Book announcement: Brecht Deseure on counter-revolutionary watercolours
Not all contemporaries of the French Revolution welcomed radical change, especially not when it was forced upon them by means of military power. In 1794, France conquered the Southern Netherlands in its conflict with the Austrian emperor and subsequently annexed the region to the Republic. The new regime failed to secure support among the population, which remained overwhelmingly Catholic and traditionalist. Resistance was mainly passive, however. Some inhabitants resorted to writing chronicles, allowing them to privately vent their feelings about republican rule.
The most spectacular of these chronicles is the Tydsgebeurtenissen manuscript by the Antwerp aristocrat Pierre Goetsbloets (today kept at the Royal Library of Belgium in Brussels). Goetsbloets obsessively documented the events under French rule for posterity, resulting in 10 monumental volumes covering the period from July 1794 to February 1797 and totalling more than 5,000 pages. Literally meaning ‘events of the times’, Tydsgebeurtenissen contains a wide range of documents, including eyewitness accounts, copies of official documents, newspaper extracts and anti-revolutionary songs.
What really sets the manuscript apart are the drawings Goetsbloets made to illustrate the narrative. No less than 300 magnificent watercolours are interspersed through the text. Goetsbloets was a gifted amateur artist with a keen eye for realistic detail. In a colourful and somewhat naïve style, he drew scores of captivating scenes of day-to-day life in the occupied port city. The scenes convey a lively and often humorous impression of modernity’s turbulent beginnings in the Southern Netherlands.
In many cases the watercolours constitute unique eyewitness accounts of events relating to French rule, including the staging of republican festivals, the removal of Old Regime symbols and the celebration of the Cult of Reason. At other times, Goetsbloets relied on hearsay or newspaper articles when visualising events set in Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, London, Germany and even the Caribbean. He moreover vented his frustration with French rule in a remarkable series of caricatures and allegories that expressly satirised French republican iconography. The images selected for this blog post were obviously not experienced firsthand by Goetsbloets: they relate to international revolutionary events that are part of the 'radical chronology' of the research project.
The vast majority of the watercolours have not previously been reproduced, remaining unknown both to specialists and the wider public. Dr. Brecht Deseure, research fellow on the Radical Translations project, is the first to devote a monograph to Goetsbloets’ remarkable work. Over 130 watercolours are reproduced and discussed in a volume that carefully reconstructs the historical, political and iconographical context of their creation. By exploring this exceptional visual record of life in Antwerp in the 1790s, the book brings to life French republican rule in the annexed territories.
Brecht Deseure, Revolutie in Antwerpen. De aquarellen van Pierre Goetsbloets, 1794-1797 (Brussels: Ludion, 2021). In Dutch.