Auguste-Hyacinthe Debay was a pupil of Antoine-Jean Gros. He began exhibiting at the Salon at the precocious age of thirteen and won the Grand prix de Rome at nineteen, in 1823. The present work, or rather the painting of which it originally formed a part, was first discussed at length by Marrinan (1988), when it was still known solely by means of the reproductive lithograph by Marin-Lavigne published in J. Vatout’s Histoire lithographiée du Palais-Royal, dediée au Roi (Paris, ca. 1834, pl. 25). The fragment’s original context was first recognized by Whitney in 2005.
The Nation Is in Danger, or the Enrollment of Volunteers at the Place of the Palais-Royal in July 1792, was commissioned by the recently installed King Louis-Philippe (reigned 1830–48) as one of a series of compositions illustrating episodes in the history of the official Paris residence of the Orléans family. As a precedent for the projected conversion of the palace of Versailles into a museum of French national history, these paintings were placed on public view in the Palais-Royal along with the king’s peerless collection of contemporary paintings dominated by genre and landscapes. The Enrollment of Volunteers takes as its subject the events of July 22 and 23, 1792, when French civilians were entreated to join in defense of the patrie from foreign and emigré forces seeking to reverse the tide of three years of revolution by restoring the Bourbon monarchy to its former power (see Marrinan 1988, pp. 111, 113–14).
In its reduced form, the canvas is a unique historical document, as the contradictory forces it embodies are the very ones that led to its near annihilation. Painted to celebrate an episode from the Revolution in 1792 for the king who came to power as the result of the Revolution of 1830, it was brought to the edge of extinction precisely fifty-six years and a day after the events it depicted, on February 24, 1848, when the Palais-Royal was sacked, thus ending, if only penultimately, monarchical rule in France and initiating the Second Republic. The fragment depicts a youth wearing a Phrygian cap who bears a pike. Behind him, an aged woman bids farewell to her young son or grandson, who is seen from behind in lost profile. It is possible to see in Debay’s picture a reflection of the flag-bearer in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, of 1830 (Louvre).
There is copious documentation of the fate of the former king’s paintings (Archives Nationales, Paris, fonds de la Maison de France, branche d’Orléans, 300 AP [I] 1113: inventaire des tableaux du Palais-Royal). Debay’s canvas, initially listed as missing, then as found and, finally, as too damaged to be restored, was evidently discarded from the royal collection.
[2013; adapted from Miller 2013. Note: Michael Marrinan graciously provided an annotated transcription of the documents in the Archives Nationales cited above, a copy of which is in the Department of European Paintings archive file.]