Fabienne Chevallier THE CHOLERA EPIDEMIC OF 1832: THE PASSION FOR EQUALITY AND THE SOCIAL QUESTION Le Théâtre est dans la rue de Wolf Vostell : Manifeste pour un public artiste ?

Hartung-Bergman Foundation Seminar, June 2012

Fabienne Chevallier is an art historian who has completed a Habilitation à diriger des recherches (HDR).  Her current appointment is in the conservation service at the Orsay Museum.  She is a member of the Histoire et critique des arts research group at the University of Rennes-2.
            Chevallier’s work deals with the art and architecture of the nineteenth century (up to 1914), as well as with the history of France’s national heritage.  Her work investigates, first of all, how the idea of the Nation was developed in European art and architecture during this period.  She has published, in particular, with Jean-Yves Andrieux and Anja Kervanto Nevanlinna, Idée nationale et architecture en Europe 1860-1919, Finlande, Hongrie, Roumanie, Catalogne (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2006) and she contributed in 2012 to the catalogue for the exhibition about the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela, which was organized at the Helsinki City Museum, the Orsay Museum, and the Kunstmuseum of Düsseldorf (Akseli Gallen-Kallela, une passion finlandaise [Paris: Orsay Museum, 2012]).
            In her 2009 postdoctoral (HDR) thesis, Chevallier developed an interest in the social history of nineteenth-century architecture, studying the ties between urban architecture and hygienic policy in Paris.  This monograph was published in two volumes: La naissance du Paris moderne. L’essor des politiques d’hygiène 1788-1855 (2012; available online at: http://www.biusante.parisdescartes.fr/histmed/asclepiades/chevallier_2009.htm) and Le Paris moderne. Histoire des politiques d’hygiène 1855-1898 (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes/Comité d’histoire de la ville de Paris, 2010), which won the 2010 French Society of the History of Medicine prize for best work and the Jean-François Coste prize from the French National Academy of Medicine in 2011).
            Her next work, undertaken in collaboration with Andrieux, will be entitled Histoire du Patrimoine monumental. Des sources antiques à l’époque contemporaine. It will be published in 2013 by the Presses Universitaires de Rennes.


            Late in the month of March 1832, a cholera epidemic struck Paris.  It ended in late September, after having brought about the death of more than 18,000 persons (at the time, Paris numbered 800,000 inhabitants).  The epidemic came from India, invaded Russia and Poland around 1830, and then arrived in France and England.

            Subsequent to the epidemic, Louis-René Villermé’s report on the course of cholera morbus showed that the poorest sections—those situated near the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), Île de la Cité, and in the twelfth arrondissement of the time—were the hardest hit: inequality before death mirrored people’s living conditions.  Yet the egalitarian paradigm was already highly present during the epidemic.  What that epidemic revealed was that Les Trois Glorieuses (the three days of revolution in July 1830) were indeed a grand illusion, since the people who supported this revolution had now been unfairly decimated.  Art took part in this dramatic shift, appropriating social drama as a new historical subject.

Fermenting the Rage for Equality

             The July Monarchy was a fragile regime.  This revolution had brought Louis-Philippe to power, but what was to be the revolution’s fate?  A journal called La Caricature set the tone on March 1, 1832, a few weeks before the epidemic: “The victorious people had won equality.  Promises were made.  But its generosity was abused.  The people were still in the throes of joy when vile intriguers, men of prey, seized power.”
            Chosen for the Presidency of the Council by Louis-Philippe, Casimir Perier succeeded the banker Jacques Laffitte.  “Monsieur Casimir Perier, a man of order and wealth, didn’t want to fall into the hands of the people,” Chateaubriand said of him.  In the Fall of 1831, the Lyon silk workers’ revolt had been repressed.  Louis Blanc saw therein France’s first class war.  While Louis-Philippe did indeed purchase Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People after its presentation at the Salon of 1830, this tumultuous icon, which prefigured the French Republic, was quickly relegated to the back of a storeroom.
            It was a year after Perier’s arrival in power that this epidemic arose.  On March 14, 1832, a note from the Paris police headquarters sounded the alarm: a few cases of cholera had broken out.  On the 29th of March, the scourge’s invasion of the city was patent.  Ten cholera patients were admitted to the Hôtel-Dieu general hospital overnight, among them, a shoemaker living on Île de la Cité.  That evening, during the Mardi Gras festival, a man disguised as Harlequin turned purple and collapsed after having eaten some ice cream.  The popular mood on the major boulevards suddenly turned to one of terror.

Egalitarian Scapegoat Figures, Rumors, and Horrors

              With a quicker reaction time than is generally admitted, on that same day Paris Police Chief Henri Joseph Gisquet asked a company that had won the bid for city sanitation services to do an additional round of street cleaning in order to clear the streets of garbage and refuse.  For, it was known that filth played a role in the spread of the epidemic, even if it was not known why.  But the ragmen, who picked up all the rubbish, and who lived on it, resented this measure as the loss of a right.  This led to the April 1st riot, which was infiltrated by secret societies.

            On a handbill distributed on the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, one may read: “Cholera is an invention of the bourgeoisie and the government to starve the people.”  Epidemics have always given rise to scapegoats, among them, the Jews.  In 1832, the scapegoats were the elites.  In chain reaction, a mutiny occurred in the Sainte-Pélagie Prison, after which rumors of poisoning began to spread.  They were perhaps fed by the Carlists to destabilize the regime.  Still, these rumors triggered six cruel murders, murders of innocent people.  Perier, himself stricken with cholera, commented, “That’s not the thinking of a civilized people; it’s the cry of a savage people.”

Curses and Terror on Both Sides of the Dividing Line Between Rich and Poor

             The Archbishop of Paris aggravated the social question by predicting that God would send the cholera epidemic as a chastisement of the people, who were guilty of having “forced out the very Christian king” (Charles X).  The press noted right away that the epidemic’s ravages were brought first upon those most unfortunate.  This simple fact contained, however, a barely veiled social threat.  Filled with moralistic considerations, the decrees that were handed down pointed to idleness, poverty, and alcohol as causes of the illness.
            The poor could not follow the instructions given for the prevention and treatment of cholera.  As preventive measures, these instructions recommended grilled meats, fish, and the ventilation of living spaces.  The price of camphor, the basic medication, shot through the roof.  Some rich people, like the banker Alexandre Aguado, Rossini’s patron, left Paris.  Heinrich Heine commented in the Augsburg Gazette: “The poor were annoyed to see that money had become, too, a means of protection against death.”

            An atmosphere of score settling reigned among classes, as is shown in the following poster that could be read at the Trône tollgate after the ragmen riot: “Remedy against cholera morbus: take two hundred heads from the Chamber of  Peers, one hundred and fifty from the Chamber of Deputies, those of Casimir Perier, Sébastiani, and d’Argout, those of Philippe and his son, roll them over the Place de la Révolution, and the air of France and Belgium will be purified.”

The Imagery of the Miracle-Working Prince: A Still-Born Public-Relation Ploy

             As a way of indicating his support for the capital’s population, Louis-Philippe decided not to leave Paris.  Queen Marie-Amélie sewed flannel belts for cholera patients.  The Duc of Aumale, who was ten, passed out free soup.  But Louis-Philippe’s image had already been irremediably tarnished by the pear-shaped caricatures done by Honoré Daumier.  On April 1, the Royal Prince Ferdinand-Philippe visited the Hôtel-Dieu, accompanied by Perier.  The latter was not enthusiastic about the idea of a visit, but he had to resign himself to it, faced with the determination of the prince.  Already quite weakened, Perier contracted cholera.  This visit was his last public appearance.  When he became delirious, one went to fetch Jean-Étienne Equirol, who treated the insane at the Charenton asylum.  Perier died on May 16, 1832.
            Perier’s illness helped to settle a political score.  It stopped the regime’s evolution toward an English-style parliamentary government.  The king took back the reins of power.  After Perier’s death, Louis-Philippe commissioned from Alfred Johannot a visual rendering of the Hôtel-Dieu visit.  The prince is represented there as a miracle-working prince.  Behind, Perier seems already stricken with cholera.  This painting was never going to play, for the Orléans family, the public-relations role Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa (executed by Baron Antoine-Jean Gros in 1804) had played for Napoleon.

Medicine, Hovering between Brotherly Devotion and Charlatanism

             There was a huge mobilization of the medical profession during the cholera epidemic of 1832.  Medical students were requisitioned by the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine.  Their involvement took place against a background of obscurantism, since the immense majority of the members of the medical profession still believed in the miasma theory and stated that cholera was not contagious.  Caring for the sick broke down into two schools of treatment.  According to François Broussais, cholera is an inflammation that is to be snuffed out with the ingestion of ice, leeches, and bleeding.  For François Magendie, one should, on the contrary, keep the sick person warm.  He created a famous punch, Magendie Punch, from a lime blossom-based tea.
            Drug trials were developed, sometimes with deadly results, against a background of charlatanism tinged with exoticism: lead-acetate pills, South-American ipecacuanha, and a balm from Iceland were sold in pharmacies, not to mention calefactories.  Three medical reviews (Le Journal Hebdomadaire, La Gazette Médicale, and La Gazette des Hôpitaux) attempted to correct these excesses and abuses by giving information on treatments.  But examples of charlatanism were already filling the columns of La Caricature.  The style, drawn from Molière’s comedies, was to ridicule medical practices: if you are sick, “You must walk a great deal, unless you prefer to stay in bed.”  In order to denounce these bad old ways, François Fabre would publish in 1841 the Némésis médicale, with illustrations by Daumier.  Closely related to the ideas of François-Vincent Raspail—who demanded a new kind of medical practice, one capable of uniting a republican society—Fabre denounced the negligence of the July Monarchy, which never rewarded the devoted doctors who had attended to the people of Paris during the cholera epidemic.  Daumier represented the homes marked by the epidemic: a woman wearing a bonnet flees with a child holding her hand and arrives before a doorway painted with a white cross.  One may see therein the allegory for a social republic that had been swindled by the July Monarchy.
            The cholera epidemic set the paradigms of equality, the Republic, and justice to work within the Parisian soil.  Imbued with a new sense of heroism, the art of Honoré Daumier preceded and accompanied these upheavals in social history.


BLANC, Louis. Histoire de dix ans: 1830-1840,  Paris: Jeanmaire, 1882.

CHEVALIER, Louis. Le choléra, la première épidémie du XIXe siècle. Vol. 20. La Roche sur Yon: Bibliothèque de la Révolution de 1848, 1958.

HEINE, Heinrich. De la France. Paris: Renduell, 1833.

RASPAIL, François-Vincent. Histoire naturelle de la santé et de la maladie. Paris: Alphonse Levasseur, 1843.
































Honoré Daumier, Le choléra-morbus à Paris en 1832. Vignette pour illustrer François Fabre, Némésis médicale illustrée, Tome Premier, Bruxelles, 1841, p. 69. Bibliothèque de l'Académie de médecine, cote 47 337. © Bibliothèque de l’Académie nationale de médecine

1. Honoré Daumier, Le choléra-morbus à Paris en 1832 (Cholera-mobus in Paris in 1832). Illustration for François Fabre, Némésis médicale illustrée, vol. 1 (Brussels, 1841), p. 69. Bibliothèque de l’Académie de médecine, call number: 47 337.
© Bibliothèque de l’Académie nationale de médecine












Honoré Daumier, Maisons marquées pendant une épidémie. Vignette pour illustrer François Fabre, Némésis médicale illustrée, Tome Premier, Bruxelles, 1841, p. 265. Bibliothèque de l'Académie de médecine, cote 47 337. © Bibliothèque de l’Académie nationale de médecine

2. Honoré Daumier, Maisons marquées pendant une épidémie (Marked houses during an epidemic).  Illustration for François Fabre, Némésis médicale illustrée, vol. 1 (Brussels, 1841), p. 265. Bibliothèque de l’Académie de médecine, call number: 47 337. © Bibliothèque de l’Académie nationale de médecine