Bastille Day had a contentious history in nineteenth century France. First celebrated in 1790, Bastille Day commemorates the July 14, 1789 storming of the Bastille fortress by the people of Paris, a key inaugural event of the French Revolution. However, celebrating Bastille Day was suppressed by successive French regimes including by Napoleon, for it symbolized the death of Absolutism and the birth of the Republic. In fact, the parade in 1880 that Béraud has painted here was one of the first celebrations of the anniversary since 1790.
The 1870s were the era of the “Monarchist Republic,” and had been one of hardship and political instability, following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. This regime crumbled in 1878 and in June of that year, the first national holiday since the war (called the Fête de la Paix) was held, to coincide with the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Several artists, including Claude Monet, Edouard Manet and Alfred Sisley, painted pictures of the city’s streets filled with billowing flags setting off a trend that would endure for decades on both sides of the Atlantic. To mark the Republic's centenary and to promote the patriotic and republican sentiment in France, in 1879-80 the new liberal leaders of the Third Republic re-established July 14th as a national holiday and proclaimed the Marseillaise as the national anthem.
The festivities around Bastille Day in 1880 were designed by the government to boost morale and included an immense military review at Longchamps, followed by a parade into central Paris. Afterwards there were smaller parades in neighborhoods, with spectacles fireworks and dancing. In all of this, France’s strength, resilience and future were stressed. Republican symbols like the tricolor flag, the rooster, the cockade and the bonnet rouge, all shown in Béraud’s painting, were revived. La Marseillaise contains many fascinating period details – the women’s parasols in the colors of the tricolor, the flags with roosters (an ancient symbol of Gaul) in the center, as well as individual figures who convey much about the era. The front rank of marchers represents the people rebuilding France after the war. On the left the older man in the long tan coat is perhaps a syndicaliste or labor leader, flanked by men and boys in the short blue smocks still worn by tradesmen in France today. In the center are two men in black who, by their unconventional dress, appear to be artists or writers. One wears a red cummerbund instead of a belt, while the other sports a flamboyant pink cravat and a tall hat typical of the dandies and bohemians in 1880. Between them walks a pregnant woman, representing the future of France. To the right is a bearded man, probably unemployed, poorly dressed and emaciated. On his shoulders sits a bright, innocent child dressed in a tricolor sash and bonnet rouge; the two figures form a contrast between the economically depressed past and the prosperous future. Next to this pair are three teenagers of differing persuasions-- a lycéen with a leftist republican viewpoint, a military cadet with a more moderate-conservative view, and a church student with the Ultra-Catholic party -- stride united towards tomorrow and led by a determined, top-hatted teacher.
All of these people parade from the area around the Place de la Bastille, while a few people from different milieus are grouped on the sidewalk. At the far right, a well-to-do family has come upon the parade, with mixed reactions. The young father steps forward enthusiastically to salute the marchers and join in the Marseillaise, while his wife looks on holding her daughter back from the throng. Over her shoulder, her father regards the boisterous crowd with wariness and even dismay, suggesting the still strong presence of the haute-bourgeoisie. In front of this family are a couple from the country more interested in their own flirtation than the parade.
For many, Bastille Day seemed to be the dawn of a new era. La Marseillaise suggests that Béraud, like many artists, was excited by the rebirth of republicanism and in this painting he captures the widespread feeling of hope and excitement. In combining a lively, luminous scene with revealing detail, Béraud shows once again why he has come to be regarded as the quintessential chronicler of late nineteenth century Paris.
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