Images have long provided a means of protesting political regimes bent on censoring language. In the 1830s a band of French caricaturists, led by Charles Philipon, weaponized the innocent image of a pear to criticize the corrupt and repressive policies of King Louis-Philippe. Patricia Mainardi investigates the history of this early 19th-century meme.
January 9, 2020
“Around this damnable tyrannical pear there gathered a great howling mob of patriots. There was such fury and incredible unity in their stubborn demand for justice that when we leaf through old humor journals today, we find it a subject of enormous astonishment that such unrelenting warfare could continue for years.” — Charles Baudelaire, “Some French Caricaturists”, 1857.1
Wherever open speech is prohibited, symbols and allusions abound. The historian Peter Gay lamented that in our positivist age, this metaphoric language has waned because we now see in only one dimension, the literal and obvious one. Gay traced the beginnings of this loss to the Enlightenment, beginning with the rise of science as a paradigm and the gradual eclipse of religion; an example would be the formerly near universal comprehension of calling someone “a good Samaritan”, a term that simultaneously invokes the present and a biblical past, enabling us to think on two parallel planes at once.2 Caricature, with its mixture of word and image, the literal and the allusive, does this better than language alone, which has caused it to be highly regulated and often prosecuted by authoritarian regimes.
Under one such authoritarian regime, nineteenth-century French caricaturists produced one of the most powerful political metaphors in modern history: the representation of King Louis-Philippe as a pear. The era was, with apologies, “ripe” for this kind of messaging because caricature, imported to France from England during the revolutionary period of the late eighteenth century, was ideally suited to evade the draconian censorship laws instituted by the Bourbon Restoration of 1815.
Censorship could occur in several intensifying degrees. In France, censorship of images was always more severe than censorship of text because images were thought to have a more direct appeal to the lower classes whose literacy was limited. It was customarily exerted in one of two ways: normally, censorship was post-publication, meaning that if a text or image was judged offensive, it would be seized and the author, artist, and publisher tried, fined, and imprisoned. In periods of great instability, however, the more severe measure of prior censorship was instituted. This meant that nothing, neither text nor image, could be published or even exposed to public view, unless it had first been submitted to government censors and approved by them. Not only artists, authors, and publishers could be held responsible, but even printers were liable and could lose the license that permitted them to work. This is why so many publications (Diderot’s Encyclopédie, for example) falsely identified their origin as outside France — usually Switzerland, where laws were more liberal.
During the Restoration, artists created a metalanguage of symbols to evade censorship: censorship itself was personified as a large pair of scissors always on the attack, the clergy were represented as candlesnuffers busily extinguishing the light of the Enlightenment, and the regime’s political figures as crayfish who knew only how to walk backwards. In 1830, however, after the “Three Glorious Days” of the July Revolution, the absolutist legitimist monarchy was overthrown in favor of a new constitutional monarchy governed by what was called “The True Charter”. The new king, Louis-Philippe (who ruled 1830–1848), styled himself the Citizen King and promised, among numerous reforms, to restore liberty of the press. His promises were short-lived; within a few months, he had enacted the “Law that Punishes Attacks on the Rights and Authority of the King and his Legislature by the Press”.3 Violators would be punished with a prison sentence of three months to five years and a fine of three hundred to six thousand francs. While this severe punishment did not in any way dissuade the political opposition, it did inspire even more resourceful evasions.
Many of the most notorious nineteenth-century battles over censorship are well known: the condemnation of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Manet’s lithograph The Execution of Maximilien. Unlike these cases, however, the Battle of the Pear continued for several years because the government was powerless to suppress it, although not for lack of trying.
The individual responsible for this battle, Charles Philipon (1800–1861), while not so well known as Baudelaire or Manet, had an outsized influence in nineteenth-century France. The English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray called him “an indifferent artist…, a tolerable designer, and an admirable wit.”4 A cartoonist of middling talent, Philipon soon abandoned drawing for publishing, founding several periodicals in which appeared the most memorable cartoons of the century by France’s leading artists — among others Daumier, Gavarni, Grandville, and Traviès. Recognizing the limitations of his own artistic talent, he compensated by suggesting subjects and themes to his artists, even writing captions for them and often including lengthy texts explaining the drawings’ symbolism, or even denying it to better evade the censors. His empire included the publishing house Auber (named after his brother-in-law) and several periodicals, including La Caricature (1830–1835) and Le Charivari (1832–1937), which inspired the English journal Punch, originally subtitled The London Charivari. He also maintained a retail shop where prints from his periodicals could be purchased in black and white or hand-colored, on varying qualities of paper, sold by the sheet, in portfolios, or bound as books. Those lacking funds for purchase could enjoy the changing displays of his shop windows, which often constituted free exhibitions of political opposition. He commissioned Traviès to depict his shop, taking advantage of the opportunity to include images of pears in its windows, with a viewer gesturing towards one and commenting: “You have to admit the head of state looks pretty funny”.
Although Philipon was not the first to suggest the pear as a symbol for King Louis-Philippe, he must be credited with its dissemination. It came about seemingly accidentally. Less than a year after Louis-Philippe was installed on the throne, Philipon’s newly established La Caricature published an anonymous untitled drawing depicting a mason busily engaged in plastering over all references to the 1830 revolution.
Several features of the drawing made its political meaning indisputable. Prominently displayed is “Street of July 29”, the date of the fall of the legitimist monarchy and installation of Louis-Philippe’s constitutional monarchy; another is “Liberty or Death”, a slogan of the revolution. The mason works from a trough labeled “Dupinade”: André Dupin was the most outspoken conservative voice in the Chamber of Deputies, opposing every reform that the 1830 revolution had promised to guarantee. What sealed Philipon’s fate, however, was the unmistakable resemblance of this mason to Louis-Philippe, a clear violation of the new censorship law.
Since the drawing was published anonymously, Philipon as publisher was held responsible. At his trial in November 1831, he defended himself with the claim that there was no proof this mason represented the king, whose name, he pointed out, appeared nowhere on the drawing.5 To demonstrate that his accusers could find the king’s physiognomy anywhere, he drew a series of four portraits that began with the king’s recognizable likeness and ended with a pear.
Truth be told, Louis-Philippe’s physiognomy did somewhat resemble a pear, but an added bonus was that the French word for pear, poire, also signifies a fool — although there is some dispute as to whether this meaning predated or was the result of Philipon’s metaphor. Philipon’s defense did not impress his judges and he was condemned to six months in prison and a 2000-franc fine. Nor was he alone in meeting such a fate; numerous artists, including Daumier, the most famous cartoonist of the century, were jailed at one time or another for subversive drawings.
It is sometimes said that waging a battle with the press is a losing proposition. Nowhere was this more clear than in what transpired next. In the first issue of La Caricature published after his trial, Philipon announced a subscription to pay his fine and warned the government: “Wait until both my hands are paralyzed before you rejoice”.6 He became relentless in promoting the proto-meme of the Pear in his journals, with such success that its fame spread internationally. He began by publishing his pear drawings in La Caricature. To the original drawings, he added captions with the statements he had made in court.
He began thus: “If to identify the monarch in a caricature, you rely solely on a resemblance, then you fall into absurdity. Look at these crude sketches, which should have assured my defense.” Under the first he wrote: “This sketch looks like Louis-Philippe, so you would condemn it?” Under the second, more abstract, he wrote: “So then it would be necessary to condemn this one which resembles the first.” By the third, the king’s physiognomy was looking definitively pearish; nonetheless, Philipon captioned it: “Then condemn this one, too, which looks like the second.” The fourth drawing is unmistakably a pear. Philipon concluded:
And finally, if you are being logical, you would not be able to exonerate this pear, which resembles the previous drawing. So, for a pear, for a brioche, and for all grotesque heads in which chance or malice might find some resemblance, you would punish their author with five years of prison and a five thousand franc fine?! Admit, Gentlemen that this is a most peculiar liberty of the press.
Philipon liked his “Birth of the Pear” meme so well that he used it again when Le Charivari ran into trouble with government censors in 1834 and 1835; he had it printed as a poster and inserted into the periodical.7
If Philipon had left it at that, the Pear affair would have made an amusing footnote in the history of caricature, but, from the inception of his newly invented meme, he began commissioning artists to use it in political cartoons. It spread more rapidly than earlier memes ever did, and not only in publications. As a result, it would be impossible to count all the pears that appeared in various venues in the following years. One factor in the Pears’ success might well have been the simplicity of the shape, which even a child could draw. In fact, many children did, if we are to believe the drawings of Philipon’s artists, who churned out Pear drawings first for La Caricature and, beginning in 1832, for Le Charivari as well. In a January 1833 edition of La Caricature, Auguste Bouquet depicted an old woman attempting to prevent three industrious little boys from defacing the wall of her house with pear drawings, shouting at them “Go draw that filth farther away, you little devils!”. A few months later, in Le Charivari, Traviès depicted a similar event in The Pear Has Become Popular, where he shows a street urchin drawing a pear on a wall; its caption announces: “This is how the walls of Paris are being decorated these days.”
Works like these not only spread the Pear meme, they made it clear that all ages and classes were united in detesting the king. Thackeray echoed Traviès, writing: “Everyone who was at Paris a few years since must recollect the famous poire which was chalked upon all the walls of the city, and which bore so ludicrous a resemblance to Louis Philippe.”8 Philipon openly took credit for its success by publishing a drawing entitled What Sauce Would You Like with That? depicting the workshop of La Caricature with himself center-stage serving as its presiding spirit, “The Demon of Caricature”. He is shown directing the work of his most celebrated artists: Grandville, Daumier, Traviès, and Forest. On the left, a whole new class of apprentices is practicing drawing the Pear, and pears cover every available surface of the workshop, including one perched on a modelling stand posing for the students.
The success of the Pear meme even inspired a book entitled The Physiology of the Pear, written by Sebastien Peytel under the pseudonym “Louis Benoît, Gardener”. While announcing itself as a horticultural tome, it actually presented thinly disguised, scathing critiques of the king. Should anyone manage to work their way through its 265 pages without realizing its true subject, its last page presented a drawing of a pear seated on a throne surrounded by pear-courtiers, similar to one drawn by Grandville for La Caricature entitled Reception. The book was so popular that a second edition was published almost immediately.
The most famous Pear drawing is, no doubt, Daumier’s The Past, the Present, the Future, depicting Louis-Philippe’s pear head in triplicate, his topknot defining the fruit’s stem. The caption (possibly written by Philipon himself) notes: “What was in the beginning: fresh and confident; What is now: pale, thin, and anxious; What will be: despondent and broken. The accuracy of the present and the past can be verified by everyone. As for the future, this prediction cannot be in doubt.” Nor could it be in doubt that the absence of any sign directly identifying the pear as the king saved Daumier, at least this time, from a repeat of Philipon’s court battles.
While many of the Pear drawings were in the nature of schoolyard taunts that merely insulted the king’s appearance, the best of them used the pear to signal a more complex political attack, filled with puns and allusions often lost on us today. An example is the drawing by Grandville and Desperet who together produced an image aptly entitled Enigma, accompanied by a doggerel poem in the form of a riddle. While the figure’s pear head and stooped posture immediately identified Louis-Philippe, the poem printed below piled on insults and allusions. Among the more obvious ones: “A bag of a thousand francs replaces my belly, / an iron trowel represents my hand.” This dual reference to the king’s avarice and the Dupinade drawing that began the Pear’s reign is continued with the line: “The seat of my pants is a plasterer’s trough, the True Charter is hung on my back.”
Louis-Philippe’s notorious lack of loyalty to his supporters is represented in Desperet’s Gratitude is the Virtue of Kings, where the Pear King is seated in a room whose drapery, carpeting, and throne are all festooned with pears. He brusquely dismisses one of his earliest supporters, the President of his Council of Ministers Jacques Lafitte, by giving him a brusque kick in his posterior. Gratitude indeed!
In The Nightmare, Daumier riffs on Henry Fuseli’s celebrated 1781 painting of that title by showing another of the king’s early supporters, General Lafayette, burdened by the realization of his error, visualized here as a giant pear that is weighing heavily on his sleep — the document near his hand lists Louis-Philippe’s broken promises.
The corruption of his regime, alluded to by the money bag in Enigma is made explicit in Bouquet’s The Pear and Its Pips, where the king’s cronies are shown devouring the rotting state from within. Even more explicit is The Moderates Soil Themselves, in which a pair of clowns representing the juste-milieu (moderates) are shown carrying a pear-shaped bag of night-soil. In other words, the king is full of shit and those who enable him soil themselves by supporting him.
As battle lines hardened, imagery became ever more explicit. There were even thinly-disguised suggestions of regicide: an untitled drawing by Daumier shows workers hanging a giant pear; a drawing by Traviès shows the stock figure of the ordinary citizen, Mayeux, preparing to guillotine the fruit, crying “Oh deceitful pear, why are you not true?” — another allusion to his many violations of the “True Charter” of 1830.
While the government at first responded to these drawings with repression and seizures, it gradually came to adopt, however reluctantly, a laissez-faire approach. In the course of numerous prosecutions, Philipon had learned how to turn court cases into circuses, much to the amusement of jurors who often declined to convict him. Government prosecutors lost so often that eventually only the most egregious transgressions were brought to trial. When he was hit with fines and imprisonment, Philipon invented a new meme to evade and enrage the censors: the typographic Pear, which he recycled several times.9 Since part of any judgment against periodicals was that the court order had to be published in the offending journal, Philipon obliged, in his own ingenious way. He explained to readers of Le Charivari: “Since this judgment, comical though it might be, risks offering small amusement to our readers, we have tried to compensate, at least in form, for what is absurd in content.” And so he published the text of the judgment in the shape of a pear, beginning with: “Louis-Philippe, king of the French, to all present and to come, greetings. The assize court of the department of Seine-et-Oise, seated at Versailles, has rendered the following verdict”.
This cat-and-mouse game continued for five years; by 1835 Philipon and his artists were in open revolt. Grandville and Desperet together signed a barely disguised call to revolution, a drawing entitled “Oh July Sun, Come Quickly”. Its explanatory text provided a long rationale “explaining” that the ministers of Louis-Philippe, depicted here as children, had accidentally made their snowman in the likeness of the king and so wanted the July Sun to come quickly and melt it away before they were charged with violating the censorship law. But, of course, everyone understood that this was, in reality, a thinly disguised call for a revival of the July Revolution of 1830.
In 1835, after an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Louis-Philippe, his government finally succeeded in passing the notorious “September Laws”, re-instituting the prior censorship of the Restoration and outlawing any discussion of the king and the monarchy. Political caricature had become impossible. Rather than submit to these laws, Philipon closed down La Caricature in August 1835. Le Charivari survived by entering into a long period where it published only caricatures of manners and mores, not of politics. Even the great Daumier, for the time being, was rendered relatively benign. Political caricature had to go into hibernation until the Revolution of 1848, when Louis-Philippe was deposed and the September Laws were repealed.
Philipon brought this chapter of publishing history to a close, fittingly enough, with three typographic Pears which he printed on the last page of the last issue of La Caricature, 27 August 1835. Entitled Other Fruits of the July Revolution, the Pears’ texts were composed of the provisions of the new September Laws pertaining to printed images, beginning “No drawings, engravings, lithographs, medals, prints, or emblems, of any kind, can be published, exhibited, or sold without preliminary authorization of the Minister of Interior in Paris or the Departmental Prefect”.
In his final “Letter to Subscribers”, Philipon began on a sardonic note: “After four years and ten months of existence, La Caricature is succumbing to a law that reestablishes censorship, by virtue of this formal article of the True Charter: ‘Censorship will never be permitted to be reestablished’”. He continued, more seriously, by attacking the “apostates of liberty”:
We have pilloried them in our journal, and we have pitilessly exposed them to the ridicule of the people they so exploited. They can destroy the charges that our justice has nailed over their heads, but it will not be so easy to erase or cause to be forgotten the stigmata of shame with which we marked them during the last five years.
Patricia Mainardi is Professor Emeritus in the Doctoral Program in Art History at the City University of New York. She has published numerous books, articles and exhibition catalogues on nineteenth-century art, including Another World: Nineteenth-Century Illustrated Print Culture (Yale University Press, 2017).