Monday, October 22, 2007
Philippe Cattelain, Une cellule de prison
I found this bleak study of a prison cell in an 1876 issue of the weekly journal Paris à l’eau-forte, It’s signed in the plate by the artist Philippe Auguste Cattelain (French, 1838-?), unusually dated 1871-1874, with an etched dedication “à ma cherie Desirée.” The editor of Paris à l’eau-forte, Richard Lesclide, notes wrily that, “Our friend Cattelain took a long time to complete the etching we publish today. The cell posed for him for three years.”
There was obviously a story here, and it turns out that publishing this etching was as much a political statement as an artistic one. In 1876 Philippe Cattelain was in exile in England, after serving a three-year jail sentence for his part in the Paris Commune of 1871, in which Cattelain was Chef de la Sûreté. Freed from prison in 1874, Cattelain was exiled until an amnesty was granted to former Communards in 1880.
Philippe Cattelain published his first drawings in the satirical journal Le Rire in 1868, but his artistic career was interrupted and essentially wrecked by his prison sentence. In 1884 Cattelain published his Memoirs du Chef de la Sûreté de la Commune, an important historical source on that turbulent time.
Cattelain wasn’t the only artist involved, or the only one to be exiled. Gustave Courbet was also deeply implicated, having joined the Commune and been placed in charge of all Paris’s art museums. Courbet was able to preserve the Paris museums from looting, but his role in the destruction of the Vendôme column saw him imprisoned for six months, exiled to Switzerland, and burdened with crippling fines. But as he said, "I have always lived my life in freedom; let me end my life free; when I am dead let this be said of me, 'He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any regime except the regime of liberty.'"
Gustave Courbet, Femme couchée
Etching by Charles Waltner after Courbet's painting