This wallpaper from the French Revolution period was one of the early pieces collected by the museum founders. It took me a while to understand how these papers were used as I can’t imagine hanging a political wallpaper in my home today. But the citizens of France felt differently, they thought that the Revolution could only be won if their ideals became part of the ordinary citizen’s everyday life. They believed symbols had a powerful effect on the spirit and could reinforce the validity of the new principles. The domestic nature of wallpaper as well its repetitive aspect made it an ideal medium for portraying these motifs, and bringing these ideals into the home. This paper contains numerous symbols of the Revolution including what I assume is the seated figure of Marianne (marjan), female allegory of Liberty, holding a pike with Phrygian cap, with Victory alighted on her hand, tricolor ribbons, and a banner with the words Unité Indivisibilité de la République (Unity, Indivisibility of the Republic), which are all combined in this rather beautiful format. This paper does have some condition issues: less than a full repeat, the surface is abraded, and it has irregular edges. But as these were collected to inspire students and the community this was not seen as a flaw. It is still a beautiful piece, representing a specific period in world history, and is a wonderful example of French block printing. I want to point out the orange highlights on the figures in the medallion. It gives the motif a sculptural quality, as though it is gilt bronze reflecting the light. This is a very French technique, and is quite effective. The museum contains about a dozen different versions of the Revolution papers, both wallpapers and borders.
Greg Herringshaw is the Assistant Curator for the Wallcoverings Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.