Monthly Archives: December 2011

Divorce and The French Revolution

Le Divorce by Le Sueur

 On September 20, 1792, the Legislative Assembly of the French Republic legalized divorce.  This was a first in the country’s history.  Under the Ancien Regime, the unshackling of partners was unthinkable–a move that would potentially crumble the foundation on which the First and Second Estates derived their power.

 In his Traité du contract de mariage of 1771, the French jurist Robert-Joseph Pothier wrote :

Gross adultery on the wife’s behalf and instances of extreme spousal abuse counted as rare exceptions for separation when annulment no longer remained a possibility.  In essence, marriages were immediately consummated for a reason and unless the petitioner produced testimony that might invalidate the original grounds for marriage, the couple was married until death do they part.

In cases where the law permited separation of any sort, two basic resolutions were recognized: séparation de corps et d’habitation, essentially of person/body and domicile, and less seldom, séparation de biens, or of financial accounts.  Consequently, an attitude of keeping families in their conjoined states prevailed.  As an additional argument against divorce, all children birthed during the marriage were rendered illegitimate upon the conclusion of formal legal proceedings.  Given the need for heirs, one can easily see how this could prove problematic.

Although the Enlightenment initially sparked the divorce debate, it was the French Revolution that succeeeded in secularizing family life.  Public institutions sought to invade the very private sentiments of individuals and turn them outward in service of the state.  In the first gasping breaths of the nineteenth century, a backlash developed against this transparency of state and individual, but for 24 years, marriage was viewed as a covenant which could be broken as all secular affairs could be torn down and if desired, rebuilt.  This resulted in 30,000 divorces between 1792 and 1803, the years when the divorce laws remained the most liberal.

The Morning after Marriage by James Gillray

In the centuries following the years wherein the divorce law of 1792 was active, married women and men were refused comparable rights to divorce until as late as 1975.  1884 saw the return of divorce in France, however limited.

Given its time, the law of 1792 was shockingly encompassing.  It allowed seven instances where legal proceedings were warranted:

  • “Insanity;
  • Conviction for crimes entailing corporal punishment or loss of civils rights;
  • Crimes, brutality, or grave injury inflicted by one partner on the other;
  • Notorious dissoluteness of morals;
  • Abandonment for at least two years;
  • Absence without news for at least five years; and,
  • Emigration (when taken as a sign of counterrevolutionary intentions.” 1

Note the oldest reason for marital dissolution–adultery–is nowhere to be found.

Increasingly, as the idealism of the French Revolution waned, restrictions were placed on the grounds warranting a divorce.  The Napoleonic Civil Code modified accessibilty to divorce, making it more difficult for a wife to leave her husband, as during the 1792 law, men and women enjoyed equal freedom to seek their happiness outside of marriage.  Instead of relying on grievances, Napoleon’s code initially proposed mutual incompatibility (later discarded) and/or mutual consent.  Smacks of his experience with Josephine, doesn’t it?  The formal reasons for divorce  written in the final code were: “adultery, infamous punishment of spouse, outrageous conduct, ill-usage, or grievous injury.”

If the history of divorce law during the French Revolution and/or the social circumstances warranting divorce interest you, there is a good wealth of literature out there, particularly in regard to a wife’s grievances.  Do see:

Works Cited for the Seven Grounds for Divorce

1  Aries, Philippe, and Georges Duby. “The Unstable Boundaries of the French Revolution.” A History of Private Life. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1990. Print.

Charitable Tagging for Art Appreciation

If you want to learn more about art and think tagging paintings for the public’s benefit might be a fun and charitable way to spend an hour or so, head on over to Your Paintings Tagger hosted by the Public Catalogue Foundation.

I signed up today and the experience is kind of like being an art sleuth.  It’s an exercise in image association, if you’re into that sort of thing.  Essentially, you focus on a painting and pick out four distinct categories to tag: things/ideas, people, places, and events.  It’s really as simple as looking at the following painting and typing in tags such as lady, white angora cat, mirrored globe, spaniel, pale yellow gown, etc.

Le Chat Angora by Fragonard 

Although it’s helpful, you don’t need to know anything about art to participate.  Your tags are run through an algorithm that determines appropriateness so need to worry about tagging incorrectly.  It, apparently, is smarter than you or me!

Napoleon’s Achy Breaky Heart: Milan, 27 November, 1796

Earlier this week I left you with Napoleon in Verona, depressed and a trifle desperate.  Today, he’s looking a little like this:

The Emperor Napoleon I by Vernet (*see note below if the fancy strikes you)

Josephine’s cavorting with Hippolyte Charles who incidentally does not have the makings of a weak chin.  I’m told this helps in the romance department.

To say the least, Monsieur Bonaparte is suspicious of his lady wife.  He’s gone from realizing his general awesomeness to seeing cracks reflected in his veneer.  And you see, it’s all Josephine’s fault.

The General Napoleon by Andrea Appiani

Our little bit of muslin is just too wonderful in her own right to pay attention to her new husband who, in addition to being short, is apparently “impecunious” and “irrepressible”.  Touché, darling.

Josephine Bonaparte de Beauharnais by Andrea Appiani, 1796

Years later on 19 December, 1805, Napoleon writes to her, “. . . I am still in Brüun.  The Russians have gone.  I have made a truce.  In a few days I shall see what I am going to be.   Deign, from the height of your grandeur, to trouble yourself a little about your slaves.”

On this day, however, this is what he has to say:

 (click to enlarge)

P.S.

*As a complete side note, the upside of the sad-faced painting by Vernet is that it comes in a melamine plate offered by the National Portrait Gallery.  It was also mentioned in December’s Oprah magainze, if that’s your thing.  The downside: it’s £12, double the price of the other melamine face plates.  But I suppose he was an Emperor and as such large and in charge so he has to have the biggest sized plate of the bunch.

Also

You’re going to have to forgive me about the ongoing post name in this series.  For some reason I had Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky Heart in my head which is odd because a) not a fan of Billy Ray; and b) I hardly like country.  Hauntings of country songs past, I guess, but attributing Napoleon’s letters to Josephine a result of his achy, breaky heart has cured me of my problem.  Hopefully, I have not passed it on to all of you.

The Cupid Seller, 1763

Isn’t this cheeky?

The Cupid Seller by Joseph-Marie Vien, 1763

Not familiar with Joseph-Marie Vien’s work?  He replaced Fragonard’s paintings commissoned by Du Barry on the Progress of Love:  See Du Barry and the Louveciennes Panels.

Napoleon’s Achy Breaky Heart: Verona, 13 November, 1796

Eight months prior to Napoleon’s beseeching and, by turns,  chastising letter from Verona, Marie Rose Josephine Tascher de la Pagerie, a thirty three year-old widow from Martinique, marries the then twenty seven year-old officer of the French Army.

The marriage is not a love match per se, but one marked by passion and enmity in equal measure.  Later they will share the affection of old friends, but on this November day Napoleon suffers beneath the rumors of Josephine’s affair with Hippolyte Charles, a handsome lieutenant in the Hussar regiment.

(click image to enlarge)

Problem is, the pre-Emperor Napoleon is intensely smitten with his sophisticated and vivacious wife.  “As for me,” he says, “to love you alone, to make you happy, to do nothing which would contradict your wishes, this is my destiny and the meaning of my life.”  His burning fire for all things Josephine, however, earns him much despair during the early years of their marriage.  He writes her letters of which she rarely answers.  He agonizes and pleads for the proof of her ardor and turns furious when he doesn’t receive it.  In many ways he is as fickle a lover as she.

Paranoid and oppressive, his romantic intensity later results in his own affairs, but throughout his life, he does exhibit a rare devotion to her that can never be felled by the chaos surrounding them.  Even after their divorce and his subsequent remarriage to the Grand Duchess Marie Louise of Austria, he writes her letters and shows concern for her well-being.  He even goes to his death with her name on his lips:  “France! . . . Armée! . . . Tête d’armée ! . . . Josephine!”