Despite the new decrees, and the founding of museums, the Conventionnels failed in their efforts to control iconoclasm before 1795. They had sowed the wind, and they reaped the usual unwelcome harvest. As reports of the destruction mounted, the Committee of Public Instruction had one of its members (on July 8, 1794, some weeks before Thermidor) collate these reports and make known his findings. Henri Gregoire was the man assigned to the task, and he made not one but three lengthy reports from the tribune of the Convention in the last half of 1794. In these speeches, he placed the blame for the destruction upon “English spies,” “counterrevolutionaries,” and “terrorists,” although only a few months before Thermidor Gregoire himself had praised the “wise law” ordaining “the destruction of all that carries the imprint of royalty and feudalism.”

Not only did Gregoire blame the destruction upon the enemies of the Revolution; he also described this activity as “vandalism,” i.e., “willful and ignorant destruction,” and so added a word to our language, for the noun vandalism was of his coining. By the use of this term, Gregoire evidently hoped to clear the fair name of the Revolution; in this hope he not only failed but made available a term of reprobation which has served as a polemical weapon in revolutionary studies ever since. Historians have taken Gregoire’s “vandalism” at its face value, and have either denied it ever happened, or claimed that every mutilated or badly weathered statue in France is the work of “revolutionary vandalism.”

It has been shown here that the activity described by Gregoire was not “vandalism” but iconoclasm, i.e., premeditated destruction of visual symbols because of their specific emotional or ideological content. In short, the issue of “revolutionary vandalism” is a false one. The real issue involves a revolutionary dilemma in terms of iconoclasm versus the preservation of an artistic heritage; while a great deal of premeditated destruction was wrought, an attempt to preserve the arts persisted. In one sense, the problem posed by Diderot, “. . . if we love truth more than the fine arts, let us pray God for some iconoclasts,” was never resolved. It could be argued, however, that the revolutionaries did solve the dilemma in two ways. First, they encouraged iconoclasm and then called it the vandalism of their enemies. If this be a solution, it is neither creditable nor original. Second, they created a public institution called a “museum”; immure a political symbol in a museum and it becomes merely art – iconoclasm is thus achieved without destruction. This solution was quite original; it is one that Diderot never dreamed of, and it probably would have received his high praise.

Stanley J. Idzerda, “Iconoclasm during the French Revolution” (1954)

Newspaper and pamphlet comment during this period often approved of iconoclasm in principle but condemned it in practice. Fears were expressed that, if the destruction continued, France would become a cultural desert and lose its leadership in the arts. Further, those engaged in government-sponsored iconoclasm were often compared to “Ostrogoths,” “Visigoths,” “Moslem fanatics,” or to “early Christians, who had destroyed the statues of Pheidias and Praxiteles.” This type of objection was sometimes echoed in the National Convention, often by the same members who were (on other occasions) insisting upon the necessity for the destruction of all royal, feudal, and religious symbols.

Attempts were made to cast the blame on the enemies of the Republic and to provide for a remedy. In June, 1793, notice was taken of the “irreparable losses” suffered by the fine arts through “the outrages of aristocrats,” and an act was adopted providing two years in irons for anyone discovered mutilating works of art. In October, 1793 – the same month in which a law was passed insisting upon the destruction of all offending monuments without delay – a member of the Committee of Public Instruction presented to the Convention an omnibus decree respecting the arts, intended to remedy the defects of earlier laws on the subject. The speaker asserted that “the enemies of liberty” had given the laws of the Convention “a disastrous interpretation.” He blamed “English spies” for leading the people to the destruction of “monuments which attest the superiority of our arts and our genius.” Under the terms of the new law, it was “forbidden, under the pretext of destroying symbols of royalty, feudalism, or superstition, to efface, destroy, mutilate, or alter in any manner whatsoever . . . any object of art . . . which has artistic, historical, or educational value.” Those objects which bore the symbols of the ancien regime, and had historical, educational, or artistic value were to be “taken to the nearest museum” for conservation. The last article of the law read, “All good citizens are invited to be as zealous in destroying the symbols proscribed in the preceding decrees . . . as they are to assure the conservation of those works of art which are of interest chiefly to the arts, history, and education.”

The provisions of this law relate to the problem of revolutionary iconoclasm in two important respects. First, there is the attempt of the Conventionnels to grasp both horns of the dilemma: to destroy specific works of art, yet preserve the arts. Second, there is a proposed solution of the dilemma: the creation of public museums. The Louvre museum and the Museum of French Monuments were products of the Revolution; it was there that the Monuments Commission and the Temporary Arts Commission collected many works of art containing the “proscribed symbols.” The Louvre was first opened to the public in August, 1793, and while many sans-culottes admired symbols of “royalty, feudalism, and superstition” inside the museum, they continued to engage in iconoclastic activities outside of it. This paradoxical activity need not imply a contradiction in attitudes. It seems probable that when these works were seen in the museum, torn out of their cultural context, they were regarded only as “art”; their significance as tokens, symbols, or mana had been drained away because of their placement in an artificial situation, a strange milieu.

A member of the Monuments Commission recommended that a scepter from one of the tombs at St. Denis be preserved for the museum “not as a scepter, but as an example of fourteenth-century goldsmith work.” (If this seems unusual or improbable, the reader might recall that, in our age, the content of a work of art in a museum is seldom objected to; on the other hand, murals in post-offices or in the Rockefeller Center have become public issues.) Regarded in this light, the public museum may be said to have originated as both an instrument of and a result of iconoclasm.

Stanley J. Idzerda, “Iconoclasm during the French Revolution” (1954)

It has come to be universally conceded in recent years that the Church was the great patron of art and of letters during these centuries. Without the inspiration of her teachings there would have been no sublime subjects for artists; without the lives of her saints there would have been much less opportunity for artistic expression; without the patronage of the cathedral builders, the high ecclesiastics, and above all the monastic orders, on whom, with so little reason, so much contempt has been heaped, there would have been none of that great art which developed during the centuries before what is called the Renaissance. In literature, everyone of the great national poems that lie at the basis of modern literature is shot through and through with sublime thoughts that owe their origin to the Church. We need only mention the Cid in Spain, the Arthur Legends in England, such works of the Meistersingers as Perceval and Arme Heinrich, the Golden Legend, the Romance of the Rose, and Dante,–all written during the thirteenth century alone, to illustrate Church influence in literature. This is, as we have said, admitted by all. It is supposed, however, that while the Church encouraged this side of human development, it effectually prevented the evolution of man’s scientific interests.

As a matter of fact, however, the Church did quite as much for science as for literature and art and charity, There has never been any question that under her fostering care philosophy developed in a very marvelous way. The scholastic philosophers are no longer held in the disrepute so ignorantly accorded them in the last century. It is recognized that scholastic philosophy represents a supremely great development of human thinking with regard to the relations of man to his Creator, to his fellow man, and to the universe. Even those who do not accept its conclusions now, if themselves educated men, no longer make little of those wonderful thinkers, but sympathize with their magnificent work. Only those who are ignorant of scholastic philosophy entirely, still continue to re-echo the expressions of critics whose opinions were founded on second-hand authorities and who confessedly had been unable to make anything out of the scholastics themselves. This field of philosophy was the real danger point for faith and the Church, yet its study was encouraged in every way, provided the philosophers kept within the bounds of their subject.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

The Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was abolished by government fiat in August, 1793, and was almost immediately replaced by an official group (dominated by David and his students) called the “Commune of Arts.” At first it seemed that the Commune of Arts would be merely a more egalitarian version of the old Royal Academy, while it carried on the academy’s teaching and judging functions. But the hostile pressure upon a group of men who had so obviously “prostituted” themselves so short a time ago was too great, particularly when injury was added to insult by suggestions that art of any kind  was useless or evil. By January of 1794, the members of the Commune of Arts decided that “any conflict between the God of genius and the God of patriotism must cease.” The hotheads in the Commune planned a ceremony in which a portrait of the dauphin was to be dragged to the foot of a liberty tree, mutilated by each member of the Commune and then burned. Those in the Commune who opposed such activity were assumed to be infected with “moderantisme” or “counterrevolutionary” tendencies.

In the spring of 1794, the Commune of Arts began to take action against contemporary painters and engravers whose works contained “obscenities which revolted republican morals,” and they planned to bring a list of proscribed works to the Committee of Public Safety. Within a week of this action, the well-known painter, L. L. Boilly, appeared before the Commune to “abjure his former errors” as a painter of subjects of doubtful morality. Boilly asked for mercy on the ground that he was first to denounce his own conduct. He assured his rapt listeners that in the future he would use his brush “in a more worthy manner.” What more could virtuous republicans ask?

Notwithstanding all these iconoclastic plans, legislation, and activity, the dilemma remained in force, even though it never seemed to be recognized explicitly by the revolutionaries. The dialectic, the tension, between iconoclasm and the need to preserve the heritage of the arts (to say nothing of the need to provide an environment in which artists would feel encouraged to create republican symbols without fear of reprisal at the next shift in the republican credo) remained a fact even during the most destructive periods during 1793-94. Attempts were made to draw a line between “luxury” and “art”; questions were raised concerning the necessary cause-and-effect relationship between the morals of society and its art, and some courageous Frenchmen began to hint that the primrose path of iconoclasm lead to the hell of barbarism.

Stanley J. Idzerda, “Iconoclasm during the French Revolution” (1954)

Prominent in the winds of doctrine that blew over eighteenth- century France was the notion that the arts were a result of luxury and vice, that they flourished only in decadent, over-civilized societies and provided opiates for the subjects of tyrannical rulers. Disputes over the truth or falsity of such ideas before the Revolution remained largely academic, but the implications of such a philosophy of art obviously would be disastrous if Frenchmen ever decided to create a republican regime which prided itself upon a Reign of Virtue, a return to simplicity, and to nature. Such a regime was the dream of many revolutionaries in 1793-94. Its adherents sometimes refused to distinguish between “royal” and “republican” art: they would abolish the arts altogether.

In a discourse before the Convention in October, 1793, Michel-Edme Petit succinctly expressed the new vogue. He claimed that any inclusion of the fine arts in the education of children would “corrupt morals” and he pointed to the lax morals of artists as proof. Any enjoyment from the fine arts, he contended, “would enervate the spirit, render it incapable of courage, of enduring privations; it would make men insensible to the charms of moderate means and simplicity which are so indispensable in a republic.” Soon after Petit’s speech, a deputation from Sevres visited the Convention complaining of ornate church decorations and priestly vestments because such display was not in keeping with “the simplicity and modesty of the sans-culotte Jesus.” In November, 1793, the Committee of Public Instruction received word from the citizens of Rochefort that all “monuments of superstition” as well as all religious books in the city had been devoured in a bonfire lasting twenty-two hours. On the same day that the committee heard from Rochefort, they also received a letter from the librarian of the city of Marseilles asking for advice (or consolation); the librarian had been told by his townsmen to burn all his books because they were either “useless or evil.” And one anonymous pamphleteer pointed out that the epochs most favorable to the arts had been those of the emperor Augustus, Pope Leo X, and Louis XIV; on the other hand, the Spartans had “banished all luxury.” What must a good republican conclude?

Almost inevitably, the reaction against the art of the pre-revolutionary era reflected upon those artists still alive during the Revolution who had formerly produced paintings or sculpture glorifying royal or religious patrons. The Conventionnel A.C. Thibaudeau reproached French artists because they had not memorialized the great events of the Revolution. Most artists, he said, had “centuries of baseness and adulation” on their record, for during a despotic regime they “had hastened to deify despotism and present it to the people in its most seductive forms.” Such insinuations had been in the air since the first years of the Revolution. Perhaps as a consequence, we find that no group seemed more anxious to join the iconoclastic crusade than the artists themselves.

Stanley J. Idzerda, “Iconoclasm during the French Revolution” (1954)

While this destruction went forward, many complaints were voiced in the Convention that the destruction of symbols glorifying the past was not being accomplished with sufficient rapidity or thoroughness. A decree of September 14, 1793, threatened dismissal to municipal officers who failed to perform their duty as prescribed by the first law for the destruction of monuments. In October, 1793, it was required that all symbols of the ancien regime were to be destroyed within eight days, upon pain of confiscation of the property where such symbols still existed. In the same month, the council of the Paris, Commune ordained that all “religious effigies” in the city be immediately destroyed; no statue other than that of “Sommeil” would be allowed to stand in the cemeteries, and all other sculptured representations would be delivered to the hammer.

In face of such legislative pressure, the Monuments Commission (which had been organized in 1790) was almost helpless. They were still responsible for the preservation of works of art, but the thirty-three members of the group were all residents of Paris; they served without pay; their official status was ambiguous, and, in any event, they could not possibly roam the face of France directing municipal officers to stop doing what the central government had instructed these municipal officers to do upon pain of loss of their civic positions. Indeed, the Committee of Public Safety actually called upon the Monuments Commission to destroy a part of what the commission had so carefully labored to preserve – the royal tombs at St. Denis. “These monuments of idolatry still nourished the superstition of some Frenchmen,” and within a month of the directive from the Committee of Public Safety some fifty of the tombs were destroyed under the direction of the Monuments Commission itself.

Stanley J. Idzerda, “Iconoclasm during the French Revolution” (1954)

This attitude of hesitation between the preservation and destruction of art seemed swept away after the uprising of the Paris Commune in 1792. August 10, 1792, marked the collapse of the monarchy and the beginning of a torrent of iconoclasm which was to last for three years. Mobs stirred by the tocsin on August 10 roamed the city and tore down the monuments which had immortalized the “Capetian line.” Accompanied by the cheers of excited crowds, the statues of Henry IV, Louis XIII, XIV, and XV crashed to the ground. During the session of the Legislative Assembly on August 11 this destruction was noted with some dismay, but the legislators agreed that “nothing could be done to stop the wrath of the people.” It was decided to “uproot all royal prejudice,” and to “demonstrate to the people that the Assembly was aware of their regard for liberty,” by decreeing that all statues in Paris “erected in honor of despotism” be destroyed. Three days later a definitive law applicable to the whole nation was passed without opposition. The preamble to the decree made its general purpose – iconoclasm – quite clear; if the monarchy was to disappear, it was necessary that all its symbols disappear as well[:]

Whereas, the sacred principles of liberty and equality will not permit the existence of monuments raised to ostentation, prejudice, and tyranny to continue to offend the eyes of the French people; whereas, the bronze in these monuments can be converted into cannon for the defense of la patrie, it is decreed; I. All statues, bas-reliefs, inscriptions, and other monuments made of bronze or other metals, which exist in public squares, gardens, parks, public buildings . . . will be removed by the communes. [The second article provided for the conversion of this metal into cannon.] III. All monuments containing traces of feudalism, of whatever nature, that still remain in churches, or other public places, and even those in private homes, shall, without the slightest delay, be destroyed by the communes.

Stanley J. Idzerda, “Iconoclasm during the French Revolution” (1954)