J'étais 'Charlie' Charles Philipon & the July Revolution

– James Hart, 2015

The terrorist assault on Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015 certainly elevated the discussion about free speech and the meaning of liberty in a free society, but as many have pointed out, France has never been a stranger to the debate. Some of the loudest support for the French publication has come from American media outlets, but French publications have been fighting against censorship and tyranny since America was in its infancy. Before Stéphane Charbonnier, the bold and principled editor and cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo, there was Charles Philipon and the July Revolution.

Philipon was born in Lyon, France in the year 1800. The son of a wallpaper printer and hatter, he first aspired to be an artist. But when he was 29, his brother-in-law nearly bankrupted himself over a new business venture. To protect his family from financial ruin, Philipon suggested that he would become a print-seller, and bring his brother-in-law into his firm as an associate. Philipon was worried at the time that such a change would detract from his artistic work, but as you’ll discover, this concern seems silly when compared to his legacy today.

"In France ... caricature has become a power."

The Artist-Turned-Printmaker

When he arrived in Paris to begin his print-making career, Philipon became very interested in lithography. Invented in 1796 as a cheaper printing alternative, the process became immensely popular in Paris in the 1820s. Philippine soon started work as a professional lithographer, and was contracted to create book illustrations and portraits for the city’s fashion magazines. In 1829, he became one of the founders of La Silhouette, a small publication that would put his lithography to use.

La Silhouette ran only from December 1829 to 1831, but its novelty lay in showcasing its lithographic designs. It was one of the first French newspapers to treat its illustrations at least as important as its articles; in fact, some of its articles were inspired by their adjacent drawings, instead of the other way around.

It should be noted that at this point in his career, Philipon wasn’t an ardent revolutionary. He wasn’t charged with steering La Silhouette’s political message, and prior to the July Revolution, he offered to work for some of the country’s more royalist weeklies. But as the political climate in France began to change, so too did Philipon’s illustrative focus.

Illustrating the July Revolution

"A resemblance, even if perfect, is never an attack; you must not recognize it as such, and you must above all refrain from sanctioning it by a conviction."

Three months prior to the July Revolution, Philipon drew and published a caricature of Charles X. Titled “Un Jesuite,” it portrayed the king wearing a clerical cap and an exaggeration of his drooping lip. The censors condemned La Silhouette, and demanded to know who was responsible for the drawing. Benjamin-Louis Bellet, a political pamphleteer who worked with Philipon, took the blame. He was sentenced to six months in prison and fined 1,000 Francs.

In the coming months, caricature and political satire would only increase in popularity in France, and by the July Revolution, Philipon was one of the anti-establishment’s most prolific illustrators. He abhorred the government’s hypocrisy in verbally defending free speech while imprisoning its outspoken critics, and despite their relative unpopularity among French citizens, censorship trials continued to threaten the future of his profession.

The Pear Portraits

Thrice Philipon was convicted of publishing improper political caricatures, and the courts sentenced him to a total of 13 months in prison and issued fines reaching up to to 10,000 Francs. It became clear that the government was attempting to financially bury Philipon and his magazine, but if anything, they only contributed to their popularity.

The next time he was summoned to court, Philipon was ready for them. When charged with portraying the king in a political drawing, Philipon contended that the law was absurd because anything could be considered a likeness of the king, if one tried hard enough to make the connection. To illustrate his point, he then drew a series of sketches that portrayed the kind metamorphosing into a giant pear.

The sketches spread throughout the city. Imitations began creeping up at newsstands and cafés. With this, Philipon was able to elevate his defense by extending it to caricature and political satire in general; although he was fined and forced to serve prison time, the tide in the city was already beginning to turn. By the 1830s, the vast majority of caricatures and political drawings created in France were in newspapers directed by Philipon himself, and the pear became a common symbol for the king. Caricature and political cartoons were about to gain their permanent foothold in French society.

Most of the material from this article can be found inside the definitive Caricature and French Political Culture 1830-1848 Charles Philipon and the Illustrated Press by David Kerr (Oxford University Press, 2000). Readers who wish to know more about the birth of political cartooning in France would do well to pick up a copy.

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James Hart

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