The Many Faces of Marianne

Nothing but liberty can draw men forth from the isolation into which their independence naturally drives them—can compel them to associate together, in order to come to a common understanding, to debate, and to compromise together on their joint concerns. Liberty alone can free them from money-worship, and divert them from their petty, everyday business cares, to teach them and make them feel that there is a country above and beside them. It alone awakens more energetic and higher passions than the love of ease, provides ambition with nobler aims than the acquisition of wealth, and yields the light which reveals, in clear outline, the virtues and the vices of mankind.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s profound observations in the opening of L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution throws light upon liberty’s role in a healthy society. It was fitting for the French revolutionaries to seek an allegory for liberty, for freedom—and for it to be Marianne. 

Marianne’s first visual iteration was Jean-Michel Moreau’s illustration of goddess Feronia in a 1775 edition of Voltaire’s La Henriade. It was at the temples of the Sabine (and later Roman) tutelary goddess of freedmen, where emancipated slaves’ heads were shaved and adorned with a pileus or Phrygian cap. Moreau illustrated Feronia alongside angels and the king, bursting through the heavens with a liberty cap propped up in her right hand. This felt cap would go on to accompany Marianne throughout the ages after it was decided by decree in 1792 that she would be on the State seal. 

Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 masterpiece Liberty Leading the People, capturing the Trois Glorieuses, is arguably the most iconic depiction of Marianne. There in the center of the battlefield, amidst the sans-culottes fighting the Ancien Régime, stands a towering Marianne—tricolor raised, defiant, courageous. The lone woman in the cacophony of conflict, her long dress has fallen off her strong shoulders, laying her breasts bare whilst the Phyrgian liberty cap adorning her head remains in situ, unfazed. Maternal and fierce, she has no place for modesty and conformity, for Marianne is fighting for freedom. She stands barefoot with bayonet in hand, obliterating the past to conceive the future—her future.

Marianne’s genesis remains a mystery, and the various co-existing theories only add to the allure of France’s enduring allegory. Unlike martyr and saint Joan of Arc, Marianne was not a living person nor based on one. According to some, her name is derived from that of Jesuit priest, theologian, and Monarchomach Juan de Mariana who taught in France for a time. He is best known for his voluminous Historiae de rebus Hispaniae, but it is in the infamous 1599 treatise De rege et regis institutione libre III that he argued that the overthrowing of a tyrant was justified under certain conditions. Following that daring missive, he courted notoriety. After Henry IV of France’s assassination in 1610, de Mariana was accused of instigating tyrannicide. Copies of the book were subsequently burned, the embers serving as inspiration for future revolutionaries. 

Other commentators put forth the compelling theory that the name comes from Guillaume Lavabre. In his Occitan song “La guérison de Marianne,” composed in southern France’s Puylaurens in 1792, he designated the Republic as “Marianne” for the very first time in history. The lyrics are said to be the first written mention of Marianne as the allegory. To some, Marianne is simply the conjoining of two popular Catholic names of the era “Marie” and “Anne,” a name possessing grassroots appeal that the people could rally behind. Her iconography was said to be inspired by Cesare Ripa and Nanine Vallain.

Marianne in the modern world has no better stage than the Olympics—she is the official emblem of Paris 2024. The clever logo sees Marianne fused with a gold medal and the Olympic flame, depicting Marianne with a modern bob haircut and no features of her revealed other than voluptuous lips.

Whatever her origins, she is indelible in the psyche of France. Marianne is the embodiment of the country’s tripartite motto, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Her iconography has permeated all spheres of French life from engravings on coins and stamps to statues in city squares to busts in town halls based on popular French women of the time to the graphic charter of the government and all official communications. Promulgated under Mitterrand by Bernard Candiard, then director of the Government Information Service or SIG, and adopted during Jospin’s government in 1999, the Marianne block is the emblem of the State and its communication. A silhouette of her makes up the central portion of the tricolor flag accompanied by the motto and Marianne© typography. (Yes, she audaciously has her own protected typeface.)

One does not have to venture further than France’s postage stamps to see the evolution of Marianne and the French Republic. Her philatelic journey through various iterations is most revealing of the times, befitting given its citizen George Herpin coined “philatélie” or “philately” in English. Marianne has appeared on almost all of France’s definitive stamps and several commemorative stamps since the 1850s. In Jacques-Jean Barre’s Cérès stamps of the nineteenth century, Marianne is seen in the guise of the Roman goddess of agriculture, fertility, and motherly relationships. The plebeian deity is depicted neck upwards wearing a wreath of wheat and grapes on her head. This was France’s very first postage stamp series so the invocation of a maternal figure of growth is both emotive and logical. At the turn of the twentieth century, Marianne is seen as the Sower of ideas in the Semeuse series designed by Oscar Roty. Marianne is depicted as a farm girl walking across a field at sunrise. In one hand she carries a bag of seeds, and with the other, seeds are sown. Already appearing on coins, the Sower on stamps gives a nod to both an agrarian Republic and that which is proliferating new ideas.

Since 1945, Marianne is seen as herself on stamps, starting with those commissioned in the Free France era. Charles de Gaulle wanted stamps to be exclusively printed by French authorities and circulated in liberated France, in anticipation of her freeing herself from German clutches. Engraver and illustrator Pierre Gandon, who had designed stamps in the past, was commissioned in 1944 as fighting between French and German soldiers surrounded his Place de Furstemberg studio, an area where fellow Marianne artist Delacroix too was once based. Gandon had been rather unceremoniously blacklisted for a few months in 1942 owing to an apocryphal controversy (likely “une dent contre quelqu’un!”) surrounding the French Legion Tricolore stamps he had engraved, commissioned under the Vichy regime which had banned Marianne entirely. 

In Gandon’s Libération stamp commemorating the liberation of Paris, Marianne is seen atop Pegasus, emulating Bellerophon flying above the battlefield. Left arm raised, looking graciously towards the soldiers upon the battlefield, Marianne is protecting them as they slay their own Chimera. Gandon’s subsequent definitive stamp, Marianne de Gandon, styled on his own wife, sees Marianne’s collarbone upwards, looking stoically into the light with an indomitable resolve. Under-eye bags illustrate hardship and weariness—for the Republic was emerging from internecine devastation and the ravages of World War II. The Republic was now ready to seek a brighter future. 

Thierry Lamouche’s 2004 Marianne des Français stamp sees Marianne verdantly depicted through an environmental lens in the Anthropocene. Amalgamated with a flower, her neck emerges from leaves, and a flower is positioned as a hair accessory beside the ever-present Phrygian cap, with her gazing at the sky taking in the air. The stamp symbolized the French Republic’s commitment to the environment through the 2004 Charter for the Environment which was incorporated into the French Constitution in 2005—adding to a list of constitutional rights that began with the 1789 Declaration. France was the first jurisdiction to declare environmental human rights in an environmental bill of rights. A decade later, the Republic would be the setting for the Kyoto Protocol’s successor, the eponymous Paris Agreement better known as the Paris Climate Accords. Interestingly, an image powerfully resembling Lamouche’s Marianne appears as the logo for France’s Initiative Marianne. Launched on Human Rights Day 2021, the program aims to provide support and solidarity to human rights defenders across the globe who are committed to the defense of fundamental rights and civil liberties. 

In 2018, President Emmanuel Macron chose French street artist Yseult Digan, who goes by the moniker of YZ, to create the new Marianne stamp. He remarked at the time that the Republic belongs to everyone— it is shared, and therefore, academic art does not have to be the most official or ‘authorized’ art. YZ’s Marianne l’engagé stamp sees a modern Marianne shoulder upwards. She is young and determined, and her hair softly cascades down, flowing freely. Marianne wears a determined look; she is politically engaged and forward. At the unveiling of YZ’s fifty-foot mural of Marianne in Périgueux, a stone’s throw away from the factory where the stamps are made, the artist stated, “I wanted this Marianne to be strong, proud, and determined, with an unflinching look to the future.” 

Marianne in the modern world has no better stage than the Olympics—she is the official emblem of Paris 2024. The clever logo sees Marianne fused with a gold medal and the Olympic flame, depicting Marianne with a modern bob haircut and no features of her revealed other than voluptuous lips. Marianne is chic, Marianne is modern, Marianne is … admittedly, slightly twee but trailblazing once again! The emblem pays homage to the 1900 Paris Games where women were permitted to compete for the first time. The logo and typeface are inspired by Art Deco, the design choice du jour when the Olympics were last held in the city in 1924. Even the mascots of Paris 2024 nod to Marianne—Olympic Phryges take the shape and form of the Phrygian cap in the tricolors with the Marianne emblem emblazoned across their chests. Organizers are chuffed with the brand identity and say, “By associating three iconic symbols—Marianne, the Olympic flame, and a gold medal—the Paris 2024 emblem elegantly reflects the people-focused, fraternal Games France intends to host.”

The road to the Fifth Republic has been rocky, to put it mildly. It seems not just the spirit but the maladies of initial revolution continue. An almost anachronistic privilege exists where democratic compromise is a constant battle.

The Paris 2024 Summer Olympics is a full circle of sorts for the Republic. Eighteenth-century France saw a desire to revive the games of antiquity. Figures such as Esprit-Paul de Lafont-Poulotti mooted such an idea and finally, the L’Olympiade de la République was held in France in 1796, 1797, and 1798, introducing the metric system into sport. French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin, considered to be the father of the modern Olympic Games, embraced the core values of the Third Republic, and in 1889 organized the world’s first Congress on Physical Education and Scholarly Competitions. He began to build a network that led to the Congress at Sorbonne’s Grand Amphitheatre in 1884, where his proposal to revive the Olympic Games was accepted and Athens and Paris were designated as the first two host cities. He founded the International Olympic Committee at the Congress and would go on to serve as its second President and write the Olympic Charter. 

The Fifth Republic has seen France’s economic ascent and sphere of political influence greatly widen. As the world’s seventh largest economy, with founding membership in all the fêted clubs, France is mighty. Today, France is known for its history, science, philosophy, arts, fashion, culinary traditions, and all-around panache. Yet, Emily in Paris clichés aside, the road to the Fifth Republic has been rocky, to put it rather mildly. It seems not just the spirit but the maladies of the initial revolution continue. An almost anachronistic privilege exists where democratic compromise is a constant battle.

Some may argue, this pronounced challenge is not serendipitous but baked into the original frame of reference. The Ancien Régime gave no political experience of representative governance to the people. Its absolutism made for a sorry tale, one of subjugation and disenfranchisement. The Third Estate comprised 98% of the population and yet was the most downtrodden and powerless. Whether one looks at Napoleonic France, Bourbon Restoration, or the Third Republic—the widening disassociation and subsequent friction between the three Estates of old persisted. Critiquing the effectiveness of the revolution and putting forth his theory of continuity, Tocqueville understood both the motivations and the outcomes. He observed the revolutionaries’ vision was to dismantle every facet of the Ancien Régime and its symbolism. Hence the Church fell under scrutiny. The “Divine Right of Kings” was used by European royalty as a vehicle for political legitimacy and eighteenth-century philosophy aside—the threat of the Church was that of a political institution. 

Outside of the “hexagon” or Metropolitan France, there exist colonial holdovers in contradiction to the revolutionaries’ intentions but complementary to Tocqueville’s assessment of the outcomes: “I do not hesitate to affirm that the common level of hearts and minds will never cease to sink so long as equality and despotism are combined.” Imperialism of sorts persists through overseas regions with a focus on military dominance, expansion of economic waters, resource extraction, and scientific research. When we think of Réunion Island and its Children of Creuse, or French Polynesia and nuclear tests, it may seem as if the Republic’s universalist principles are not-so-universal, and Marianne is seen more as a symbol of freedom than of the Republic. 

Faith is incredibly complex. It is expansive, facing ontological and epistemological challenges. Faith has been traditionally regarded as a virtue, yet various locutions arise from its phenomena. Faith and trust can be interchangeable; “to have faith” is “to have trust.” Is faith doxastic or non-doxastic? With the latter, faith perhaps can be pluralistic. 

F.R Tennant put forth that, “Faith is an outcome of the inborn propensity to self-conservation and self-betterment, which is a part of human nature and is no more a miraculously superadded endowment than is sensation and understanding.” Revolutionaries unequivocally sought self-conservation and self-betterment, from which Marianne arose, and the modern Republic’s citizenry too vie for the same. 

Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons!
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve non sillons!

The first stanza of “La Marseillaise,” the revolutionary song turned national anthem inculcates the idea that citizens should be ever ready to fight against injustice and oppression, no matter the toll. Thankfully this sentiment has been expressed in modern France without the propensity for violence. Yet, the citizenry is not a monolith, as 2018’s Gilet Jaunes riots displayed. These disturbances broke the unspoken rules of modern French protests: they were unpredictable, unchoreographed, and unpeaceful. With Marianne’s popularity, one can be erroneously led to believe the citizenry’s perception of France is, in the words of Edith Piaf, “la vie en rose.” Marianne is the Republic, and when people are disillusioned and desire change, she too comes under their purview. Marianne was not spared from the wrath of protestors in Paris, with her statue at the Arc de Triomphe damaged. There lay Marianne, with half her face smashed in, the horror exacerbated by her already hellish facial expression (the sculptor was not to know). The incident sparked an outcry, with President Macron flying back from the G20 in Argentina and visiting the Arc immediately upon return.

In the days of Pétain where the unimaginative, “Travail, Famille, Patrie” replaced the aspirational national motto, and authoritarianism threatened the Republic, Marianne, though beleaguered, was by no means defeated. She remained steadfast as her iconography was replaced with military figures who sought to diminish her tutelary power from the days of the Great Seal. “Alors, son corps épuré, du mauvais levain dégagé, Marianne, en pleine guérison, de la santé sera la fleur.” Marianne would heal. 

Modern citizenry’s relationship with Marianne can vary depending on cultural, economic, and political experiences. Each citizen’s pas de deux is unique yet one commonality exists: Marianne as a symbol for freedom. She continues to evoke liberty, good faith, and trust, remaining ever faithful even under duress. As President of the National Assembly of France Jean-Louis Debré remarked in 2004 at the presentation of Lamouche’s Marianne stamp, “La République n’est pas une valeur du passé, elle se construit jour après jour. Puissions-nous rester fidèle à Marianne, quel que soit le visage que lui donne le talent de tous les artistes qui l’ont dessinée, peinte ou sculptée.” 

The Republic is not a value of the past, it is being built day by day. May we remain faithful to Marianne, whatever the face given to her by the talent of all the artists who drew, painted or sculpted her.

May those who Marianne represents, remain ever faithful to her and to the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.