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Wednesday 7th December - Charlotte Corday

By Kirsty Stonell Walker @boccabaciata

We are a proper week into Stabvent now and so I feel up to tackling a painting with a lot of baggage.  Well, actually not this painting but one that is connected to it, as we will see.  Say Hello to Charlotte Corday...

Wednesday 7th December - Charlotte Corday

Charlotte Corday (1860) Paul Jacques Aimé Baudry

Charlotte Corday, the lass in the very nice stripe-y frock, is hastily leaving the scene of a murder.  The chap in the bathtub, looking rather dead, is of course Jean-Paul Marat, most famously dying in this painting...

Wednesday 7th December - Charlotte Corday

The Death of Marat (1793) Jacques-Louis David

Now, this is all eighteenth century which is before my normal interest (although I did a year on the Enlightenment for my degree). There are many similarities in the pictures, and the portrayals of Marat and Charlotte tell us a lot about the times in which they were painted.  Interestingly, the motivations and outcomes make these two paintings very different indeed, not least because in David's, there is no Charlotte. So, who was she?

Wednesday 7th December - Charlotte Corday

Charlotte Corday of Caen in 1793 (19th century) Tony Robert-Fleury

Charlotte came from a minor aristocratic family in Normandy.  The death of her mother and sister sent her father into such grieving that he sent Charlotte and her younger sister off to be raised in a nunnery where the girls had access to a library and education. This placed Charlotte in a dangerously active position, come the revolution, as she was keen to become political and sided with what she viewed as the more moderate revolutionaries who were critical of the savage direction of proceedings. My knowledge of the French Revolution is largely based on Carry on Don't Lose Your Head, however I'm aware that although the Revolution was a powerful wave of equality, that really only extended to men.  Women remained without the vote in France until 1944.  As a political, educated woman, Charlotte Corday wasn't feeling very revolutionised.  So, who was Marat and why kill him in his bathtub?

Wednesday 7th December - Charlotte Corday

Jean-Paul Marat (1793) Unknown Artist

Marat was a political thinker and writer who was a vigorous defender of the working man.  His political influence is believed to have influenced and inspired some of the worst violence of the Revolution and after his death, he was regarded almost as a saint of the common man. What I found interesting was that his first political book was published when he was in Newcastle Upon Tyne (home of Byker Grove and Lewis from Inspector Morse) which seemed incongruous. He also suffered from some sort of skin disease which he treated by bathing.

Wednesday 7th December - Charlotte Corday

In 1793, the King was executed and there was widespread political and social unrest.  There had been plenty of in-fighting amongst the different factions of revolutionaries up to this point, but Marat had managed to come through imprisonment to take charge and keep his rivals at bay.  He was busy squashing a political group called the Girondins in July when 24-year-old Charlotte called at his home, saying she had information about members of the group that would help in the squashing.  Marat's wife refused her entry to her husband's bathroom, but he insisted she be let in.  He was sat in his medicinal bath with a lid placed across the tub, acting as a desk.  Charlotte proceeded to give him names which he wrote down before declaring he would deal with them swiftly.  At that point, Charlotte pulled a kitchen knife out of her corset and stabbed him in the heart. He barely had time to shout 'Aidez-moi, ma chère amie!' when he died.  Charlotte was captured immediately and after a four day trial, she was executed.  She claimed that she had killed one man to save thousands, but her action sparked a wave of repressive terror that cost thousands of lives.

In Baudry's image, Charlotte is present.  David's painting of the death of Marat occurred hot on the heels of the event, using the scene, if not the man, as model.  It is a votive of a fallen hero, but sixty years later, the inclusion of Charlotte in the scene, in her revolutionary stripes, gives a 'cause and effect' side of the story. It is hard to read her expression - is she triumphant? Is she scared? Is she remorseful? She seems frozen and thoughtful. Behind her the map of France seems pale and fragile, like a map of thin veins over a deathly body, not unlike the one in the bathtub.  At her feet is a cast aside fan, the trappings of femininity dropped in a moment of murder, of revenge, of justice? At least she is dressed, unlike this offering...

Wednesday 7th December - Charlotte Corday

Death of Marat (1907) Edvard Munch

Oh deary me, there is a lot to unpack here.  So, the figure on the bed is Munch, the woman his ex-finance, Tulla Larsen, who he blamed for an accident with a gun which injured his left hand. Quite why he chose to express all that through the title Death of Marat is beyond me, but this is just one of his 'all women are perfidious' series. This is just one of this particular painting, with different versions all showing the naked 'Charlotte' standing next to 'Marat' and his bloody hand. The fact that Munch shot himself in the finger and chooses to identify with the murdered hero of the Revolution might give you an idea why Tulla broke off the engagement. Sigh.

Wednesday 7th December - Charlotte Corday

The Assassination of Marat (1880) Jean-Joseph Weerts

That's better, everyone is dressed again, and no-one is making it all about them.  It is a miracle that Charlotte managed to murder Marat in his bathtub with so many other people in there with them.  I find the lighting in this one interesting as our murderess is almost bathed in pale, holy light, whereas the lovely Revolutionary types are shadowy and terrifying.  Both Charlotte and Marat seem to be the same, whereas the crowd accusing her seem almost cartoonish and grotesque.  Possibly by the latter half of the nineteenth century, Charlotte's actions, while not approved of, were understood and the background noise of execution and control, surveillance and murder is not the glorious new life that the Revolution was meant to bring. One thing seems to be for sure, you need Charlotte in the picture to have that conversation.

See you tomorrow.

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