Within four days of the storming of the Bastille, calls arose for a new festival to celebrate the 'Revolution without precedent'. By the autumn of 1789 and throughout the spring of 1790, popular festivals were spontaneously erupting all over France to celebrate the confederation of thousands of separately elected local communes. 'The sublime idea of a general Féderation, first proposed by the Parisians of the Saint-Eustache district [was] welcomed by the whole of France..' wrote the radical journalist Camille Desmoulins. Citizen-Soldiers and delegates from all the towns in the Kingdom would converge on Paris, the organizantional center of the Revolution, to swear their allegiance to the Constitution in the presence of the legislature and the King, in what would be the climatic federative event.
This would take place on July 14th to commemorate the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille and be held in the Champ de Mars, an enormous field near the Seine normally used for drills by the cadets of the Ecole Militaire. It was intended that the center of the field be excavated and the dirt piled high around the sides, thus creating a vast amphitheater. At one end would be an enormous, triple-tiered Arc de Triomphe; at the center an altar where the oath would be taken; and near it a pavilion to house the King and the legislative Assembly.
Final arrangements were not formally approved until June 21, 1790, just three weeks before the event. Thousands of municipal laborers were employed to clear the land and excavate a pit, but time was too short and it could never have been completed without the help of the people of Paris. In perhaps the most remarkable outpouring of revolutionary fervor recorded, the citizens of central and western Paris descended on the Champ de Mars to complete the dig. Dozens of eyewitness accounts attest to the extraordinary event. Men and women of every class turned out, including ladies of the court, priests, and fishwives. Lafayette lent a hand, and even Louis XVI went to inspect the site. Mercier wrote that 'it was there that I saw one hundred and fifty thousand citizens of all classes, ages, and sexes making the most superb picture of concord, labor, movement and joy that has ever been witnessed...'
Debucourt's painting captures the giddy spirit of the preparations. As a Parisian, he would himself have witnessed the scene and his depiction is probably quite accurate, although, in the manner of the 17th century Dutch genre painters he emulated, he stresses the humorous and anecdotal. On the left he shows the triumphal arch; far in the background is Montmartre; to the right the altar de la Patrie is being erected; and on the extreme right is visible the distant dome of the Invalides. The Champ de Mars is filled with mobs of busy celebrants. The sections of the National Guard, wearing cockades on their uniforms, enter carrying flags, one banner topped with a phyrgian bonnet and another reading 'Ca Ira', and shovels over their shoulders. Preceding them are white-clad women carrying spades and, at the front, two military drummers. A circle of aristocratic women, soldiers and a lone monk dance a farandole. A chariot rides toward the Arc de Triomphe carrying a soldier who holds aloft a cap of Liberty on the tip of his saber; beside him are his wife and child. At left, soldiers buy some food from a seated marchande, and at right, a woman who has collapsed in a wheelbarrow is pushed off by a Capuchin monk, as her husband runs after her. This last may allude to several accounts in which court ladies fainted from their unaccustomed exertions and had to be pushed to safety.
On the 14th of July, the great event itself occurred. Figures vary as to the number in attendance, but they range from several hundred thousand to nearly a million people. Lafayette administered the oath to the fédérés; cannons were fired and Louis XVI declared his allegiance to the Constitution. The crowd roared with joy shouting: 'Vive le Roi!'
The Lake poet William Wordsworth landed at Calais on that day and wrote, 'Everywhere, benevolence and blessedness spread like a fragrance'. The Marquis de Ségur, who had just returned to France from Russia, observed that suddenly people spoke freely, the old fear gone from their eyes. The Fête de la Fédération was intended to unite the nation and bring to a close the trimphant Revolution. In fact, the Revolution was only beginning, and just over two and a half years later the King would bow before the mobs of Paris one last time. On July 14, 1790, and for the week which perceded, the dream of Liberté, Egalité, et Fraternité was manifest.
The various stages of the Fête de la Féderation were reproduced in many contemporary prints, drawings and paintings, notably by Demachy and Hubert Robert. Debucourt also painted a large watercolor (98 x 42cm.), now in the Musée Carnavalet in Paris, entirely different in composition from the present painting, and he made a preparatory drawing for the watercolor, in pen and ink washes (formerly in the G. Bourgarel collection). Although he trained with Vien and was received into the Académie Royale in 1781 as a painter of 'small subjects in the style of Flemish painters'. Debucourt's paintings are exceptionally rare. From the mid-1780s onward, he turned toward printmaking as his principal activity, becoming one of the most innovative color printmakers of the century.