Quelle horreur! Marianne has hairy armpits

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – Marianne – Liberty - Freedom - FranceMarianne is the national symbol of the French Republic representing liberty and reason. Marianne’s persona has changed many times since she was first seen leading an uprising of Parisians in Delacroix’s giant size painting, ‘Liberté guidant le peuple’, in 1831.

Since then she’s played many important roles, with artists and sculptors perennially enjoying a field day of creative opportunities. She was given to the United States in the form of a giant statue. On the Arc de Triomphe she’s an angry Amazon woman exhorting “aux armes les citoyens”.  She’s a mother protecting soldiers on innumerable war memorials. And on other monuments she adopts the role of Marianne-mère, mother of the nation.

Marianne: during war times

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – Mezin – Marianne – Liberty – Peace

In 1917 she coquettishly welcomed American General Pershing to France in WWI when she appeared with him on the cover of ‘Le Rire Magazine’. And after the two world wars, she’s stood guard over millions of dead – symbolising both the victory against the Nazis, and the triumph of the Third Republic over Vichy, where she’s always been quite hard to find.

Often Marianne’s image was removed from town halls and schools and replaced with busts of Marshal Pétain. Pétain thought Marianne should be banned, he himself wanted to be the representative of the state rather than Marianne.

Marianne: an art piece & an advocate

Marianne’s been deconstructed by Dalí, posterised by Bernard Buffet, sketched by Picasso – and even sexualised by a long list of artists. She’s had her back side (as opposed to her backside) licked on stamps by generations of letter writers.

She’s also unashamedly been used in a host of advertising campaigns. 2014 saw her reclining on Air France posters proclaiming, “France is in the air, with revolutionary comfort”, whatever that means.

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – Marianne – Charlie

In 2010 she antagonised feminists by getting pregnant and walking barefoot in front of the camera to support a French government loan. The implication was, they complained, that a woman’s role is to make babies while men deal with the economy. And, on November 13 2015 she wept a dark tear for Charlie.

Various high profile French stars have provided the inspiration for the aesthetic changes that she’s been through: Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve and Laetitia Casta, are just a few.

Marianne: a national hero?

Today, generally accepted as being republican, anti-monarchist, and symbolising liberté, égalité et fraternité, she appears on almost all official French Government documents as a chic red, white and blue logo representing the Cinquième République.

But back to her first appearance in 1831, bare-breasted with tricolor and musket, and wearing a Phrygian cap to emphasise her revolutionary character.

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – Marianne – Unity – Liberty

The art salon however, didn’t consider Liberté to be a successful painting. Critics sniped at it, once again illustrating how much they know about painting. They complained that she looked like a working class woman. Others described her as a fishwife, or perhaps a whore.

Even more of a problem, the authorities thought that the dramatic energy and display of proletarian power Delacroix had captured in his painting was dangerous. So potentially explosive in fact, that Liberté was kept out of sight and the public shielded from her uplifted arm for a quarter of a century.

But all this happened over 180 years ago at Marianne’s first appearance. So what’s your take on her role today? National hero and suitable symbol of la France éternelle, or working class harlot with hairy armpits?

What do you think Marianne symbolises for France? A protector? A symbol of liberty? An art piece? Share your thoughts with us in the comments box below.

Image credits:
1. La Liberté guidant le people, via wikimedia commons
2. Mézin © Ray Johnstone
3. Charlie Hebdo, via flickr
4. Liberty, via wikimedia commons

About the Contributor

Ray Johnstone

Ray is an artist & writer. His favourite subjects are nudes and portraits. Art holidays for groups & families are catered for in their 800-year-old house La Petite Galerie in Gascony. They also take up to 6 walkers on the 'best bits' of the Pilgrims Route to Compostela. Check out Ray's 100+ articles - he has his own column called 'Perspectives'

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  1. Sophia Marci-Anderson Dec 7, 2016 at 2:04 AM - Reply

    Really interesting. There was a large piece of street art graffiti on a building near where I live which depicted Marianne- I kept meaning to take a photo of it but it was painted over after a few days.

    • Ray Johnstone Dec 7, 2016 at 8:24 PM - Reply

      Bonjour Sophia Marci-Anderson, Thanks for taking the trouble to read my article and for contacting me.
      I too saw some large street graffiti many years ago when I was hitch hiking around Europe. It must have made a lasting impression, because quite recently I did a drawing on what I remembered. You can see it here if you like:
      All the best.

      • Sophia Marci-Anderson Dec 8, 2016 at 7:26 AM - Reply

        You find that particular graffiti the world over! Also enjoying your The Way posts, I’m working my way through the MyFrenchLife back catalogue at the moment 🙂

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