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French Revolution Images Iconography from the collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France

About the project

The French Revolution produced a rich visual corpus of great importance. Because language was constantly exercised in new ways, because language really mattered to the revolutionaries, the image-based record plays a significant role in helping researchers today understand the physical and intellectual universe of the Revolution. In effect, images of speakers, actors, debates and events help enormously to explain what surviving texts mean. Moreover, the visual material and iconography were a way for the revolutionaries to represent themselves and the Revolution while the events were taking place, and to spread their vision of the Revolution to the people of France and the world.

French Revolution Images: Iconography from the collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France provides access to the most complete searchable digital archive of French Revolution images available. It is based on a benchmark image-base, Images de la Révolution française, undertaken by the Bibliothèque nationale de France on the occasion of the Revolution’s bicentennial in 1989. It aimed to “allow the reader to explore the relationships, articulations and confrontations between the ideas of the Revolution and their metaphorical embodiment, the constant cross-fertilization of ideology and make-believe…” For this project the BnF created over 38,000 separate views of over 14,000 individual images, showing closeups and dividing documents with discrete iconographic materials into appropriate sections.

The Images, which were originally offered in analog format on laserdisc, had become extremely difficult to access due to rapid technological change. Within the framework of its digitization programs, the BnF rescanned at high resolution 5,126 of the images on the laserdisc from the original materials. All 5,126 images are now available online.

These materials were selected from across the BnF’s departments, and include thousands of images from important collections acquired in the 19th and early 20th century. Two of these collections deserve special attention. The collection of Michel Hennin is notable not only for its size, but also because it includes many prints absent from the official legal deposit that Hennin amassed during his time in Italy working for the Viceroy, Prince Eugène de Beauharnais. The print collection of Carl de Vinck, a Belgian diplomat, grew out of his father’s infatuation in Marie-Antoinette and expanded to focus more generally on visual representations of France during the century from Marie-Antoinette’s marriage to Louis XVI in 1770 until the Paris Commune of 1871.

The images selected for the digital archive concentrate solely on the period from 1787 through 1799, from the years immediately preceding the outbreak of the Revolution through the emergence of Napoleon. Only visual materials directly tied to the Revolution itself are included. The creators of the initial incarnation of the Images anticipated that scholars would use them for their research and teaching purposes, and that the public at large would find in them an important way of learning more about this foundational moment for the French nation.

Detailed metadata exists for the images, so that researchers can search by artist, subject, genre, and place. Users can also browse and search within different themes.

A spreadsheet of the full metadata can also be accessed via the following link: https://purl.stanford.edu/sq973xh1416