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Colors of the Paris National Guard (France) during the French Revolution (1789-1792)

2. Sources and analysis

Last modified: 2018-07-14 by ivan sache
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Sources describing the colors of the Paris National Guard

Vieilh de Varenne's original book

The first colors of the Paris National Guard were destroyed in 1792, following the reorganization of the National Guard and the prescription of new colors.
The only primary source for these colors is:
Raymond Augustin Vieilh de Varennes. 1790. Description curieuse et intéressante des soixante drapeaux que l'amour patriotique a offerts aux soixante districts de la ville et des faubourgs de Paris. Précédé de l'état-major général de la garde nationale parisienne. Sorin & Vieilh de Varennes, Paris.

The book includes images of the colors of the Battalions of the Paris National Guard and their written description. Two complete copies of the book are kept at the National Library and at the Army Museum, respectively.
The iconography is made of 60 in-quarto plates each representing a National Guard holding a battalion's color. Etched and hand-colored, the original plates have been digitalized by the French National Library (index), Saint Gervais District excepted.
The guards have different, non-stereotypical attitudes. The staff ends with a spear arrow, to which a sash is attached.
The text thoroughly explains the meaning of the allegoric representations and of the mottoes shown on the colors.

Ivan Sache, 24 January 2018

Joseph Margerand's renditions

Joseph Margerand (1868-1962) made water-coloured reproductions of the 60 colors of the Paris National Guard; most of them were digitalized and published by Jean-Louis Vial in issues 17-30 (December 2000 - February 2003) of the electronic magazine Nec Pluribus Impar (index).
Margerand's renditions are straightforward copies of the original plates, with little artistic licence but increased contrast in color and shapes, making details more visible.

Ivan Sache, 24 January 2018

Lazare-Maurice Tisserand's rendition

The colors of the Paris National Guard are also shown in:
Lazare-Maurice Tisserand. 1875. Les armoiries de la ville de Paris. Sceaux, emblèmes, couleurs, devises, livrées et cérémonies publiques. Volume 2. Imprimerie nationale, Paris.
Lazare-Maurice Tisserand (1822-1893) worked at the Division of Historical Publications of the Municipality of Paris. He published several books on the history of Paris. Initiated by Count Anatole de Coëtlogon (1820-1869), the aforementioned book was revamped and completed by Tisserand. It is part of the series Histoire générale de Paris. Collection de documents publiés sous les auspices de l'édilité parisienne. Volume 1 of the book includes the text, while Volume 2 contains Appendices.

Appendix 8bis (Civil and military organization of the Municipality of Paris) includes five color plates showing the colors of the 60 districts, redrawn after the original. The colors are presented without the soldier.
The plates are captioned "The district flags", but they are indeed the colors of the district's battalions of the National Guard. Tisserand's renditions are faithful to the style of the primary source. The book is available online via the Internet Archive (scan of a copy owned by the University of Toronto). On the plates of this copy, some details, especially mottoes, are blurred - either because of the ageing of the original or of the scanning process. Fortunately, the missing details can be retrieved from Margerand's renditions.

Alex Danes & Ivan Sache, 24 January 2018

Additional sources

Henry Lachouque. 1947. Les drapeaux de la Garde Nationale de Paris en 1789. Éditions Militaires Illustrées, Paris.
The book contains plates of soldiers holding flags, designed by Gérard Blanckaert. This rare book appears from time to time on online auctions of ancient bookseller's catalogues, at quite a high price.

Marius Sépet. 1871. Le drapeau de la France. III. Revue des questions historiques 10, 404-457 [Google Books].
A more or less abridged description (probably from the primary source) is given for selected colors.

Champfleury. 1867. Histoire des faïences patriotiques sous la Révolution (2nd Edition). E. Dentu, Paris [Internet Archive].
In this unexpected source of information, Champfleury describes (pp. 283-286) selected colors and lists the meaning of the emblems shown on the colors, quoting Vieilh de Varenne's original statements.

Ivan Sache, 24 January 2018

Analysis of the colors

The colors of the Paris National Guard, which form a rare, consistent set of symbols of the early Revolution, have been studied by Élizabeth Liris. (De la Liberté à l'Union dans l'iconographie des drapeaux des districts parisiens. Annales historiques de la Révolution française, 289, 341-353. 1992, [Persée portal]).

The flags were designed in a hurry, without any prescription of size, color, iconography or writing, as were the flags of the royal army. The artists who designed the flag combined elements representing liberty and union, using traditional figures, sometimes adapted to their own skills and aspirations and to the social background of the district. The designs expressed the recently conquered liberty but also the aspiration and threats caused by the events, therefore the flags include elements referring both to the past and the present, that is traditional and revolutionary symbols. Liberty was often represented as a feminine allegory wearing a liberty cap, but also as broken symbols of oppression (yoke or chains).
Several color feature, in a more or less allegoric and violent way, the original fighting between people and aristocracy, sometimes with straightforward reference to the storming of the Bastile. A ship, as the symbol of Paris and of the significant contribution of the town's inhabitants to the revolution, is featured on 22 colors. Fasces, a symbol of union, are represented on 11 colors as a main element and on even more as a secondary charge.
In general, the district colors proclaim the benefits of Liberty, concealing insurrectionist violence. The enemies are servitude and aristocracy, not yet monarchy. The people of Paris are represented as fighters able to preserve their success. The representation of Liberty appears to be already incorporated to the living myth of the founding event - the storming of the Bastille, while the representation of Union belongs both to present and future. The 60 colors express the message of Liberty joining Union for the Regeneration of France.
Liris subsequently details the symbolic of selected colors, as described in Vieilh de Varennes' original book; her comments will be given in the pages presenting those colors.

Champfleury lists the emblems whose meaning is given in Vieilh de Varennes' original book.
Anchor: Hope
Broken chain, spread rings: End of oppression and slavery
Scales: Justice
Cap: Liberty
Caduceus: A stick with a twirled snake: peace
Plough, ploughshare, spade, rake, scythe, sickle, pitchfork, billhook, plants, fruit, etc.: Agriculture and abundance
Oak: Value
Rooster: Vigilance
Dove: Sweetness
Starry crown: Candor
Laurel wreath: Triumph, reward of virtue and valor
Cross or crozier: Clergy or Catholic religion
Sword: The symbol of nobility, to be used only against the homeland's enemies
Wheat spikes: Abundance and wealth supplied by agriculture to a state. Star: The Blessed Virgin and purity
Fasces: Bundles of sticks and spears bound together, symbol of unity and agreement. Also bundles of different items bound together by links: pikes, halberds, axes, insignia, flags, sabers, swords, cannons, as a symbol of war. Champfleury recalls that in the Roman times, the lictors marching before the Consuls bore fasces as a distinctive emblem; the fasces appeared in heraldry long before the Revolution, being used for instance in the arms of Cardinal Mazarin (1602-1661). In the 17th century, the Grand Provost used as the emblem of his office two fasces of golden sticks crossed in saltire with an axe in the middle.
Broken yoke: Represented by a broken piece of wood, a broken stick, as symbols of suppressed ambitious projects or of a revealed and suppressed plot.
Laurel and Palm: Triumph and reward of virtue and valor.
Leopard and Lion: Force and value
Mirror: Truth
Armed savage: Courage and force
Triangle, or Sacrificed Lamb, or Phoenix: The Holy Trinity
Equilateral Triangle: Unity and most perfect agreement.

Ivan Sache, 24 January 2018