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On the decorations and paint scheme of “L’Orient“, ex-“Le Sans Culotte“, ex-“Le Dauphin Royal“

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Posted (edited)

Sorry, it's getting a bit academic now.

The National Maritime Museum owns two watercolors showing the stern and figurehead of the French 118-gun ship “Le San Culote” (“Le Sans Culotte”). No date, no signature, no inscription whatsoever. There may never have been any, or they may have been cut away:



According to the museum, these drawings were executed c. 1795, in my opinion they were made between September 1792 (abolition of the monarchy) and May 1795 (rebaptizing the ship "L'Orient"), most likely, perhaps, in 1793, and requisitioned by the British during the occupation of Toulon (September to December 1793), or handed over on that occasion to the British by royalist members of the French naval administration.

In my opinion, the style of the drawings is clearly French, possibly they once belonged together, maybe were drawn on the same sheet (?). The author could have been Félix-Jacques Brun (1763-1831), who became Maître Sculpteur of the Arsenal of Toulon in 1796, after having worked there as a designer and sculptor for several years already. Possibly, they were just projected decorations that were either never implemented, or were modified.

Many people believe that the ship’s figurehead must represent a sans-culotte, as this was the ship’s name at the time, which is erroneous. Rather, it is an allegorical representation of the Herculean "Peuple Souverain". Hercules represented the sovereignty of the ruler already in the Ancien Régime, the ruler then being the king, of course. With the abolition of the monarchy, the royal sovereign was replaced by the sovereign people who were depicted with a Phrygian cap, or cap of liberty, because - according to the opinion of the time - in Antiquity this cap was a symbol of the liberated slaves. The allegory of the Herculean "Peuple Souverain" was used extensively by the Jacobins (against Royalists, Federalists, Girondins), but it was popular already before Robespierre's "reign of terror", and remained so afterwards.



So, the “Bonnet de la Liberté” was by no means exclusively linked to the so-called reign of terror and did not disappear when it was gone. On the contrary, it remained part of the official imagery and continued to adorn seals, coins, flags, etc., throughout the Directoire (and well into the Consulate), directed now against the Royalists in the first instance, as a restoration of the monarchy was an anathema for the „Thérmidoriens“ - many of them former Jacobins - as well. (In case you read French, there is more on the subject of "Allegories of the Revolution", e.g. here: https://www.persee.fr/doc/dhs_0070-6760_1995_num_27_1_2073

Jacques-Louis David was a prominent propagator of the imagery of the Herculean „Peuple Souverain“, and Brun was, among others, David's pupil. It is quite probable that Brun (or whoever was the sculptor of the "Sans Culotte“ ’s figurehead) was inspired by David's and others’ pictures of the Herculean “Peuple Souverain”: Hercules wearing the cap of liberty, the left arm leaning on a fasces, and holding a club in his right, signs of legitimate authority and power. However, interestingly enough, Hercules is not wielding his club, rather his arm is lowered, the club is being held back by a cupid. Could this be an allusion to the "mildness" of the state authority, which is ready to strike, but only when it is absolutely necessary?

As mentioned before, the watercolor may have been just a draft that was never realized, or was modified when realized. But, since - as already mentioned - the figurehead of "Le Sans Culotte" was not exclusively linked to the Jacobins, it would not have been necessary to replace it when Robespierre fell. The idea of the "Peuple Souverain" persisted.

Anyway - as the ship was last overhauled in the months of January to May 1794 (Demerliac, Nomenclature des navires français de 1792 à 1799, p. 20, no. 8), i.e. while Robespierre was still in power, the decision not to realize the figurehead as drafted would have been made still during the so-called reign of terror. Perhaps the figurehead as shown in the watercolour was actually executed, but destroyed during the occupation of Toulon, and the decision taken after the ship’s recapture was to replace it by another figurehead that could be produced quickly and cheaper.  So, if there was no further overhauling of the ship after May 1794, then "L’Orient" ’s figurehead at Aboukir must have been the one that was mounted back then, in May 1794, when Roberspierre was still in power.

It is also interesting to note that the name of the ship was by no means changed immediately after Robespierre's fall, but only months later. The same for the 118-gun ship "La Montagne" (ex- "Côte d’Or", ex- "États de Bourgogne"). Another indication, perhaps, that Robespierre's fall had more to do with his personal radical stance (he wasn’t called "L’Incorruptible" for nothing) than with the rule of the Montagnards in general. Too many from within their own ranks simply feared being next in line.

So let’s keep in mind - a ship with a figurehead as that shown in the watercolor could have kept it even after Robespierre’s fall. An obvious new name for the ship would have been "Le Peuple Souverain". But this name had already been given in 1792 to a venerable 74-gun ship-of-the-line. The name "Le Peuple" would also have been appropriate but, again, was not available as, at the time "La Montagne" and "Le Sans Culotte" were renamed (both in May 1795), the decision was taken to rebaptize the former "Le Peuple“ (only to rebaptize it again, just a month later, and this time for good, "L'Océan").

So, a different name had to be found and I think the name “L'Orient” was a natural choice, on the one hand because this ship was destined to be the flagship of the Toulon fleet which operated throughout the Mediterranean region as far as the Middle East, and, on the other hand, because - provided the figurehead of 1795 actually was the same as that shown in the watercolour - the figurehead would have met almost perfectly the representation of the "Orient" as shown in Roman art, so popular in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France (I pointed this out in the French sub-forum already). Only the nameplate on the stern would have had to be replaced. A trifle in terms of effort, time, and money, with no need for a refit.

Regarding the appearance of the stern, it could have been designed as shown on the drawing of the NMM (with the name tag "L’Orient" instead of "Le San Culote"). In case the draft had remained a project, or was altered in reality - it may have been designed in the "traditional" way, i.e. as we know it from "L’Océan", for example. Unfortunately, not a single contemporary French representation of the stern of "L’Orient" has emerged so far (please forget about what is shown on English paintings), so nothing more can be said on that subject for the time being.

To my knowledge, a single contemporary French view of a ship that should represent "L’Orient" has been known so far, namely the one in a picture said to be painted by either Charles-Louis Balzac or Louis-Pierre Baltard, with the ship anchoring before Toulon. I’ve never seen a detailed close up of this painting, not to speak of a close up of the ship itself, nor do I know whether the painting was actually signed and dated. I've posted the best photograph I was able to find in the French sub-forum:



Anyway, for the time being, I assume that the painter was Balzac, or Baltard, indeed, and the painting was executed between 1794 and 1798. I can’t tell as to whether Balzac’s/Baltard's representation can be trusted or not.

Unfortunately, the figurehead is not clearly recognizable but appears to represent a full human figure. In my opinion, it does clearly not correspond to what was suggested by Gérard Delacroix in his treatise on the 118-gun ship-of-the-line “Le Commerce de Marseille” (p.47, and Planche 21, on the right; Website Modellmarine.de, fourth picture)


Since the original name of the ship was "Le Dauphin Royal", Delacroix wants to provide "L'Orient" with the figurehead of a "Dauphin Royal" - but what a "Dauphin Royal" ! A fictional "Dauphin Royal“ that had existed only as a model, the model itself dating from Louis XV’s reign:


I think Delacroix's proposal is not convincing for two reasons. First, the figurehead of the model does not actually correspond to the vaguely recognizable figure in the Balzac/Baltard picture and, second, for political reasons, it's just unconceivable that the anti-royalist Thérmidoriens, or the Directors, would have approved of a figurehead that was clearly linked to the Ancien Régime, and connected to the figurehead of a ship with overtly Royalist connotations. It's not for nothing that the original name of the ship, "Dauphin Royal", was wiped out by the revolutionaries. Why would they have revived a figurehead reminicient of what had become an anathema?

Recently, and by pure chance, I stumbled across a second contemporary French depiction of the "L’Orient". It’s a naively painted watercolour, but painted by an actual crew member and represents the ship as it actually must have looked like in the second half of the 1790s. The painter's name is François-Xavier Moulin (an ancestor of the French Resistance fighter Jean Moulin). He was a recipient of the St. Helena medal, and in the accompanying certificate is mentioned that he served from 1792 to 1815, as a soldier of the 2nd naval artillery regiment.

Again, it’s a side view of the ship which is under full sail. Unfortunately, the figurehead is not visible in its entirety, as the upper part is covered by one of the sails. However, one specific feature is very clearly visible: a large escutcheon painted with the tricolour, surrounded  by some ornament, possibly even a tropaion, similar to that of "La Montagne" in De Loutherbourg's painting The Glorious First of June. There the ensemble is crowned by a helmet, ...


... which seems unlikely (De Loutherbourg's preparatory sketch for the painting even shows a figurehead consisting of a full human figure, probably by mistake. Accordingly, he corrected the mistake on the painting itself). More likely, the figurehead of "La Montagne" was crowned by a liberty cap, as seen on a British representation of the 118-gun ship-of-the-line "Commerce de Marseilles" [sic] dated 1801, which must convey the look of "Le Commerce de Marseille“ when Toulon was being occupied (the comment on Wikipedia - "le vaisseau porte le pavillon royal blanc et les couleurs tricolores. Image qui représente donc le vaisseau au début de la Révolution française et avant la chute de la monarchie (1789-1792)" - is pure nonsense as the flag shown was in use until 1794):


The figurehead seen here must date from sometime between September 1792 (abolition of the monarchy) and September 1793 (occupation of Toulon).

Back to the figurehead of "L’Orient".

As seen, Balzac/Baltard appears to show a full human figure, in a way similar to that of "Le San Culote" in the NMM drawing, perhaps, but modified. With a lot of imagination one could fancy a Hercules wearing a liberty cap (which actually seem to be there), leaning the left arm on an escutcheon painted with the tricolour, and holding a club in his raised right hand. But, honestly, I wouldn’t swear by that. Moulin’s representation of the figurehead rather speaks against a full figure. But, at least, Moulin provides the final piece of evidence that Gérard Delacroix's suggestion concerning the figurehead of "L’Orient" is simply untenable.

Moulin's watercolour also helps to definitely determine the paint scheme of "L’Orient". It corresponds almost entirely to that of "Commerce de Marseilles" on the English engraving from 1801, posted above, the only difference being that the wale over the lower gun ports has been painted black with "L’Orient", whereas with "Commerce de Marseilles" it is yellow. However, when comparing the paint scheme of "L’Orient" with that of "Le Commerce de Marseille" as seen on a French watercolour representing "Le Commerce de Marseille" in 1788 (when still sporting the royal figurehead with crown and escutcheon decorated with lilies, which ornaments most likely lasted as long as the constitutional monarchy, i.e. till August 1792), the paint schemes of the two ships match completely!


But here, finally, the link to François-Xavier Moulin’s watercolour representing "L’Orient" (click the picture to enlarge; next to it the certificate confirming that Moulin was a recipient of the St. Helena medal, and indicating his period of service):


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