This compelling book uncovers the persistence and permutations of the figure of the gamin de Paris—the young, male street urchin—in the French social imaginary during the nineteenth century. It is a lucid, focused examination of a protean figure that through use and reuse served different ideological functions in France, particularly in relation to ideas of ‘fraternity’, the ‘people’ and the ‘nation’. The gamin de Paris was, as Brown writes, ‘a common yet unstable sign’, operating between the poles of revolution and rebellion on the one hand, and the consolidation of French national identity on the other, from ‘child of the people’ to ‘child of the fatherland’. Brown roots her study in major works by the French painter Eugène Delacroix and the writer Victor Hugo as well as much less well-known artists and writers, and the result is a compact and dense investigation that touches on important changes in nineteenth-century politics, society and culture. Following a brief introduction—the book notably includes several very short chapters—the author begins with a quick look back to the French Revolution’s constructions of the male child as ‘l’enfant de la patrie’, knitting together ideas about the people, revolution, education and family. The revolutionary image of the child was sometimes paired with the allegorical figure of France as Marianne, Liberté or La République in a period in which paternal power was being replaced with ideas of fraternity. This revolutionary figure infused later ‘collective memory images’ of the gamin de Paris. The longest chapter, the fourth, is on the 1830 Revolution and examines a particularly productive moment in the formation of representations of the gamin. Delacroix’s contemporary history painting Liberty Leading the People (1830) is the central object around which this chapter is organized. The pistol-packing gamin de Paris on the right of the painting is the sidekick to the hybrid figure of Liberty—part allegory of the nation and part woman of the people—as they advance over the stones of a barricade, calling the French people to revolt. Brown points to the presence of other children in the painting and the conflicted signs of their social identity as street urchins and schoolboys (identified by their faluche or beret, for example). The gamin is as hybrid as Liberty it turns out—both delinquent and patriot—and suggests ‘divisions in the social imaginary in constructions of the people’. Brown contextualizes Delacroix’s history painting with other works like Philippe-Auguste Jeanron’s Les Petits patriotes (1830) with its genre painting appeal and François Rude’s monumental sculpture La Marseillaise (1833–36), as well as prints by Nicolas-Toussaint Charlet and others that picture the gamin in revolt. After the 1830 Revolution, the gamin would become an archetype that would generate a rich array of subsequent repetitions and transformations that would be increasingly depoliticized, particularly in literary representations. With the explosion of panoramic literature in the 1840s, the gamin becomes a stock character and a vehicle of l’esprit français. His insurrectionary energy tends to be domesticated as mischievous play or street entrepreneurship. Yet, as Brown shows, in these same years a darker picture also emerges of lost innocence and vice, melodramatically developed in Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris, for example. She examines the politics of the gamin in the 1848 Revolution, where he returns as an idealized republican and insurrectionary figure as well as a more ambiguous counter-revolutionary mercenary. She stresses the unresolved contradictions in the figure’s meanings in depictions of the revolution and the people. Subsequent chapters carry the analysis of these conflicting representations through the Second Empire and early Third Republic, and even to colonialist and transnational identities. Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862) capitalizes on the gamin’s image in panoramic literature, ultimately aligning the gamin, through his character Gavroche, with the ‘reformist sentimentality’ of bourgeois liberal culture. Other visual and literary depictions of the gamin include Édouard Manet’s Old Musician (1862) and Alfred Roll’s Execution of a Trumpeter under the Commune (1871), as well as argot dictionaries and self-reflexive journalistic appropriations of the figure that sometimes identify it with the emerging artistic avant-garde. In the 1880s, the gamin would become the protagonist of colonial adventure novels in which he travelled to Asia, Oceania, and Africa and was conceived as the white child of the fatherland serving French colonialist cultural propaganda. Given the compactness of the book, there are inevitably threads that could have been followed further, moments where the textual and visual analysis could have been more developed and the ‘dialectic’ of the competing images of the gamin illuminated more strongly. One example is the analysis of Jean-Joseph Weerts’ Death of Bara (1883), which returns to the resonant figure of the French Revolution, and which Brown sees as the ‘ultimate’ depiction of the figure as a political martyr in the early Third Republic. The berserk hysteria of the picture with its frozen suspension of extreme violence and pinwheel of diagonals does not quite come through in Brown’s succinct discussion. Her book surveys representations of the gamin de Paris that range from vulnerable victim, heroic martyr, child or adolescent, ragamuffin or schoolboy, malformed or diseased homunculus, agent of instinctual violence and racial other to ambiguous cipher. These representations, she argues, operate within a dominant bourgeois culture and its masculine, heterosexual imaginary. She highlights the instability and transformations of the figure, but her analysis might have been deepened with more consideration of the homosocial aspects of many of these representations and their more unstably gendered and sexual aspects, adding to her analysis of class and race. They are depictions of an ostensibly male figure—Brown argues that the female gamine never takes off in the nineteenth century—but one that has not yet acceded to adult masculinity and whose inchoate identity, disturbing violence and emergent sexuality surface again and again in the bounty of representations she considers. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
French History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 3, 2018
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