THE LIKELY PEDERASTIC IMPLICATION OF J.-L. DAVID’S PAINTING, THE DEATH OF BARA, BY JEAN-CLAUDE FÉRAY
Presented here with the kind permission of the author, Jean-Claude Féray, is this website's translation from the French of his article on a painting of 1794 by Jacques-Louis David depicting the death of François Joseph Bara (1779-93), a French republican drummer boy killed defying the counter-revolutionaries in the Vendée. The original article appeared in Quintes-Feuilles, Bulletin trimestriel no. 12, 2018, pp. 4-7. The illustrations are from that article.
Between heroic bravery and lying thunderstruck, there is one exception in the iconography and statuary of Joseph Bara: the sketch by J.-L. David. What this exception suggests to us about Robespierre's amorous inclinations.
The posthumous fate of Joseph Bara who died at thirteen during a period of engagement between Republicans and Vendeans is well known: the exploitation of his image for revolutionary and warlike propaganda has been widely commented on. Historians readily mention motives of short-term political strategy to explain Robespierre’s choice of Joseph Bara as a martyr and as a model to be offered to the people. Recall one of the beautiful - and astounding - phrases from Robespierre’s speech about this boy: “The French alone have thirteen-year-old heroes”.
Like Jules Michelet, who wrote “Robespierre was born a priest,” historians tend to present an asexual image of the incorruptible and fail to mention his overt penchant for adolescents or young men. Among his faithful followers and his close friends must be mentioned the very young Saint-Just, Marc-Antoine Jullien, Simon Duplay known as “Wooden leg”.
With a few exceptions, no historian has asked himself the question of why Jacques-Louis David, charged with creating an official portrait of Joseph Bara to be distributed throughout France, chose to give an image of a such ambiguity, which seems calculated.
Let us mention a notable exception to this lack of questioning: in the program of his series At the Heart of History, devoted to Bara, Franck Ferrand, after having underlined how the androgynous and lascivious quality of the body drawn by David was unusual or even “extravagant”, asked Jean-Clément Martin about this. The response - a little tortuous and embarrassed, in my opinion - from the historian specializing in the French Revolution was first to allude to the atmosphere of David’s workshop, tinged with “special friendships”, then to say that the representations of “male friendships of the eighteenth century” were part of the conventions of this artist’s school, representations which became “timeless”.
This explanation does not hold: in the historical or mythological works of Jacques-Louis David, virility is always accompanied by muscular power, not by effeminacy. His Patroklos, although a teenager, has a magnificent athletic body. In Andromache Mourning Hektor, the dying Hektor shows provocative pectorals. The pairs of young people who appear in the background of paintings like The Death of Sokrates are not at all effeminate.
All the men in The Rape of the Sabine Women are muscular. Even in the painting Leonidas at Thermopylai, cited by J.-C. Martin, where a naked adolescent is seen talking into the ear of a soldier - the latter leaning towards him and putting his hand tenderly on his chest - the male bodies are all of an indisputable virility.
“The death of Bara”, through the androgynous character of the subject drawn, the softness of its repose, constitutes indeed an exception in the work of David and in the iconography of Joseph Bara.
The hypothesis that I present here as open to debate is that David, close to Robespierre, thought to make the incorruptible happy by offering him a fantasized “stereotype” of adolescence imagined as able to seduce a pederast.
In short, in The Death of Bara, it is not David's taste that is displayed, but that which David thought Robespierre had. Something which should therefore be added to the arguments concerning the sublimated homosexual inclinations of Robespierre.
The representations in painting and sculpture of Joseph Bara are plentiful, so showing them all would be laborious and tiresome. In the majority of cases, Bara heroically defies the Vendeans, standing. The best known of these paintings are those by Jean-Joseph Weerts: the artist represented the boy in a very beautiful uniform. In one, Bara poses for a portrait, in the other, he succumbs to assailants who seem more Chouan than Vendean.
In most of the representations which are sorts of Épinal prints, Bara is put to death while standing.
Anyway, one sees that Bara is usually represented in uniform, and not fully naked. Another exception to this type of representation, besides Jacques-Louis David’s painting, is the “recumbent” of David d'Angers. But in this sculpture, the naked corpse of Bara, not emaciated but bony, is in a posture that cannot be termed languid:
Perhaps the most beautiful of the paintings of Bara's death is by Charles Moreau-Vauthier (1857-1924) (below):
One can certainly find representations where Bara seems a little androgynous, but the effeminacy concerns his face, as in the anonymous charcoal opposite, and in any case we are dealing with a boy always represented in uniform.
N.B.: the statue of Bara in Palaiseau (where he was born) is now placed in the centre of a fountain.
 The Chouans were another group who revolted against the French revolutionary government. [This website’s footnote].