In the mid-nineteenth century, the world was braving enormous social and political upheaval. The industrial revolution and development of railroads was transforming the landscape irreversibly and propelling new ideas in support of the working class (The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848). When the Revolution of 1848 overthrew the Orléans Monarchy and established the French Second Republic, it is not surprising that the new government turned to Couture to immortalize the moment in paint. He was enormously popular and regarded as one of the country’s greatest artists, heir to Antoine Gros (his former teacher) and Theodore Géricault, and his politics aligned with the new regime. Commissioned to prepare a grand history painting intended to emphasize the relationship between the French Revolution of 1789 and the Second Republic, Couture decided to paint a tribute to the unification of social classes in defense of the country through The Enrollment of the Volunteers of 1792 (1848-1851, Musée Départmental de l’Oise, Beauvais).
Couture’s enthusiasm is reflected in the innumerable studies and compositional sketches that were made in preparation for the canvas. Unlike the exclusively classical figures in Romains de la décadence, these sketches show that Couture experimented with an anachronistic cast that borrows classical motifs, allegorical figures, eighteenth century soldiers and contemporary workers. The most complete preparatory sketch and the one that he identified as his preferred composition for the final painting is The Enrollment (1848, Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts, fig. 1)(Boime, p. 197). At the very center of this composition, astride a cannon hauled by workers, sits the allegorical figure of "Liberty", and to her left are two young girls, referred to as "The Promises" – a figure group emblematic of optimism for the future.
The present work is the second study for "The Promises", and it is likely that Couture’s daughters were chosen as models (a portrait of his father is also included in the Springfield sketch). The girl at right is likely his eldest daughter, Berthe, who is also seen in his painting Autumn (1848, The Wadsworth Atheneum). The title suggests that she is joined by her sister, who can also be seen in the oil sketch for the related Head of Liberty (circa 1848, Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts). In planning the final composition, Couture mapped a complete inventory of these highly finished figure studies, many of which are now in the collection of The Musée d’Orsay, and which shows the present work in outline.
In the months following the commission, however, the political landscape of France shifted quickly and dramatically. With Louis Napoleon’s election to the presidency in December 1848, and the coup d’état in which he declared himself Emperor and transformed the Second Republic into the Second Empire in 1851, the aspirations of the revolutionaries were shattered. As a consequence, the significance of Couture’s The Enrollment of the Volunteers of 1792 was lost, and the final painting was completely reworked with broad passages left unfinished. Most notably, and perhaps nihilistically, the figures of "Victory" and "The Promises" remain completely omitted.
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