Marianne is the unofficial symbol of the republic of France, a beautiful, demure woman becapped with a smurf-styled Phrygian cap which sometimes has a tricolour rosette. She represents the post-revolutionary values of liberty, reason and civic authority.

Marianne on Display

Her profile can be seen on postage stamps, on French currency (including old francs and centimes, and now on Euro coins minted for the French public), and as part of the seal of the French government, where she appears as a white silhouette overlaying the French flag above the words liberté, égalité and fraternité. Cartoonists and effigy-burners have long used Marianne as a caricature to represent France, alongside other national characters like John Bull and Uncle Sam.

Marianne also has a place in high art, although she started out anonymous or simply named as 'Liberty'. She appeared bare breasted directing revolutionaries over the ramparts in Eugène Delacroix's painting Liberty Leading the People. Honoré Daumier painted her as a mother nursing two children, and François Rude represented her in sculpture as an angry warrior on the Arc de Triomphe. Most famously, a bronze statue of her overlooks Palace de la Nation in Paris, called Triumph of the Republic.

Biography

In the early days of the Republic, this unnamed woman was promoted as a symbol of the republic. In 1792 she was considerably more warlike in appearance than the Marianne we are used to of today (or French for that matter), being based on the Greek goddess Athena. By decree she was to be dressed in the fashion of Antiquity, standing upright with a pike staff in her right hand, her left hand resting on a bundle of arms, and a tiller besides at her feet. When the Republic collapsed in 1799 she also withered in importance; partially because anybody armed to the teeth doesn't look convincing as a symbol of liberty.

She gradually returned to the limelight, this time more in tune with the mood of the French people. Finally around 1850 that this feminine spirit of France was given a name - a name intended to be innocent and common. She was presented in seals with civic implements, including the tricolor flag and documents of the Code of Law and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

Marianne was then heavily promoted by the French Interior ministry as a symbol of hope and enlightenment, to contrast with the 'corruption and shame' felt during the reign of King Louis-Philippe from 1830 to 1848. The public liked her enough to disuade Emperor Napoleon III from replacing Marianne with his own face, and she has survived and prospered in the Third and subsequent Republics. There were unsuccessful attempts by Royalists to claim Marianne for themselves, and to replace her Phrygian cap with a crown of ripened wheat, shaped similar to the sunburst crown.

There are several conflicting stories about the origins of her characteristics:

  • she is based on a character in an eighteenth century Provençal song La garisou de Marianno (or Marianne's Recovery)
  • she is based on the wife of Jean Reubell, a politician. According to the legend, Reubell hosted a party in 1797, and to prove a point about the banalty of fanciful names for countries, a guest recommended that the new republic simply be named after Reubell's wife, Marie-Anne.
  • the name came from the sixteenth century Jesuit, Mariane.
  • she is based on any one of the women who tended to wounded revolutionaries.
  • her cap is the same type that was worn by emancipated former slaves in the Roman empire; hence her choice of headgear was controversial as it implies revolutionary ideals.

    Modern Day Mariannes

    Since 1970, Marianne's appearance is constantly upgraded to resemble whoever the public thinks is the most beautiful woman in France, as determined by a poll of the country's 32,000 town mayors. Mariannes have been based on the visages of Brigette Bardot, Mireille Mathieu, Catherine Deneuve, Inès de la Fressange, Sophie Marceau, Laetitia Casta and Évelyne Thomas. Laetitia Casta was criticised for fleeing France shortly after to work in Britain where taxes aren't as high. The choice of Évelyne Thomas, a talk show host of North African ancestry, was also criticised on account of her publicly opposing the value of equality, as she believed it implied making everybody the same.

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