French Revolution Political Cartoons: Telling Truth to Power

The French Revolution was, without hyperbole, a mad time. So, it should come as no surprise that the political cartoons that came out of the French Revolution were equally insane. Though we won’t cover every era of the French Revolution through these cartoons, because that would take a book, this article will explore the earliest stages of the revolution through Reign of Terror by means of these strange, sarcastic pictures. So buckle up, because it’s about to get weird.

French Revolution Political Cartoons and the Search for Social Harmony

In the years leading up to 1789, the main point of tension in French society was the large economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots. This large gap left the (often poor) many to pay for the extravagant lifestyles of the few. Though this system had persisted for centuries, it was about reach a boiling point. Much like the political cartoons that came out of the American Revolution a decade earlier, the cartoons that depicted these stressors in French society started off more civil before getting more insane.

Le Peuple Sous l’Ancien Régime

French Revolution Political Cartoons depicting a satirical take on the three classes of ancien régime society.

The period of French history that led up to the Revolution is known as the ancien régime, or old regime. In this era, French society was divided into three distinct classes, which the French called estates. The first two estates were made up of the nobility and the clergy, who, between them, controlled almost all the land in the French kingdom. The third estate, which comprised 90% of the French population, were the ‘commoners.’ Not all the commoners were poor, some had even made themselves rich as merchants, lawyers, and skill artisans, but they had none of the social prestige or inherited, ungodly amounts of wealth that the nobility enjoyed. 

Most significantly, the third estate was burdened with paying almost all the taxes collected within the kingdom. And that’s what this French Revolution political cartoon is getting at. 

At the bottom of the image, on all fours, an emaciated man has his hands and feet bound in chains, his eyes blindfolded, and his mouth gagged by reins. He is bleeding from one side as a noble man, wearing a jacket emblazoned with the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of the French monarchy, whips and spurs him. Behind the noble, two clergymen appear – one wearing a bishops hat, the other with a massive Jesus piece dangling from his neck. And, in contradiction to the skin-and-bones appearance of the peasant, the noble and clergy men have rather, well, prodigious girth. 

The meaning could not be more clear. The third estate supported the entirety of the kingdom, and was slowly being worked to death by the Church and nobility. 

Trois Têtes Souls l’Même Bonnet

A French Revolution political cartoon depicting the desire for class harmony.

Eventually, the Third Estate decided it had had enough. Why should they have to keep the entire nation on their back? It was high time the clergy and nobility started paying their way. 

The early leaders of this rebellion against the established order, however, were the well-to-do members of the Third Estate who primarily sought equal legal footing with the first two estates. Compared to the later years of the French Revolution, this early phase had a polite, hopeful outlook on the fate of the French kingdom, and mankind in general.

In this French Revolution political cartoon, entitled “Trois têtes sous l’même bonnet,” which translates to “Three heads under the same hat,” a member of the Third Estate sits prominently in the center of the image. Dressed like a man of means, though not in the gaudy outfits that categorized the fashion of the French nobility, he holds a triangular painting of men from the three estates. Interestingly, all three sides, and all three angles, of the frame are of equal dimensions, just like how the man wishes all three estates to be equal. Finally, a liberty cap is perched on top of the triangular frame. A symbol of freedom since the days of ancient Rome, the liberty cap here symbolizes the desire for all three estates to share equally in freedom and liberty.

Farming implements surround the man to drive home the message that he represents the Third Estate. Also, given that France’s economy was largely agricultural at the time, these symbols of farming could represent the industry and wealth that France could achieve if all three estates were made equal.

Finally, in the far left corner of the cartoon, a tablet rests against a tree and has the following inscribed into it: 

“Me, from all walks of life, the foster father, I said that everything would have to be like this [sic] for our good King and my country.” 

In this tablet, we see another appeal for equality. Without liberty and equal standing for the Third Estate, France cannot achieve harmony or prosperity.

Political Cartoons and the Early Violence of the French Revolution

It didn’t take long for the French Revolution to turn from idealistic pursuit of equality to violent upheaval of the social order. At first, though, the violent demonstrations committed in the name of liberty didn’t actually hurt anyone. These actions were more symbolic strikes against the established order by the Third Estate after their appeals for equality fell on deaf ears. 

The two most famous of these incidents were the storming of the Bastille and the women’s march on Versaille. 

Adieu Bastille

A French Revolution political cartoon that offers a satirical take on the Storming of the Bastille

The storming of the Bastille was a huge event in not only the French Revolution, but the history of France itself. It marked one of the first, and boldest, attempts of the lower classes to rise up against the ruling elite. 

The Bastille itself had a long history, dating back well into the Middle Ages. French kings had once upon a time used it as a prison for criminals and political enemies. By 1789, however, it had largely fallen out of use, and held only seven prisoners – not exactly Gitmo. Nevertheless, when the citizens of Paris stormed the Medieval fortress at the heart of the city on July 14, 1789, they dealt a huge symbolic blow to the power of the aristocracy. 

In this French Revolution political cartoon, we can see this scene play out in vivid satire. In the foreground, a man dressed like a member of the Third Estate plays the bagpipes. With his feet, he manipulates a marionette string that runs through a member of the clergy and a nobleman. Behind him, a lion, symbolizing the monarchy, lays at his feet, having been tamed. Finally, in the background, the Bastille burns, as people on the faraway roof tear it to pieces with pickaxes. 

Published in 1789, the year the French Revolution began, this political cartoon may have been a bit optimistic. The fall of the Bastille, though a symbolic coup, hardly toppled the established order. The Third Estate had made it known that they meant business, but the Revolution had only just begun.

Avant-garde des femmes allant à Versaille

French Revolution political cartoon depicting the Women's March on Versailles

Following the Storming of the Bastille, tensions continued to build in Paris. By the fall, the citizens of the French capital had had enough. On October 5, 1789, 7,000 Parisian women marched en masse to Versailles, the small town outside of Paris where the French monarchy resided, to demand action from their king. Now known as the Women’s March on Versailles, it was arguably the death blow to the Bourbon’s absolute power.

Beginning in a Parisian market on a rainy day, the march was originally inspired by the ridiculously high price of bread – the main food staple for the lower classes across Europe. Unable to feed their families, and knowing full well that Louis and Marie Antoniette were living like, well, royalty, the women of Paris decided to do something about it.

In the French Revolution political cartoon “Avant-garde des femmes allant à Versaille,” we see a rather straightforward interpretation of these events. The women of Paris gather, holding pitchforks, lances, and other makeshift weaponry. The one metaphorical element at play here is the sign held aloft by a woman in the middle of the crowd. 

On the circular sign, we see the scales of justice – now in an even position as the women prepare to dole out their own version of street justice on the king. Atop this sign sits the ever present liberty cap, clearly communicating to the Early Modern audience that these women’s main objective was to obtain liberty. 

The day would end well for these women. They would go on to force King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to follow them back to Paris, so they could see how their people were living. The monarchy would neve again reside on the wondrous Palace of Versailles, and the absolutism of the Bourbon dynasty was broken.

French Revolution Political Cartoons and Louis XVI

As the Women’s March on Versaille made plain, the French Revolution quickly turned on the monarchy. While some wanted a constitutional monarchy in line with the British system, and others wanted to establish a republic as the United States had done, all could agree that the absolute power of the Bourbon dynasty had to end. 

Les deux ne font qu’un

A political cartoon that depicts Lous XVI and Marie Antoinette as two animals attached at the waist.

For the first two years of the Revolution, the royals got off pretty easy as far as revolutions go. Yes, they were escorted from their palace in Versailles back to Paris by an angry mob of hungry, pitchfork wielding women. But, hey, at least they weren’t killed. 

By 1791, however, the public scrutiny of the king and queen started to rise. In the above French Revolution political cartoon, “Les deux ne font qu’un,” which translates to “The two are one,” we the essence of how the public viewed Louis and Marie Antoinette.  

To the left, we see Louis, his chubby face accented by rosy cheeks and a smug grin. These features seem to hint at the well-feed, vain glorious in nature of the monarch, which sat in complete opposition to many of his subjects, who’s survival depended on a good harvest. But that’s not where the artist stopped! 

Louis’ body looks like a goat or a pig, and a pair of horns sprout out from the top of his head. But these aren’t just any horns. There were a lot of rumors flying around that Marie-Antoinette frequently cheated on her husband. So, the artist has here adorned Louis with a symbol everyone in the 1700s would have known – the horns of cuckold. 

Attached to Louis at the midsection, Marie-Antoinette has been given the body of a hyena. On her head, she wears a crown of snakes, reminiscent of Medusa, along with ostrich feathers. Born in Austria, the cartoonist gave the queen these feathers as a play on words between the French words for ostrich (autruche) and Austria (Autriche). 

The larger message to take from this cartoon, though, is that the French royals were starting to use up their good will with the people. 

Hell Broke Loose, or the Murder of Louis, 1793

An English political cartoon depicting the death of Louis XVI, with his executors drawn as demons.

By 1793, Louis XVI’s luck had run out. After a failed attempt to escape Paris and seek foreign aid to end the Revolution, the revolutionary government that now effectively ruled France, drug the king out to the guillotine and chopped off his head. With the hopes some had held for a constitutional monarchy dying with him, the period known as the reign of terror began with Louis’s death.

This seems to be the not so blunt message of “Hell Broke Loose, or the Murder of Louis.” Though this French Revolution political cartoon originated in England, it can give us some interesting insight into how both foreign powers, as well as French royalists, viewed the beheading of their king.

Outside of France, pretty much everyone wanted the revolution to fail. Other than the Netherlands, every other country was governed by a monarch. So, if the French could get away with beheading their king, it would be bad news for them. We can see this sentiment echoed in this English cartoon.

Devilish creatures fill the sky and surround the podium that Louis is laid out on. As the guillotine comes down on the king’s neck, the devils sing the words “Ça ira,” the de-facto anthem of the French Revolution, and “Vive la nation, or, in English, “Long live the nation.” By making devilish looking creatures sing lyrics emblematic of the French Revolution, the cartoonist is hoping to link damnation and regicide in the minds of the readers.  

The Reign of Terror and French Revolution Political Cartoons

Following the death of Louis XVI in 1793, the period of the French Revolution known as the Reign of Terror began in ernest. The Terror, as it more familiarily called, was a time characterized by political suspicions, vicious rivalries among leadership, and a lot, I mean a lot, of killing. The Reign of Terror only last one year. But, in that time, some 17,000 people were killed by the revolutionary government across France. 

Needless to say, not everyone was thrilled with the men in charge during this time. 

Robespierre Exécutant le Bourreau

A French Revolution political cartoon making a point on the violence of Robespierre.

In this satirical take on the Reign of Terror, the cartoonist takes aim at the leader of the Terror, Maximillian Robespierre. 

A lawyer under the ancien régime who had risen to prominence during the revolution, Robespierre eventually became the leader of the Reign of Terror. Hoping to hold on to his hard won position of power, Robespierre used the political levers at his disposal to kill anyone and everyone who was an enemy of the revolution; which actually meant an enemy of Robespierre. 

In this French Revolution political cartoon, we see Robespierre in the foreground ready to execute a man tied up and laying under the blade of a guillotine. Under Robiespierre’s feet lay to the two republican constitutions written since the beginning of the revolution. 

Behind Robespierre, a giant pyramid rises up to the sky. The words “Cy gut toute la France,” which translate to “Here rests all of France,” are etched into the pyramid’s face. Finally, a liberty cap flies upside-down from the top of the pyramid, symbolizing the inversion of justice under Robespierre’s reign. And, just to drive the point home, the cap is burning. 

In the background, dozens of guillotines loom as a reminder of the human cost of the Terror. 

The Zenith of French Glory

An English political cartoon making a satirical point about the Reign of Terror.

We’ve looked at some doozies, but this French Revolution political cartoon takes the cake. Created by a British caricaturist named James Gillray, this insane illustration gives us insight into how the French Revolution was viewed abroad. 

Seated in the center of the cartoon, the main character of the piece has situated himself on a sconce that protrudes from a Parisian building. On his back, he wears two daggers, each dripping with blood. 

On his head, he wears a liberty cap and the French cockade, a symbol often worn by revolutionaries. With bare feet and torn trousers that expose his butt, he is no doubt supposed to look rough and foolish. 

Below him hang three members of the clergy, a nod to the revolutionary government’s seizure of Church lands as well as its increasing secularization, if not atheism. From the iron rod on which the clergy have been hung, a liberty cap-topped pole juts out, a symbol of what Gillray saw as the hypocrisy of the revolution: wanton murder in the name of liberty. 

Finally, he plays the fiddle as Paris burns before him, a reference to the Roman emperor Nero who was rumored to have done the same as Rome burned. 

In this man, we are supposed to see a revolutionary tyrant, who, in the guise of liberty, has set the world on fire. 

Below him, throngs of people gather in the square for the days execution, as four rather happy looking revolutionaries work the guillotine. Above them, a robbed noble hangs, symbolizing the scores of innocent nobility who lost their lives. 

Finally, in the far distance, Paris burns. 

Sources on French Revolution Political Cartoons

  1. Harrison W. Mark, “The Three Estates of Pre-Revolutionary France,”
  2. “French Revolution Images: Iconography from the collections of the Bibliothèque national de France,” Stanford Libraries.
  3. “Women’s March on Versailles,”
  4. Harrison W. Mark, “Women’s March on Versailles,”
  5. “The Two Are But One (Les deux ne font qu’un),”
  6. Ibid
  7. Michael Ray, “What Led to France’s Reign of Terror?”

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