Portrait of a Young Woman - July 17, 1793

Giles Ryan

© Copyright 2023 by Giles Ryan

Painting of Charlotte Corday by Johan Jakob Hauer.. Public domain.
Painting of Charlotte Corday by Johan Jakob Hauer..

It is unique in the history of painted portraits. No other work of this genre has ever been created in similar circumstances, or ever will be again. The artist, Johan Jakob Hauer, is not well known but he was a competent portraitist, and we may assume this is a good likeness. But his most significant qualification was that he was available and could work quickly, for he had not a minute to spare.

We see a young woman, dignified and composed, certainly not timid, and we can sense firmness of character. From her dress we guess the period, and we are not surprised to learn the painting was done in 1793, and if we know anything of the fashions of that time, we might even guess she is French. If we guessed anything more, we would be wrong. For there is nothing in the young woman’s expression that says, “Four days ago I killed a man, stabbed him to death.” And there is certainly nothing about her face that says, “In a few hours, I go to the guillotine because I did.” 

Is this the face of courage? Behind her serene composure is there any sign of fierce determination or the embrace of certain death in pursuit of some abstract ideal? The face in the portrait may not display these qualities, but this is the face of a martyr, Charlotte Corday, who died on the guillotine a few hours after the portrait was done. As she posed for the artist in her cell at the Conciergerie, she knew death was coming later that day because the Revolutionary Tribunal, pronouncing sentence, had told her so. Indeed, she knew her fate when she left her home in Normandy and made the journey to Paris.

She was the daughter of a good Norman family, descended from the minor aristocracy, and her antecedents included the tragedian Corneille. In her childhood, her mother and sister died, so her father entrusted her upbringing to a convent in Caen, where she had an education beyond what most young women in 18th century France could expect. She read Voltaire and Rousseau and gained an interest in politics. After the Revolution began, she and her social circle discussed the events of the day. She formed opinions that grew fervid as the months passed through all the Journées — the fall of the Bastille, the march on Versailles, the storming of the Tuileries and the end of the monarchy.

In a country divided by political opinions across a spectrum from reactionary monarchist to radical Republican, Charlotte Corday was a moderate Republican, someone who saw the Revolution as a way to change French society for the better, but not drastically. Her ideas aligned with the moderate Girondin faction, but 1793 was not a good year for moderates. The year had begun with the execution of the King. Months before, he had tried to flee France with his family, only to be captured at Varennes before he could reach the safety of the Hapsburg army across the border. Clearly, a king who sought the aid of France’s enemies could not be the king of France, and by the time he went under the blade, he was simply Louis Capet. His trial and execution exacerbated the division between the moderate Girondin and the radical Jacobin factions, whose loudest voice was Jean-Paul Marat.

Marat was, as his newspaper title said, L’Ami de Peuple. He was also the most ferocious of the radical Jacobins, the voice of the sans culottes, the tribune of the Paris poor, their avatar. He had forcefully advocated the death of the King, and encouraged the September Massacres, and for this Charlotte decided he must die. In Paris, she went to the market and bought a knife, its blade long enough for the fatal task. She had come a long way to meet her victim. Her original intent was to seek him out at the Tuileries, where the Convention met, and kill him there, but his illness kept him at home, so she went there, determined to kill him wherever he might be. Marat consented to meet the young woman because she promised information about the moderate Girondin faction members from Normandy. He had no modesty, false or otherwise, so Marat greeted the young woman while sitting in his covered bath for treatment of a skin disease, and his shoulders and chest were bare. We may even imagine that the insolence of his dishabille confirmed her resolution. She plunged in the knife, made no effort to escape, and waited calmly for arrest.

The Revolutionary Tribunal’s judgement allowed no appeal, and execution followed swiftly, because any reluctance would show weakness, and the enemies of France both within and threatening its borders must see no hesitation. But even Charlotte had to wait her turn in the crowded line for death, and in the last remaining hours she wrote a letter to her father and had her portrait done so that her father might have this lasting memory of her. Perhaps this explains the calm expression, as if to tell him, Don’t be concerned, I was serene at the end, and had no regrets. This also explains the fineness of her clothes, certainly not what she was wearing at the end, for she would not want her father to see the dress stained by Marat’s blood and soiled by these brief days in prison, and he must not see her wearing the long red overblouse, the customary garment which told the crowds watching the tumbril pass through the streets and the huge mob surrounding the guillotine that the condemned was guilty of treason against the Revolution.

Paris had grown accustomed to these displays of blood, but an even larger multitude had gathered for this particular death. This woman had brutally murdered the people’s voice, so her death must be witnessed. But anyone anticipating an emotional display of contrition or a plea for mercy from the scaffold, or perhaps the sight of a woman trembling with fear before the great blade fell — any such expectation was disappointed. Eyewitness accounts, including one written by Charles-Henri Sanson, the Public Executioner, (familiarly known as Monsieur de Paris and one of several in his family line who held the dynastic post), describe Charlotte as fearless and composed as she met the fate which she herself had created. Even Sanson, who sent thousands to their deaths, was astonished by her calmness and courage, and we can readily imagine that the face she showed the crowd from the scaffold is the same face we see today in her prison cell portrait.

In those days, the thousands of public beheadings witnessed by many thousands more spectators led to fanciful tales, and one of these was that the faces of the severed heads, held up for the public’s view, would show a spectrum of expressions from shock to anger to indignation, and sometimes eyes kept blinking in disbelief after death. It was said that one of Sanson’s men slapped Charlotte’s face as he held it up and she blushed in shame. This, of course, was all nonsense, but many were willing to believe this — and even worse — about Marat’s assassin.

The people of France were so convinced of conventional stereotypes that they wondered how a woman could have carried out such a brutal murder. Was a woman truly capable of committing this crime alone? The Court could not believe there was no one else involved, there must have been conspirators and certainly a man directing her, despite her insistence that she had acted alone and confided in no one. This doubt persisted: who was her lover, the man behind her crime? Convinced she was lying and that some man must have shared her bed in the last days and encouraged her act and that he, too, must go under the blade, the Court demanded an autopsy. Charlotte’s corpse was subjected to the same examination given to Joan of Arc with the same result — virgo intacto. Thus, we can say with certainty that Charlotte knew anger and even hatred, but she had never known physical love.

Charlotte lived in the public imagination long after the event, and her act affected the future role of women in French politics in the immediate aftermath and beyond. The assassination of Marat, motivated by Charlotte’s wish to end factional violence, had the contrary result. Certainly, it removed any hesitation in executing the Widow Capet a few months later. The death of Marat, which she thought would end the persecution of Republican moderates, had the opposite effect as the purge of the Girondins proceeded at an even more feverish pace, claiming women as well as men until the tide of blood ebbed with Thermidor.

Her long-term influence on the development of women’s role in French politics is still debated. The Revolution, which never seriously considered the franchise for women, altered women’s legal status in only one fundamental way, granting women the right to initiate divorce. Other changes might have happened, and other women like Olympe de Gouges and Manon Roland had roles in the Revolution before they, too, followed Charlotte to the guillotine — but all this was set aside when Napoléon, the paradigm male chauvinist and misogynist, came to power. His Code Napoléon set in place much of family and employment law for the next hundred years and more, and French women did not get the vote until 1945. Historical hindsight confirms no certainties, but we can be confident that Charlotte did not imagine any of these outcomes.

Every painting tells a story, and we assume the story in a portrait connects to the face we see. But in this portrait, there is another story, the story of the father whom this painting was intended to console. Beyond the random facts of genealogy, we know nothing of Charlotte’s father, Jacques François de Corday, Seigneur d’Armont, who survived in the aftermath of her act. We know he died five years later in Barcelona, and so we may conjecture that the daughter’s murder of Marat also left the father’s life in danger, and we may believe he fled France before the Terror could also claim his life, and he passed his last days in Catalonia, far from his home in Normandy. And we can only wonder about this old man in his last years with no keepsake but her last letter and this portrait, and we may ask ourselves, did he ever understand why his daughter took another’s life at the certain cost of her own?

Contact Giles
(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Giles story list and biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher