The Taking of the Bastille, 14 July 1789
Prise de la Bastille, le 14 Juillet, 1789
Charles Thévenin (French, 1764–1838)
Baudicour 1, i/ii
Sheet: 43.2 x 60.7 cm (17 x 23 7/8 in.) Image: 37 x 58.1 cm (14 9/16 x 22 7/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Etching, retouched with brush and gray wash
Not On View
Charles Thévenin was a leading figure in French neoclassical art. After winning first prize for painting at the Academie in 1791, he went on to exhibit at the Salon from 1793 to 1833. He served as director of the Academie Française in Rome (1816-22) and was elected to both the Institut de France and the Legion of Honor. In 1829, he was appointed curator of prints at the Bibliothèque Royale.
“The Taking of the Bastille” is the artist’s only print. In the history of 18th-century French printmaking, this etching marked the cusp between the art of the Ancien Régime and that of the volatile republican age that followed. Extraordinary for its seriousness of purpose, grandeur of vision, and freedom of execution, Thevinin’s etching sums up the high-stakes danger, courage, and chaos that made 14 July 1789 a turning point in European history.
Not being a trained professional printmaker, Thévenin handled the etching needle intuitively, resulting in spontaneous mark making that echoes the freshness of touch found in the work of Baroque painter-etchers. Yet, he was no straggler from an earlier era: a man of his time, he explored the emotionally charged rationality best known to us through the work of Jacques Louis David. Seemingly unconcerned with the reversal inherent in etching, Thévenin here produced a mirror-image version of his large painting, exhibited at the 1793 Salon and now in the Musée Carnavalet.
The print is not a slavish copy. Taking the opportunity to rethink his composition, Thévenin heightened the drama by exploiting etching’s potential for stark contrasts, most obviously in the billowing flag borne by the soldier entering from the right. Moreover, Thévenin greatly increased the prominence of the clouds of smoke rising from the canon.
The retouching of the image with gray wash may reflect the restless creativity of the artist. In many areas it slightly alters the balance of light and shadow. Other places it is used more dramatically, as in the central figures where some are toned down to send others into sharper relief. At least one other impression is known to have similar gray wash additions. We do not yet know if this holds true of all impressions.
Lower right in pen and brown ink: Dessiné et Gravé par C. Thevenin
Emanuel von Bayer (London); to Hill-Stone (New York), 2006; from whom purchased by MFA, 27 June 2007.
Eleanor A. Sayre Fund and Stephen Bullard Memorial Fund