself. It is she who must inspire and solace the young men who may die on the battlefields fighting against the monarchies that aim to reinstate feudal power. David gets rid of her, dwarfs her to a petite statuette. How is it possible?

David has voted for the execution of the king Louis XVI. He is a deputy in the National Convention, and together with Robespierre part of the highest national power in the Committee of Public Security. In the autumn of 1793, the National Convention issues an order proclaiming that presumed contra revolutionaries are to be arrested. Under a new law, the law about the suspicious, no concrete evidence is required. Anyone considered not to have acted for the advancement of the revolution may be arrested. The person who deviates from the general opinion is guilty. The person who is perceived to be critical of the regime may be sentenced to death.

Contra revolutionary! exclaims the play wright and literary activist Olympe de Gouges. She is the author of the first feminist manifesto of Europe, Declaration of  the Rights of Woman, a paraphrase of the Declaration of Human Rights (1789). All human beings, regardless of sex and colour, are naturally and equally included into humanity. Official posts must be open to everyone. Kings and queens should abdicate – not be executed. Children born outside of wedlock must be given equal rights. Divorce must be applicable also to women. The last-mentioned demands have been adopted by the National Assembly, and later the National Convention. If the French Empire does not abolish the slave trade, the Empire must be abolished, de Gouges proclaims. Upon which the colonists begin to conspire to get her arrested.

De Gouges’ posters, put up everywhere in Paris, condemn the terror politics of David and Robespierre. She advocates a popular referendum to decide the form of the national regime. She challenges the deeply rooted binary gender system which is used to hinder political rights. She declares: “I am neither woman nor man, I am both woman and man.” Just how bold de Gouges statement is, may be grasped by comparing it to the view of e.g. the art critique Coup de Pattes (Le Triumvirat des Ars 1783): “A woman who possesses all of a man’s talents to create significant art, is an impossible man, a monstrosity.”

Simultaneously the poor women of Paris are losing their patience. The supply of bread and basic goods is on the rise, but the situation is still very bad. Prices are impossible, and influence is close to zero. The children no longer whimper over aching stomachs, they have fallen silent. Marie-Antoinette, occupied with following a diet to fit into the latest fashionable chemise, does not, according to the women, understand her fellows and their plagues. We could have made a meagre soup out of her; the women shout when the queen is guillotined in the autumn of 1793. The king – executed almost a year earlier – he, by contrast, was not so difficult to steer. Some buuh! And vive le Roi! at the right instances and he obeyed. But now the pompous lawyers have killed him. Now they have taken away the only route to speedy decrees, opened garners, and lower prices.

The female category has both driven and supported the revolution. However, it does no longer go their way. The poor women yammer and fight, and report people randomly. On their own initiative they instate taxation juste, righteous prices, i.e. payable prices. In the autumn of 1793, the nation’s regime responds by inaugurating a new time order implicating a ten-day working week. A monthly calendar, picturing half naked young women at work, is used to launch the unpopular project. After campaigns in the press, in which the category of women is criticized and blamed for not behaving “like women”, the National Convention resolve that women may not assemble in political organizations and discussion clubs. Women have no freedom of assembly. Women should stay at home and take care of their children and abstain from engaging in politics. A few days after the proclamation, the 2nd of November, Olympe de Gouges is sentenced to death. She is guillotined the subsequent day.

In 1792 Nanine Vallain has begun to work on the painting that eventually will ornament the wall of the prime assembly for revolutionary male politicians, the Jacobin Club. Is the painting an assignment or a donation? It is difficult to find the facts that would verify which; however, a French lexicon from the 19th century states that she joins the radical Commune Générale des Artes in protest of the Royal French Academy of Arts. To paint the picture of the revolution is truly great. Nanine Vallain does it masterly and in line with Jacques-Louis David’s spirit; truthful to the neoclassical ideals, stylistically pure.

But also in a headstrong way. Liberté reigns in front of an Egyptian pyramid, a symbol of unity and universalism. Or, is it perhaps a symbol of hierarchical feudal society? She is the eye-catcher. Straight-backed, dressed in working clothes, resting momentarily. This is a character of immense strength. Down-to-earth, a living person, not foremost allegory. She may be anyone among the young women in the decisive Women’s march of 5th October 1789.

So, what is Nanine Vallain suggesting with her master piece? Does the painting tell the women of Paris to calm down? Is La Liberté a propagandist concession to Nanine’s master, art- and propaganda minister Jacques-Louis David, and his statue Hercules? Ought the women deliver the red freedom cap to the category of men, and stop pushing their own political agenda? Interpreted in this way, the painting may be accepted without problem in the assembly room of the Jacobins. And the women may realize that they are not political agents. That they should give their support to the revolutionary men but cease to act on their own accord.

In the summer of 1794 the number of persons who are sentenced to death reaches its culmination. In addition to politicians, the guillotined now consist mainly of poor people, and women. Sixteen nuns from a Catholic Carmelite Order – most of them young and without means and from the countryside – sing hymns when they, one after the other, are forced to mount the scaffold. A young woman is executed with her baby in her arms. The audience at Place de la Révolution and Place du Trône Renversé, including the guards, mumble and turn their heads away.

Simultaneously, the assembly room of the Jacobins is gaping empty and few members remain. Nanine Vallain’s La Liberté is still hanging on the wall. The word brotherhood, in the credo Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood, has been taken down from the presidium. Most of the members have been guillotined or arrested. Not by their opponents – contra revolutionaries, conservative aristocrats, or royalists – but by other club members in the National Convention and the Committee for General Security. The terror politics is coming to an end.

Nanine’s master Jacques-Louis David has started to suffer from stomach pains. At the exact right day, Jacques-Louis refrains from participating in the sessions at the National Convention, and by this he evades the fate of his colleagues. Not long after, Jacques-Louis is arrested but manages to elope the guillotine. He has started to paint the reconciling The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), in which Hersilia throws herself between the Roman king (her husband), and the king of the neighbouring country Sabine (her father). Jacques-Louis is already friends with Napoleon who will stage a military coup and withdraw the reforms of the French revolution considered sensational at the time; the suffrage for men, the abolition of slavery, the equal right to divorce, the rights of children born outside of marriage. Within a few years he is emperor Napoleon’s appointed artist at the court.

What is Nanine doing? In the autumn of 1793, when women are forbidden to create their own clubs and are expelled from public politics, she marries and becomes Madame Piètre. It is a way to survive as an artist. Thus, she may continue to exhibit, but not as Nanine but as M. Piètre. Nanine has ceased to exist. The lexica at the library of the Swedish Royal Institute of Fine Arts show a career gap of several years. Is La Liberté a testament to an artist’s solidarity with the revolution even to the point of namelessness? An expression of dedication, willingness to make sacrifices, and obedience to the revolutionary male power?

Probably. However, I cannot help but seeing a subtle and very elegant protest. When I look at La Liberté rebelliously from beneath, I find answers to my questions about the details of the painting. Liberté appears as a real person, not just as a symbol. The red cap – during classical Antiquity a gift to the freed slave – cannot be placed on her head. She belongs to the female category – the never liberated that was not expressively included in the United Nations Human Rights Declaration until almost two hundred years later, in 1981. The Declaration in the hand of Liberté droops because it is an unfulfilled promise.

A sensational but insufficient promise. A promise that did not include everybody and could not feed the many. An affirmation that did not prioritize the right of women to get justly paid for their work, so that they could feed themselves and their family, and gain strength to fight for the ideals of equality and citizen rights.

Nanine Vallain’s image La Liberté is an ambivalence; an artist’s way of expressing herself, getting the job done, yet evade censorship. It is a portrait of a feminist revolution being forced into taking a pause. Her hand is holding the Declaration both firmly and tenderly. Liberté has accepted the situation, but has not given in. She is banished, but she is still present. She bides her time. She is the last one to leave the premises.


Originally published in Swedish, in Opulens Magazine, 8th of March 2017

© Arimneste Anima Museum #6