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A Look at the Helfand Collection

Print from La Caricature, 1831. Gift of William Helfand, CHF Collections.

Dr. William Helfand is a longtime collector of prints and posters relating to the history of medicine and its allied sciences. “Health for Sale,” an exhibit highlighting some of the gems of his collection, is currently delighting audiences at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Dr. Helfand is also a longtime friend and supporter of CHF. When he generously donated 45 works on paper to our collections the curatorial staff knew that it had its work cut out for it.

The Helfand prints are both art and ephemera. Though their artistry endures through time, their meaning is apt to become lost to us over the years. To truly understand what we are looking at – to “get the message” – we must learn how to decode the images.

The reason such decoding becomes necessary relates to the context in which they were produced. When Charles X, a rigid and unpopular monarch, was sent packing in the Revolution of 1831 Louis Philippe, though a member of the same Bourbon family, presented himself to the people as a thoroughly modern fellow who recognized the need for democratic reforms. But once Louis Philippe became the first (and last) popularly-elected king in French history, he promptly went back on his promises and ruled as an absolute monarch, just as his predecessor had done. The working classes and the champions of the Republic felt betrayed. Since armed revolt was out of the question, they fought back with satire.

The image at top is a typical product of this period. It’s a lithograph by Jean Ignace Isidor Gerard, also known as Grandville. Grandville was renowned for his images of animals striking human poses, usually for satirical effect. We see in this work an elephant seated on a sheep, marching at the head of a column of soldier-sheep and being hazed by human onlookers. The print has for its title, a popular French expression: “Crachez en l’air ca vous retomera sur le nez,” or in its English equivalent: “Spit into the wind and your nose will get wet.”

The elephant is indeed “spitting into the wind,” as the water being squirted from its trunk will shortly wet its own head. Clearly the satirical intent of the print is aimed at the elephant, resplendent in military dress. But why is it riding a sheep? This can be an endpoint unless you are willing to do a bit of historical digging. Consider the date of the print: 1831. In 1831, Louis Philippe was elected monarch. The working classes, unhappy with his deceptions, rioted. Enter General Georges Mouton (mounton being French for “sheep”), a former favorite of the Emperor Napoleon, who once said of him: “My sheep is a lion!” Now we have an explanation for the sheep. Get the joke yet? Since I may be the only one laughing I’ll be back on Thursday with the punch line, which requires a little more French history.

 

Andrew Mangravite is Archivist for CHF’s Othmer Library of Chemical History.

Related:
Health for Sale [Philadelphia Museum of Art]
Collections: Fine Art [CHF]

Posted In: History

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