With the French Revolution and the period of rapid change in the early 19th Century there was a remarkable self-awareness about the singular historical importance of the Revolution and the cataclysmic changes it provoked at every level of society. At the same time, the turn of events was rapid, often with unintended consequences. Boilly’s Le départ des conscrits embodies many of these issues and illuminates how political decisions were affecting the average French citizen, a point of view that prior to the Revolution would not have been considered by artists such as Boilly.
Boilly began his career as a genre painter, in the manner of Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Marguerite Gérard. With the advent of the Revolution not only the style but the subject of Boilly’s works underwent a change with a new focus on contemporary events from the point of view of the working and middle class, rather than the ruling class. Prior to the Revolution, contemporary events were for the most part depicted only from the point of view of the ruling class or through allegorical interpretations.
The present drawing is preparatory for Boilly’s painting of the same subject (84.5 x 138 cm.) (fig. 1), executed in 1807 and exhibited at the Salon in 1808. It was bought by the Musée Carnavalet in Paris at Christie’s on 28 April 1888, and is now one of 16 paintings by the artist in the museum. The painting and drawing show a crowd of conscripts gathering in front of the Porte Saint-Denis. Boilly’s scene reflects the complexity of French society at that moment in the country’s history. Napoleon had called up the draftees ahead of time to replenish the Grande Armée after its losses in the Prussian campaign of 1806. The soldiers that were called up in 1807 would go on to fight the Battle of Eylau in eastern Prussia (now Russia), one of the bloodiest battles in the Napoleonic Wars. Conscription during the Napoleonic era was controversial and contested because of the frequency with which men were called to battle. There were often riots, and a high rate of desertion once men entered the armed forces. Subtle criticisms of the regime can be found in Boilly’s drawing which at first appears to depict a mostly organized, albeit emotional crowd saying goodbye to their loved ones as they march through the arch towards the battlefields. Upon closer inspection the soldiers appear disheveled and the unfurling group disorderly, suggesting a weariness among the crowd and an indication of the decimation frequent conscription had caused to the male population. At the edges of the composition, drunken recruits and even blind beggars are seen joining the march to war, perhaps alluding to the absurdities of frequent enlistment. Also seen in the crowd are the artists Duplessi Bertaux and Antoine Swebach as well as Boilly himself, just left of center and next to the standard bearer.
The location of the scene, at the Porte Saint-Denis, also underscores the rapid shifts of allegiance in French society. The triumphal arch was erected in 1672 to celebrate Louis XV’s victory against the Dutch, and became, along with the Porte Saint-Martin the symbolic entrances to Paris. Originally the arch was inscribed with a paean to Louis XV – Ludovico Magno. During the Terror, it was replaced with the motto of the Revolution – Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. By 1807, Napoleon had his name inscribed on the arch. Boilly leaves out this detail in both the present drawing and the Carnavalet painting. While Boilly does not explicitly express anti-Bonapartist sentiments in Le départ des conscrits, just by the choice of subject the artist has shed a light on how these seismic historical events were affecting the average French citizen.
This drawing was formerly in the collection of Antoine-Vincent Arnault (1766-1834), Secrétaire Perpétuel de l’Academie française, who acquired the work directly from the artist. Arnault was also a Napoleon loyalist who was tasked by Bonaparte with the organization of the Ionian islands in 1797, and after Napoleon’s final defeat went into exile. Arnault was one of Boilly’s fervent admirers and ardent collectors (as well as a cousin through marriage to the artist). His collection included other paintings, drawings and portraits of his family as well as three other drawings of Boilly’s most important Napoleonic scenes - Le tableau du sacre (Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art), La lecture du septième bulletin de la grande armée (private collection), and Napoléon remet la Legion d'honneur au sculpteur Cartellier (Paris, Musée de la Légion d'honneur).
This drawing will be including in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné on the artist by Etienne Breton and Pascal Zuber.