Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 16, 1999
William L. Pressly The French Revolution as Blasphemy: Johan Zoffany’s Paintings of the Massacre at Paris, August 10, 1792 Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. 212 pp.; 2 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (0520211960)

This book is one of the University of California Press’s Discovery Series, each of which focuses on a single important work of art, artist or theme in the history of art. Thus, Pressly’s contribution examines in detail two paintings illustrating incidents in the French Revolution: Plundering the King’s Cellar at Paris, August 10, 1792, (1794, Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut) and Celebrating over the Bodies of the Swiss Soldiers, August 12, 1792, (ca. 1794 [unfinished], Museum der Stadt, Regensburg).

Johan Zoffany (1793-1810) was born in Germany where he was trained as a history painter. He studied in Italy, then, migrating to England, became a painter of conversation pieces, portraits, and theatrical subjects. In England he was successful enough to be elected to membership in the Royal Academy. In 1783, he went to India where he spent about five years, producing portraits and genre pieces, and he returned to England in 1789. His personal life was libertine and irregular; it excited a good deal of gossip. A career like this suggests an artist with a many-sided personality, a man of abundant and varied experience. Pressly provides a brief, useful biography of Zoffany in the book’s first chapter, “A Checkered Career.”

Ronald Paulson, in Emblem and Expression, was early to propose complex iconological meanings in Zoffany’s self portraits and in such well-known paintings as The Tribuna of the Uffizi, commissioned by the Queen of England, a work that depicts a group of British gentlemen-connoisseurs admiring famous art objects. William Pressly follows Paulson in this estimate of Zoffany as an artist whose works contain hidden symbolism, sometimes self-referential, sometimes of a political or religious nature. Pressly interprets Plundering the King’s Cellar, and Celebrating over the Bodies of the Swiss Soldiers as “translations into paint of a complex argument for traditional values . . . inspired to a great extent by Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France” and a “transcendent vision of French and English history in a religious framework” (p. 5). To prove his argument, Pressly has gathered and assessed a large amount of material related to the paintings: accounts of the events of the Revolution, counterrevolutionary propaganda in England and France, political cartoons by Rowlandson, Isaac Cruikshank, and Gillray, contemporary history painting, and religious iconography. All of this is necessary to fully understand these curious works, curious because they are at first, and at second glance, a jumble of francophobia, misogyny, racial stereotypes, pure fantasy, and quasi-pornography purporting to be factual reports of actual events. The paintings were, in fact, concoctions based on written and visual accounts that were put together by Zoffany, who had been in France only once, twenty years before the Revolution, and had, of course, not witnessed these scenes.

In Plundering the King’s Cellar, a “modern bacchanal,” the sans-culottes mob drink and bathe in wine, pour wine down the throats of the dead, flaunt severed heads, hang priests, pick pockets, engage in disorderly sexual behavior, and vomit. Most of the figures are naked below the waist—illustrating the jest beloved by the English of pretending that sans-culottes meant “bare-arsed”—and the women are often bare-breasted as well. In this image, and in Celebrating over the Bodies of the Swiss Soldiers, women are truly “Furies of Hell,” the title of Pressly’s fourth chapter. A contemporary reported that "the French women . . . with a degree of ferocity unparalleled, at the late massacre of the Swiss soldiery in Paris, literally tear the dead bodies to pieces, and practise with them the most shocking indecencies . . . . " (p. 81). In both paintings women are at the center of the atrocities, gleefully and determinedly destroying everything decent, traditional, sacred and patriarchal. In this regard, Zoffany refers to German 16th- and 17th-century popular prints of the World-Turned-Upside-Down variety that show, often with shocking obscenity, women overturning social and religious order. An odd note is the inclusion of William Hogarth (breechless) in the center of Plundering the King’s Cellar. The figure is deformed but is clearly based on Hogarth’s self portrait in The Roast Beef of Old England where he shows himself among the squalid inhabitants of France. Pressly explains the presence of this grotesque representation thus: “Zoffany makes Hogarth shoulder some blame for the criminal conduct of the lower classes because he had portrayed them so sympathetically, thereby encouraging their unruly behavior” (pp. 119-122).

Both canvases are uncharacteristically coarsely painted. Zoffany’s works had always been distinguished by their smooth surfaces, their polish and precision. Celebrating over the Bodies of the Swiss was indeed unfinished, however Plundering was a completed work, exhibited at the Royal Academy. Was this coarseness deliberate, employed as an appropriate means of rendering so anarchic a subject? Or was it, as one of Zoffany’s contemporaries believed, a manifestation of the artist’s decayed abilities and mental decline? Pressly thinks the incoherent brushwork and the confused compositions were purposefully employed; the style of the paintings matched the chaos depicted. Such a claim is consonant with his argument that the paintings were philosophical meditations on the significance of contemporary upheavals. Perhaps this argument might be modified and enriched by giving more weight to the private elements in these works. Zoffany seems to permit himself to wallow—seems unable to restrain himself from wallowing in scatology and brutality. It is like Gillray’s cannibalistic “Un petit Souper à la Parisienne,” which has more to do with Gillray’s psychopathology than with the French Revolution. If the artist intended a “transcendent vision of . . . history in a religious framework,” that intention was obscured, even undermined by the combination of disgust and fascination that transpires from the paintings. Zoffany’s licentious sexual behavior and his religious cynicism were well-known; if he had enough serious interest in politics to adopt and promulgate Burkean principles, it was not noticed by his contemporaries. While dominating importance should not be given to the perceptions of contemporaries, neither should they be dismissed.

This is a richly informative book about a transforming moment in the history of art. The book is abundantly illustrated. There are many images related to the central ones, and many black and white details, unfortunately murky, from each painting.

Patricia Crown
University of Missouri