Punishment of misery

Punishment of misery

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Title: This is called vagrancy.

Author : STEVENS Alfred (1823 - 1906)

Creation date : 1855

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 172 - Width 205

Technique and other indications: also known as "The hunters of Vincennes" oil painting on canvas

Storage place: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - J. Schormans

Picture reference: 85DE1445 / JDP 385

This is called vagrancy.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - J. Schormans

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

In France, vagrancy, defined as an offense in the Napoleonic code of 1804, is punished in rural areas as well as in towns.

The surveillance of itinerants, strengthened under the Restoration, is strict: it is facilitated by employment, during much of the 19th century.e century, "home passports". At the same time, there is a passport issued for indigence: it is "given to needy people who have to travel", but not to beggars because this would encourage them in the exercise of begging.

Mistrust of the uprooted is reflected, for example, in the electoral law of May 31, 1850, which excludes from the right to vote migrants, railway workers, the unemployed looking for a job from town to town and, of course, vagrants. .

Image Analysis

Five years after this law, Alfred Stevens (also a portrait painter of the women of the world) stages the repression in What is called vagrancy : in Vincennes, a beggar woman is taken to prison by the gendarmes with her young children. A charitable bourgeois gave him a purse; the gendarme reproaches him for his gesture. On the wall to the right, two posters advertise a "ball" and a "land for sale", ironic reminder of the pervasiveness of money in imperial society.

Everything contributes to making this drama of urban misery both sinister and poignant. The icy realism of the details, the dark palette, the gray figures standing out against a black snow-covered wall, give the impression that the unfortunate woman, surrounded by armed men, is not going to prison, but rather to her execution.


Stevens' painting, shown at the 1855 World's Fair, aims to denounce the harsh reality of urban life and the police brutality to which the poor are victims. In front of this defenseless mother given over to the insensitivity of the soldiery, the painter acts as the spokesperson for the oppressed, these harmless poor people who are unfairly hunted down or who are denounced, like these conservative ideologues for whom the poor unemployed "poses as the enemy of society, because he disregards its supreme law, which is work" (H.-A. FRÉGIER, Dangerous Classes of Population in Big Cities, and Ways to Make Them Better, J.-B. Baillière, 1840, 2 vol., T. I, p. 7). Stevens thus contrasts the purely repressive order of the gendarmes (and the regime) with the philanthropic pity embodied by the bourgeoisie.

Napoleon III was not mistaken: shocked that his guards were portrayed so crudely, he made sure that the vagabonds were now taken to prison with discretion, in a closed car!

  • social control
  • childhood
  • women
  • begging
  • poverty
  • police
  • jail
  • Second Empire


Louis CHEVALIER, Working classes and dangerous classes in Paris during the first part of the 19th century, Paris, Plon, 1958.

G.-A. EULOGE, History of the police from its origins to 1940, Paris, Plon, 1985.

Rachel FUCHS, Poor and Pregnant in Paris: Strategies for Survival in the Nineteenth Century, New Brunswick (N. J.), Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Pierre MIQUEL, The Gendarmes, Paris, Olivier Orban, 1990.

Philippe SASSIER, Of the good use of the poor. History of a political theme (16th-20th century), Paris, Fayard, 1990.

To cite this article

Ivan JABLONKA, "Repression of poverty"

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