art & artists

-by Kaela Zimmer

Politics and art merged together powerfully in many compelling ways during the Paris Commune. Art was an effective tool used to strengthen the Commune’s political motives, highlight social injustices, and mock the oppressors. Art is littered with political messages and was portrayed through music and paintings, to name a few, during the Paris Commune. Art carries both political and aesthetically apolitical meanings that seamlessly fuse together to produce shifting understandings throughout time.

The art of music was a powerful engine used to vocalize the gravity of the Paris Commune’s political agenda. The Commune was determined to utilize the famous Paris Opéra House, which was typically reserved for the elite, as a venue in which to assert dominance and to host liberated concerts.1 Although a long-planned concert fell through at the Opéra House, the Tuileries Palace housed overwhelmingly memorable concerts and the magnitude of these events represented the power of the Commune.2 The Commune strove to create a new world and used music as a means to diminish the barriers between classes.

On May 19th, a meeting was held determining the passing of a decree aimed at eliminating “theatrical subsidies” and “declaring the absolute liberty of the theatres” which would free “them from the tyranny of state art.”3 The Commune’s diligent attempts in achieving their objectives sadly went up in flames, an event symbolically depicted in Georges Clairin’s painting “The Fires of the Tuileries” (Fig.1).4 When the Versailles troops entered, the Communards burned the Tuileries Palace, and other “symbols of power” to make brazen statements.5 This momentous event is captured in Clairin’s painting which verifies the merger of politics and the aesthetics of art.

Gustave Courbet was an illustrious painter who became an incredibly influential and controversial figure during the Paris Commune in 1871. Many politically fuelled debates regarding art and society emerged prior to and throughout the Commune. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a distinguished philosopher, and economist, “praised Courbet for extending the dialectical interplay between anarchist social criticism and society’s transformation into the artistic realm.”6 Émile Zola, a “young journalist (and future novelist)” at the time, opposed Proudhon’s claim and instead believed that “anarchism and art was an aesthetic issue, not a social one.”7 However, Courbet believed that a Communard future could sustain both Zola’s perception of “freedom through style” and Proudhon’s “advocacy of freedom through critique.”8 With these beliefs in mind, Courbet initiated a federation that would allow artists of all creative backgrounds to freely express themselves. On April 13th, 1871, the “Federation of Artists” was formed, proving that the arts were deeply political.9 A manifesto was forged demanding freedom from “governmental supervision”, equal rights for everyone in the federation, and “[t]he independence and dignity of every artist…[with] a committee elected by the universal suffrage of artists.”10

Monuments can be highly contentious. New eras bring different meanings to these pieces of art. With the immense shift in society and politics during the Paris Commune, the Vendôme Column was a monument that came to carry a different meaning. In the Radio 1871 episode “Art & Artists,” Dr. Clint Burnham discusses the malleability of art and how the message or meaning can be different in different eras, moving away from what the artist intended.11 The Vendôme Column is a great example of how a piece of art can carry different meanings than what was originally intended. Jules Antoine Castagnary’s excerpts in his “defensive pamphlet” concerning Courbet, emphasize his plea for Courbet in regard to the destruction of the Vendôme Column.12 Castagnary makes an important distinction that because the “Arch of Triumph or Napoleon’s tomb” received no criticism, “that monuments free of politics are safe from the anger of revolutions.”13 However, because the Vendôme Column symbolized the rule of Napoleon III who “had done the most harm to France, freedom, and progress,” this monument received heavy criticism.14 Castagnary highlights Courbet’s political involvement in which he advocated for the relocation of the monument and not its destruction: “[i]t is not for the artist, whose mission is essentially creative, to destroy a work of art, however bad it may be.”15 On May 16th, the Vendôme Column was destroyed leaving Courbet to pay the price.16  

The Paris Commune utilized the effectiveness of art to push forth its socialist agenda. Art served politically as a weapon, tool or engine to drive their intentions into the public spotlight. Through the power of music, paintings and many other media, art successfully carried both political and apolitical meanings which continue to carry the Commune’s legacy.

from the archive

Figure 1: Georges Clairin, L’Incendie des Tuileries. May 1871. Oil on Canvas, 47.5 x 79.2cm.,_Georges_Clairin.jpg (accessed February 22, 2021).

Georges Clairin’s painting “The Fires of the Tuileries,” or “L’Incendie des Tuileries,” is a powerfully revealing painting representing the destruction of the Tuileries Palace in 1871 (Fig. 1). The painting depicts both hope and tragedy, entangled in the controversial political climate during the Paris Commune. In the painting, Clairin reveals suffering Communards outside the Conciergerie, a woman symbolically raising a battered red flag amidst her grievous surroundings and the Tuileries Palace up in smoke in the distance.17 The significance of Clairin’s painting is within its blatant symbolism. The smoldering smoky sky contrasted with the shreds of baby blue and red, symbolize both the darkness of loss and the light of victory. On March 18th, 1871 the people had taken control of the Tuileries Palace and on May 21st, 1871 an officer stated: “M. Thiers promised to enter Paris yesterday; M. Thiers [had] not entered; he will not enter. I invite you next Sunday, here in the same place to our second concert in aid of the widows and orphans.”18 The troops from Versailles arrived, conflict ensued, and “orders to burn down the palace” were executed.19 The Tuileries Palace was a controversial building that had housed Napoleon III and had become a “symbol of a wider political struggle and it would remain so for the next twelve years.”20 With this in mind, the burning of the Tuileries was a statement from the communards to represent the gravity of their intentions.

Clairin’s painting captures the political significance of the Commune by depicting a woman facing the burning Tuileries while powerfully holding a red flag among her fallen comrades as the focal point of his canvas. The dreary darkness contrasted against the faint triumph which seeps from this painting, reveals how art can carry both political and apolitical associations. Anarchy and art can capture both a political issue and an “aesthetic issue.”21 Conclusively, art can be read aesthetically as carrying artistically beautiful qualities while simultaneously being read politically as carrying meanings of the history it portrays.  

  1. Delphine Mordey, “Moments Musicaux: High Culture in the Paris Commune,” Cambridge Opera Journal 22, no. 1 (2010): 2.

2. Mordey, 2-3, 8.

3. Mordey, 20.

4. “Georges Clairin: L’incendie des Tuileries,” Musée d’Orsay online, March 25, 2009.

5. “Georges Clairin: L’Incendie des Tuileries.”

6. Allan Antliff, “A Beautiful Dream: Courbet’s Realism and the Paris Commune of 1871,” in Anarchy and Art: From the Paris Commune to the Fall of the Berlin Wall (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2007), 17.

7. Antliff, 17.

8. Antliff, 33.

9. Antliff, 33.

10. Federation of Artists, “Manifesto of the Paris Commune’s Federation of Artists,” translated from French by Jeff Skinner, Red Wedge Magazine, (April 2016).

11. Clint Burnham interview in Roxanne Panchasi, “Art & Artists,” episode 5, radio 1871, 2021.

12. Alda Cannon and Frank Anderson Trapp, “Castagnary’s: “A Plea for a Dead Friend” (1882) Gustave Courbet and the Destruction of the Vendome Column,” The Massachusetts Review 12, no. 3 (1971): 499.

13. Cannon and Trapp, 500.

14. Cannon and Trapp, 500.

15. Cannon and Trapp, 502.

16. Cannon and Trapp, 503.

17. “Georges Clairin: L’Incendie des Tuileries.”

18. Scott McCracken, “The Author as Arsonist: Henry James and the Paris Commune,” Modernism/Modernity 21, no. 1 (2014): 78.

19. McCracken, 78.

20. McCracken, 78.

21. Antliff, 17.

further reading

Larkin, Oliver. “Courbet in the Commune.” Science & Society 5, no.3 (1941): 255-259.   

In “Courbet in the Commune” Oliver Larkin highlights artist Gustave Courbet’s involvement and history in the Paris Commune and his tragic downfall. Larkin’s approach is to emphasize Courbet’s dedication to the Commune but also to reveal his swift collapse.

Robinson, Christopher. “The Artist as “Rénovateur”: Paul Baudry and the Paris Opéra.” Art Journal 46, no. 4 (1987): 285-290.

Christopher Robinson covers Paul Baudry’s controversial art exhibit in the Grand Foyer of the Paris Opera in 1875. Robinson highlights Baudry’s perspective that “[a]rt had a role to play [in society]. The right art could both restore the confidence of the haute bourgeoisie and educate the masses.” Robinson sheds light on a divergent artistic perspective from an artist, namely Baudry, who vilified the Paris Commune.

Wright, Alastair. “On the Origins of Abstraction: Seurat and the Screening of History.” Art History 41, no. 1 (2018): 72-103.

Alastair Wright fixates on a Georges Seurat painting titled “Ruins of the Tuileries.” “On the Origins of Abstraction” is useful to understand the lasting effects of the Paris Commune and how various artists wanted to escape the remnants of the Commune, or, as Wright puts it, “the new dispensation remains haunted by the old.”

3 thoughts on “art & artists

  1. Great post on a really importnant topic! These events and artists are part of a deep interconnection between art and politics in Paris… a big part of what makes it such a fascinating place!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the annotated bibliographies on these posts – so helpful for Commune neophytes who want to do some reading on the topic in the future and need help sorting through the many secondary sources.

    Liked by 1 person

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