Nine women in a gallery: Charlotte Corday


The prints of the nine women intrigue me. I found them on the walls of the Ballarat Art Gallery. Some are well-known – Cleopatra, Salome – others are new to me. I thought they might interest you too. Here’s the first, French woman Charlotte Corday.

Charlotte Corday

Charlotte Corday is the woman in the print above. What intrigues me about the print is the contrast between the sweetness of the image and the reason this young woman appears in a regional art gallery in a country on the other side of the world 220 years after her death, namely, that she is one of history’s few female assassins.

In July 1793, at the height of the French Revolution, Charlotte, aged just 24, travelled to Paris from the provinces, booked into the Hôtel de Providence (just name!), bought a six-inch carving knife, then visited the home of the prominent journalist and politician, Jean-Paul Marat, and stabbed him to death while he was in the bath.

Charlotte killed Marat because she feared he and his political faction, the Jacobins, were leading France into all-out civil war. The Jacobins were seen as being responsible for the worst violence of the Revolution including the execution of King Louis XVI by guillotine, and they had begun terrorising and executing those who were opposed to their actions and philosophy. Charlotte was a sympathiser of the more moderate Girondists who thought the violence was getting out of hand and who feared for the fate of the new Republic.

At her trial, Charlotte declared she had “killed one man to save 100,000”. Four days after the assassination, she was executed by guillotine.

These meagre details of Charlotte’s story only intrigue me further. What drove her to take things into her own hands? Whence did the courage and audacity to commit this act spring? Where else had it shown up in her life? There’s little in Wikipedia on her history except that which reinforces the dismal stereotypes of women:

  • she grew up in an abbey where she had access to a library containing the works of Plutarch, Rousseau and Voltaire (better keep those women away from books)
  • Jacobin leaders exhumed her body and arranged an autopsy to see if she was a virgin (she must have had direction from a man); to their dismay, “she was found to be virgo intacta.”

I heard an echo of this dismay just a few weeks ago in an interview between a BBC journalist and a Pakistani newspaper editor on the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai. The editor insisted to the journalist over and over again that Malala’s shooting had been a hoax, a sham, cooked up by Malala’s father in order to garner attention. Of course, Malala was the victim of an act of violence, not the perpetrator as Charlotte was, but in each case, the evidence of female agency was troubling and confronting.

More of the Ballarat Women to come …




Images: Charlotte Corday, lithograph by Henri Grevedon (French, 1776-1860) (top); The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David, 1793 (bottom). All prints and lithographs from the exhibition, Radicals, slayers and villains: Prints from the Bailleau Library, currently showing at the Art Gallery of Ballarat.




12 thoughts on “Nine women in a gallery: Charlotte Corday

  1. I once read about Charlotte Corday–sorry I can’t remember where. It was an authoritative historical piece and said that she was a true Renaissance woman and her jailers and even executioner saw her for an amazing person. The only anecdote I remember is that when she was riding in the tumbrel she was leaning out to look ahead at the guillotine. The guard told here not to do it because she would be upset and anyway would see it close up soon enough. She supposedly replied that she’d never seen one before and was curious about it–sort of captures the person doesn’t it? I’d like to know more.


    • Lovely anecdote about her. Thanks.

      There’s a glimpse of the admiration she inspired in a tidbit from Wikipedia about what happened after the guillotine fell. A man named Legros, a carpenter hired to repair the guillotine, picked up her head and slapped it on the cheek (witnesses reported that her face registered an expression of ‘unequivocal indignation’ at the slap :) This was seen as unacceptable and the man was imprisoned for his behaviour.

      What’s also interesting about the case is what it shows about political image-making and how we live today with the same ploys, even the same issues.

      Marat’s image went in and out of favour after his death. His body was moved to the Pantheon and then out again, and a cast of his head replaced crucifixes in Parisien churches during a period when the Jacobins launched “dechristianisation” campaigns called The Cult of Reason and The Cult of the Supreme Being. Also, in the famous painting of his death in the bath, Charlotte is expunged from the image (as if he assassinated himself) and his skin is shown to be smooth when in fact he was covered in a disfiguring skin disease (hence the baths). Then there’s another painting, 60 years later, by Baudry where Charlotte is now the hero and Marat just a prop.

      The more things change, the more they stay the same.


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