Title: Damiens attack against Louis XV on January 5 at 5:45 p.m.
Creation date : 1757
Date shown: 05 January 1757
Dimensions: Height 20 - Width 33
Storage location: National Museum of the Palace of Versailles (Versailles) website
Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Palace of Versailles) / All rights reserved
Picture reference: 74-004345 / invgravures967
Damiens attack against Louis XV on January 5 at 5:45 p.m.
© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Palace of Versailles) / All rights reserved
Publication date: April 2014
The attack of Robert-François Damiens against Louis XV, on January 5, 1757, provoked many written reactions, but also an abundance of engravings which were interested in the act of the criminal, his arrest, his torture, but especially at his trial (interrogation) and detention. Here, the print synthesizes the instant which immediately followed the act of the one who has long been presented as unbalanced.
Robert-François Damiens was born on January 9, 1715 in a village in Artois near Arras. After spending part of the winter with his deprived family, he returned to Paris in January 1757 and planned to "touch" the king in order to draw his attention to the miserable living conditions of the people.
On the evening of January 5, 1757, while Louis XV left Versailles to go to Trianon where the court and his bedridden daughter were located, Damiens approached the royal coach, split the guard's hedge and struck the monarch with a blow of his double-bladed penknife on the right side. He states that he had no intention of killing him but "did so only so that God might touch the king and lead him to restore all things and peace in his dominions." A trial quickly ensued and despite the king's superficial wound, Damiens was sentenced to death for the crime of lese majesty and regicide.
The engraving reproduces precisely the information disseminated by the gazettes the day after the crime. On the right, in the half-light of a winter evening, we can see the small staircase that opens onto the Marble courtyard, while the palace is suggested by the three fleur-de-lis on its pediment. The ground is clearly represented in order to characterize the site of the attack. Maréchal de Richelieu lingers on the steps, conversing with the captain of the duty guards standing in the shade.
What the engraving calls the "horrible attack" has just taken place. Seen from behind, Damiens, wearing a cape, wears a hat and still holds his knife in his hand. One of the footmen, wearing the same livery as the other servants, grabbed her arm. At their feet lies the torch that the valet hastily released to seize the "villain", as the gazettes quickly dubbed him. Standing in front of his coach, the king looks puzzled, like the majority of servants and guards, in the direction of Damiens. In the dark sky, the smoke of the torches forms luminous arabesques.
At first glance, one can confuse Damiens with the monarch and the valet with the perpetrator. The barely perceptible movement of the cloak and the tilted head of the wearer seem to indicate the king's surprise at this unexpected attack. In fact, they suggest intervention by the footman. The engraving does not describe the attack, but the moment immediately following it, as if it was impossible to visually depict the act itself. No image, moreover, represents royal blood. However, the print manages to reproduce the turmoil of the melee that followed, while giving the king an air of majesty that nothing can attain. The monarch believed he had been "just hit with a punch." In the end, the engraving only suggests the attack and leaves it to the viewer to condemn an act that earned its author a horrendously cruel sentence.
Condemned to torture, Damiens will be quartered and burned. The atrocious punishment reserved for him clearly marks the will of the monarchy to make this attempt at regicide an example to strike the spirits in this troubled period of conflicts between the king and the parliaments.
- Louis XV
- absolute monarchy
Pierre RETAT (dir.), The Damiens Attack. Speech on the event in the 18th century, Paris, C.N.R.S., 1979.
Monique COTTRET, Kill the tyrant?, Paris, Fayard, 2009.
To cite this article
Pascal DUPUY, "Attack against Louis XV"