In the aftermath of the French Revolution, many public squares required new monuments that celebrated Revolutionary ideals instead of the might of the fallen monarchy. Several fascinating proposals followed including a suggestion by Jacques-Louis David who suggested in 1793 that a large statue of Hercules be erected on Place de Pont-Neuf with each limb of the statue inscribed with words related to republican virtues such as truth, courage, light, and nature. Of these, the drawing featured above is a proposal for a monument for a principal square in Paris by the French painter Jean-Pierre-Louis Lauren Houël. Houël was an academician best known for his published views and written descriptions of his travels through Sicily and Malta. Houël likely designed this at the end of the Directory, around 1799. On November 5, 1799, he also published a pamphlet titled “Projet d’un monument public,” which outlined the iconography of the monument in detail.
The monument features a large globe suspended on top of sculptural clouds rising out of a large basin, creating the illusion that the globe is floating on air. For Houël, the globe was an ideal emblem of equality since it would appear the same when viewed from all sides. On the globe, continents and cities would be delineated in order to instruct citizens of the expanding French geography. Additionally, sites of French victories were to be marked with gold stars on the globe, with the size of the star corresponding to the importance of the event. The names of victorious generals as well as a small summary of the battle were to be inscribed underneath each star. For example, Napoleon’s name would be featured on sites in Italy and in Egypt. This proposal is reminiscent of a recommendation from the beginning of the French revolution that soldiers wear gold stars over the location of their wounds in order to make their victorious and militaristic achievements visible to the public.
Houël’s embellished world map would thus serve as a pocket guide to recent French military history as well as pay explicit tribute to the ever growing geography of the new republic. On top of the globe is a winged figure of Liberty who releases a bird from her left hand, and by her feet, a flock of birds would be shown escaping through an open door of a cage. Next to her, the personification of Republic crowns Liberty. In the pamphlet, Houël suggests that should this initial design prove too complex, Liberty could be shown on horseback instead of on the chariot.
Additionally, Houël identified the horses pulling the chariot as the Horses of Saint Marco, the latter seized by Napoleon’s armies in 1797. The etching below shows the transport of the Horses of Saint Marco: just below the central dome of the Basilica, one of the bronze horses being lowered down to its transport cart.
Moreover, the etching below shows the arrival of the artworks from Italy that were subsequently paraded around Paris as part of Fete de la Liberté (Festival of Liberty) in July 1798. Again the horses of Saint Marco can be spotted on an open cart in the center of the composition.
Returning to Houël’s monument, the wheels of the chariot would have also doubled as a clock face that combined the older system of measuring time, alongside the newly established metric system. Houël’s complex monument consequently is at once sensitive to the pedagogical needs of the citizens, pays explicit tribute to the Republic’s military triumphs, and serves as an homage to the sociocultural reforms sweeping across France. While this design was never realized, the drawing alongside his alternate proposal were both engraved!
Cabelle Ahn was formerly an MA fellow in the Department of Drawings, Prints and Graphic Design at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She is currently a Ph.D candidate at Harvard University, focusing on eighteenth-century French drawings.