“A Slight Freshness on the Neck”: Prints Depicting the Execution of Louis XVI (ca. 1793)
It was an execution that defined an era. On January 21, 1793, four days after he had been convicted of high treason and crimes against the state by 693 of the 721 deputies of the National Convention, King Louis XVI was guillotined. The gruesome event took place on the Place de la Révolution (formerly the Place Louis XV, soon to be the Place de la Concorde) and came to represent, both in France and abroad, the changing nature of the French Revolution.
Of course, the way artists at the time depicted Louis XVI’s execution depended on their own political convictions — or, lacking those, the political convictions of their patrons or audience. The primary sentiment many throughout Europe felt was fear that this act of violence was a prelude to others. This is clearly evident in the English print Hell Broke Loose, where a swarm of devils beat drums and blow trumpets among the free-floating words Ça ira (“It’ll be fine”, an emblematic song of the French Revolution) and Vive la Nation (“Long live the nation”).
The English cartoonist Isaac Cruikshank emphasized the brutality of the execution by first portraying it inaccurately but symbolically, in a picture that has the Duke of Orleans (who, though he supported the Revolution, would be guillotined ten months later) holding an axe over Louis’ head while Marie Antoinette (who would be guillotined nine months later) pleads for mercy. Within a few days, another Cruikshank cartoon was published in which Louis is depicted as a martyr standing beside the guillotine, whose newfangled workings (the beheading machine had only been invented the year before, in 1792) are explained.
The view of Louis as a martyr was shored up by many French engravings — and by the English painter Charles Bezanech, whose images of Louis on his way to the scaffold quickly became iconic for the royalist cause. While Louis is portrayed as a Christian family man bathed in celestial light, his executioners are shown in rigid poses with eyes averted from the viewer. The even more rigid guillotine looms large — albeit discreetly, so as not to distract the viewer from the king — in the background.
Pro-revolutionary depictures of Louis’ execution were, if anything, more gruesome than anti-revolutionary ones. Only the rhetoric of the captions distinguished them, as in this image from a Montagnard pamphlet, which is labeled “Food for thought for crowned mountebanks: may an impure blood water our soil. Monday, January 21, 1793, at a quarter past ten in the morning, on the Place de la Révolution, the tyrant who used to be called Louis XVI fell beneath the sword of Law”:
There was no “sword” involved, of course — only the guillotine, which, ironically enough, Louis XVI had helped design. An amateur locksmith generally fascinated by mechanical things, Louis had suggested that the device use an oblique blade rather than a crescent one to make certain that the head would come off at the first blow, no matter the shape of the neck. At any rate, Louis’ own head was apparently severed without any (mechanical) trouble at all.
You can browse a selection of other images of Louis XVI’s beheading below. These range from the wholly imagined rendering by the German Georg Heinrich Sieveking — who had been in sympathy with the Revolution until the king was killed — to some of the many anonymous popular engravings that circulated widely in 1793. In these, the same details are repeated again and again (not least of all the towering symbol of the guillotine), as though artists and audience alike were trying to find a place for this shocking event, which shaped history and reshaped reality.