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The portrait of Mandrin taken from life in the prisons of Valence and was executed on May 26, 1755
© BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / BnF image
Publication date: December 2016
18th century criminalitye century left in the collective memory a name that is still famous today, that of Louis Mandrin (1725-1755).
It was the ruin of the family business, in the Dauphiné, which pushed Mandrin towards contraband tobacco and calico in 1753. His sixth campaign ended in a massacre in Autun, from which he narrowly escaped by taking refuge in Savoy in December 1754. It was at the cost of the betrayal of members of his band that the French authorities finally succeeded in arresting Mandrin in the spring of 1755 to bring him to justice. He was condemned to death and beaten alive on May 26, 1755.
The popularity of Mandrin became national at the time of his trial, when the first engravings began to circulate, published in Paris and Lyon, which featured him in his actions in 1754. After the execution of the brigand, the exceptional publicity given to the judgment - whose public reading and placarding were ordered by the authorities in all the places where it had been rife - became the starting point of his posthumous legend. It was deployed through a wide variety of media: biographical accounts, songs, plays, poems and images ranging from engraving to portraits on earthenware. This allowed its rapid diffusion within a population which, in part, saw in this type of brigand a form of challenge to established power.
The portrait given of Mandrin was however ambivalent, oscillating between the opposite poles of the lawless outlaw and the rebellious gentleman. The publications, portraying the character in a negative way (The Mandrinade...) or positive (Song in praise of the great Mandrin, Funeral oration of Messire Louis Mandrin...), blossomed immediately after Mandrin's execution. The same was true for the engravings, most of which illustrated the misdeeds he committed in Bourg, Beaune and Autun during the fall of 1754: if their legends underlined the cruel behavior of the brigand, if necessary, the staging of the character , like a hero, could lead to confusion. The royal power tried to avoid the disclosure of a flattering image of the executed robber, which could undermine his authority; he ordered the censorship of publications presenting him in a favorable light. In fact, this censorship could not fully meet the public interest, scholar or popular, in the legend of Mandrin.
This anonymous engraving was probably made soon after Madrin’s execution, shown in the upper left corner. It bears the caption: "The portrait of MANDRIN taken from nature in the prisons of Valence and at Eté Executé on May 26, 1755."
Madrin is shown seated in his jail, as if posing for the portrait painter. His situation as a prisoner is identifiable by the presence of the chains which hamper his wrists and ankles and the window provided with bars. His peaceful attitude contrasts with the way he was usually represented: his most famous portraits show him in action, provided with the pistols characteristic of his state of brigand, and generally well dressed, thus recalling his original condition of bourgeois.
Yet, contrary to legend, this is not the true portrait of Mandrin. This engraving is actually an almost identical cover of another older one depicting the Parisian brigand Cartouche. The notable difference between the two engravings lies in the mention of the torture of the wheel, absent on the portrait of the latter. The scene here is reduced to a scaffold, but the main square in Valence, where Mandrin's execution took place, received some 6,000 curious witnesses, according to witnesses. A religious is shown brandishing a crucifix in the direction of the condemned man: it is Father Gasparini, the Jesuit and confessor of Mandrin, who accompanied him to the wheel.
The representation of torture demonstrates the educational nature of the image, which associates the brigand with his punishment, a logical consequence of his forfeiture. It goes hand in hand with the ceremonial character of public executions under the Ancien Régime: it was a question of reaffirming monarchical authority by staging the terrible and dissuasive sanction of the royal justice.
The atrocity of punishment must be placed in the specific context of the development of smuggling in France in the 18th centurye century. Since the royal decrees of 1674 and 1686, France had exercised state control over the production and distribution of tobacco and calico. These two products were particularly popular, and a lucrative smuggling economy soon began to spring up in the kingdom to meet demand. The often bloody clashes between smugglers and agents of La Ferme, the private body responsible for enforcing decrees on behalf of the state, were a milestone in the Enlightenment. These armed actions failed to curb contraband, organized in networks ranging from ten to a hundred members, of which Mandrin was the most famous representative.
This unmasked challenge to the authority of royal power led the state into a repressive spiral of the crime of contraband: in Mandrin's time, he was now punished like those for whom the death penalty had until then been reserved (murder, treason, heresy…). Faced with the reluctance of many courts to apply penalties disproportionate to the acts committed, the State set up an exceptional justice system from the 1720s. The provinces where the traffic was the most intense set up dedicated commissions. smuggling cases, where the most elementary justice was denied: the accused was unaware of the charges against him and could not appeal the decision of the judges. Mandrin was therefore, in a way, doomed in advance; he was all the less fortunate since the Valencia commission, which carried out his trial, was then the most repressive in the whole kingdom.
ANDRIES Lise (dir.), Cartouche, Mandrin and other 18th century brigands, Paris, Desjonquères, coll. "The Spirit of Letters", 2010.
KWASS Michael, Louis Mandrin: the globalization of contraband in the Age of Enlightenment, Paris, Vendémiaire, coll. “Revolutions”, 2016.
To cite this article
Emilie FORMOSO, "The legend of Louis Mandrin"