The July Monarchy proved to be a pivotal stage in French history not only in terms of politics, but also in the arts. The appreciation for the arts and its contribution to the development of French society at that time should not be merely limited to the aesthetics, but also to how it was able to engage people from all walks of life into the politics taking play and shaping the era’s environment. Indeed, it can be said that the visual arts of the time became a sort of medium that matches the power of the press insofar as engaging the grassroots and eliciting reactions from the masses are concerned.
Essentially, the July Monarchy is defined as that era which witnessed the rise and expansion of the middle class and what is purported to be the beginning of socialism. Under the leadership of King Louis-Philippe, the policy of juste milieu, or “happy mean”, flourished. Here, the long-standing recognition of the power of art for the furtherance of the leaders’ political careers was highlighted, but from a different angle. Unlike his predecessors who used the arts as a propagandist tool to forward their personal promotion, Louis-Philippe understood how the arts can be used as a tool to unify his divided country. Of course, it sure didn’t hurt that it could also help strengthen the legitimacy of his reign.
Armed with this knowledge and understanding, he then set out to build the Museum of the History of France. But this museum was not to be like any other museum that houses historical artifacts. Instead, it was made to reflect the country’s rich history through the various paintings and artworks depicting historical events, from the reign of Clovis I to Louis-Philippe’s reign himself, a dedication to “all the glories of France”. Indeed, it can be said that the building of the Museum of History was a turning point in reshaping the once-distant relationship between politics and the arts. The Museum sparked interest once more not only for art, but more importantly, for art’s historical value.
Artists, both visual and literary, became more prominent with their works using actual events that have transpired in their society. For example, the novelist Walter Scott took on history as a form of fiction, as well as Victor Hugo in his Notre-Dame de Paris. On the visual arts front, Paul Delaroche provided for a new tone for the new historical genre with his vivid portrayal of a scene in the lives of the twelve-year-old king of England, Edward V, and his younger brother Richard, the Duke of York.
The painting, The Children of Edward: Edward V, King of England, and Richard, Duke of York, in the Tower of London, showed the two young boys huddled close together by the bed as they looked fearfully to one side of the room. Of course, history would explain why such an image is important: that scene showed the time when the boys were locked up in the Tower of London by their envious uncle. Any spectator who is familiar with Shakespeare’s Edward will sympathize with the painting knowing the fact that the two boys will be murdered later on. In fact, it is precisely because of this sentimentality, along with other traits that are characteristic of juste milieu art (psychological drama, detailed execution, and rich coloring), that made this painting a huge success in terms of both style and content. It is no secret as well that other artists also took advantage of this newly heightened interest in genre paintings, such as Ingres and Delacroix.
Another example of art’s participatory role in the political arena – at least in the matter of relaying history – would be the lithographic works of Honoré Daumier: Gargantua and Rue Transnonain. These works, while different in their approaches, had a unified effect, and that is to expose the deeds of the government.
Gargantua was a satirical take on the government’s mandate to levy taxes that will make the poor poorer and the tax collectors and other fiends richer. Here, the body of the king represented the government while, punctuating Louis XIV’s self-patronizing claim that “The State, it is I”, was an extremely overweight body “engaged in a foul-smelling bodily function.”
His other work, meanwhile, the Rue Transnonain, had a more serious imagery depicting an actual event in history, the Transnonian Massacre. The painting showed a scene in a bedroom where a man lay on the floor beside the bed, and underneath was the body of his baby, crushed by his weight. The imagery was so vivid that the officials at that time did not doubt how well it may arouse the sentiments of the people, hence fearing the artwork. However, inasmuch as they did not like the idea of the lithograph being published, they could not stop the press from running it since they were tied down by the relaxed censorship laws. Then, censorship has been lifted, save for those involving libel cases.
What makes Daumier’s works particularly interesting is that while it succeeds in providing discomfort to those in authority because of the brash truths his art portrays, the Rue Transnonain did not exactly fall under the “libelous” category. It was safely protected by the label of being a historical genre painting, and since the government could not punish something that only relays what is a recognized historical event, they just had to content themselves with buying every possible copy of the paper wherein it was printed on and burn them.
From here we already can see the pervading issue with the striking interaction of the arts and politics. While the authorities then fully recognized the power of the arts to further their personal needs, they also clearly saw the potential danger it can bring them via the honest portrayal of events in painting and caricatures.
Having these in mind, the government then had to ensure that there will be certain checks and balances put up that will necessarily protect their interests while at the same time providing for some leeway for the artists to continue doing their art. Censorship laws were then put back in place that will make the publication of imagery considered to be politically subversive as very difficult. However, this did not deter the artists from doing their visual commentaries, for although they were limited in taking the route of the political satire, they were free to work with social satire. In this sense, they were still able to provide their contributions as unofficial “watchdogs” of society.
The July Monarchy certainly is an important section in French political and social history. It is in this era where two polar sectors of society met, and although not always seeing eye to eye, invariably worked together for the betterment of the people as a whole. Thanks to the largely educational objectives of the historical genre paintings and satirical caricatures, art as a medium successfully made it known that they can be relied on to call out on the wrongdoings of those in power. At the same time, it made the government more on their guard as they are being reminded that as officials of the State, they are under heavy scrutiny and the watchful eye of the people will be judging them every step of the way.