Pierre Michon

Can you see them, Sir? All eleven of them, from left to right: Billaud, Carnot, Prieur, Prieur, Couthon, Robespierre, Collot, Barère, Lindet, Saint-Just, Saint-André. Unchanging and erect. The Commissioners. The Great Committee of the Great Terror. Four point thirty by three meters, a bit less than three. The Ventôse painting. So improbable, the painting that had every reason not to be, that so well could, should not have been, that standing before it we shudder to think that it might not have been, we appreciate the extraordinary luck of History and of Corentin. We shudder as if we ourselves were in the pocket of luck. The painting—painted by the hand of Providence, as would have been said a hundred years earlier, as indeed Robespierre said again at the home of Mother Duplay as if he had been in Port-Royal. A painting of men at a time when paintings were of Virtues. A very simple painting without the shadow of abstract complication. A painting that the madmen of the Hôtel de Ville, Members of the Commune, ordered on an impulse and perhaps drunk, the fierce children with the great pikes, the Limousin tribunes, a painting—that Robespierre did not want at any price, that the others hardly wanted, that maybe ten out of eleven did not want (Are we tyrants, that our Images be worshipped in the abhorred place of tyrants?), but which was ordered, paid for, and made. Because even Robespierre feared the Hôtel de Ville; because History has a pocket for luck in its belt, a special purse to pay for impossible things. Can you see them? It is hard to see them all in one glance now, with those reflections from the glass behind which they’ve been placed in the Louvre. Proof against bullets, proof against the breath of ten thousand people from all over the world who look at them each day. But there they are. Unchanging and erect.

The Eleven

And here is their author.

He is running down the steps of the Combleux house, the château, his blond curls flying, and you can hear the clear voice of his mother inside calling him, already worried about him escaping from under her skirts. My treasure! It is a fine day and he is beautiful as the day, as a girl, he is laughing and is not yet ten years old. My God, it really is him, the only one who will resemble Simon the cobbler and whom Diderot will jokingly call that old crocodile François-Élie. Alas, it really is him. There is his mother already on the steps in her enormous skirts, the big basket as it is called in Manon Lescaut, or the flying dress as painted by Watteau: even more beautiful than before, blondness itself, in full golden bloom, hands like golden bread. And three steps behind her, the grandmother, nervous, adoring, fearful, blond, who seems very small now because her pattering heart has worn her down. The child runs toward the Loire, the canal, and they run after him gathering up their big basket skirts, how funny they are, what fun he makes of them. How he loves to tire them out, and how at the same time they exasperate him—and how unhappy it makes him to enjoy their suffering. I do not see the father.

The Eleven is published by Archipelago Books, and can be purchased here.

Background illustration by Marcela Gutiérrez