Richard Thomson: Pride, Insurrection and Hope - Divergent Images of France's Future after 'The Terrible Year'

  • 17:00 – 19:00 GMT

  • Hunter Building, Hunter Lecture Theatre (017)
    74 Lauriston Place
    EH3 9DF

Please note this event is hybrid - if you wish to view online, please select an "online viewing" ticket and you will receive zoom link before the event.


Richard Thomson was Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh from 1996 to 2018. He continues to work part-time at the University as a Research Professor. His public roles have also included Trustee of the National Galleries of Scotland, member of the Conseil Scientifiques of the Musée d’Orsay and of the Institut National de’Histoire de l’Art, Paris, and Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford. An expert on late nineteenth century French art, he has both published books and curated exhibitions. His books include monographs on Seurat and Degas, three thematic texts on art and society in early Third Republic France –The Troubled Republic (2004), Art of the Actual (2012) and The Presence of the Past (2021) – and a tiny one about Van Gogh’s Starry Night. He has curated more than fifteen exhibitions seen by some 5 million people. These include major retrospectives at the Grand Palais, Paris – Toulouse-Lautrec in 1992 and the record-breaking Monet in 2010 – as well as thematic exhibitions such as Dreams of Nature. Symbolist Landscape in Europe (2012) and Splendeurs et Misères, an exhibition about images of nineteenth century prostitution staged in 2015-16 at the Musée d’Orsay and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. His Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre was seen at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Art Institute of Chicago in 2005. He has also curated two exhibitions dedicated to single works by Seurat, Bathers, Asnières at the National Gallery in London (1997) and Seurat’s Circus Sideshow at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, in 2017. His most recent exhibition, Monet & Architecture, was held at the National Gallery, London in 2018.


The Franco-Prussian War broke out in July 1870. By September the French had been defeated at the Battle of Sedan, the Second Empire had collapsed and been replaced by the Third Republic, and Paris was besieged by the German armies. In May 1871 the Treaty of Frankfurt, by which France ceded Alsace and much of Lorraine to the newly united Germany, was signed, and the insurrectionary Paris Commune was crushed by the French army, in effect a civil war. Thus ended what Victor Hugo called “l’année terrible”. This paper explores three paintings by two artists painted during the next couple of decades which, in very different ways, sought to come to terms with the legacy of 1870-1. How could painting articulate ideological or patriotic ideas? What were appropriate means of representation: naturalistic description, allegory, or caricature? To what extent should such images be taken at face value, or should they be decoded, bringing into play associations and assumptions which might be controversial or could be absorbed into the national mentality? This paper will examine two canvases by Édouard Detaille, Le Régiment qui passe (The Regiment marching past) and Le Rêve (The Dream), from the Salons of 1875 and 1888 respectively, and Maurice Boutet de Monvel’s L’Apothéose de la Canaille (The Apotheosis of the Rabble), removed from the Salon of 1885. It contrasts paintings of order and disruption, the offensive and the talismanic, investigating how imagery in late nineteenth century France interplayed with the inter-class discomforts of the recent past and nationalistic expectations for the future.