To give an example of the kinds of “monsters” and materials that I am exploring in this project, I’d like to present one of the more interesting ones in this post: the harpy. Harpies figure in both Ancien régime and revolutionary political discourse. These partially-human monsters (they are always winged but their other features, including horns, donkey-like ears, and serpentine tails, can vary) have their origins in ancient Greek mythology, where they represented famine and desolation, devastating fertile fields and consuming whole animals and stealing food directly off of tables (or, as depicted by British caricaturist James Gillray in 1799, vomiting on or “defiling” a feast). Representing gluttony and ruin, in light of these myths it is no surprise that underground pamphleteers quickly came to associate reports of exorbitant royal spending, notably that of the queen and of her protégé, the minister of finance, the vicomte de Calonne, with harpies.
Before becoming a metaphor for royal depletion of the treasury or later the futility of the National Assembly, harpies and harpy-like creatures existed both as intellectual curiosities and as sociable objects. A late-eighteenth broadside described an “extraordinary monster” sighted in the Ardennes Forest as follows: “Long serpents formed its hideous hair…rage gleams in its eyes, never did bizarre nature make an animal so hideous”. Accompanied by a song sung to the tune of the Stormy Soirée, the illustration depicts a winged monster flying over the countryside. Gripping a child in its claws and constricting a sheep in its tail, the creature is a fantastic monster. With the wings of a bat, the tail of a dragon, a donkey’s ears, and the legs of a bird, the extraordinary monster’s torso, arms and face are human. Sagging breasts and long hair, albeit composed of writhing snakes, give the beast a feminine air.
A similar creature was “discovered” in Lake Fagua (also spelled Fagu and Fagna). In his memoirs, Louis XVIII took credit for printing the first engraving and account of the beast in 1784. In the pamphlet, entitled “Historical Description of a symbolic monster”, one Francisco Xaveiro de Meunrios is credited with its capture. Before his accession, Louis XVIII was known as Monsieur as the king’s eldest younger brother, and Meunrios is the exact anagram of this title.
Multiple Parisian publishers began printing similar images and descriptions of this “unique monster” from the “province of Chili in Peru”. Although the illustrations vary, the lettres, or text accompanying the prints, are very similar. According to one, the harpy “emerged during the night to devour the swine, bulls and cows of the area. Its length is eleven feet; its face is roughly that of a man; its mouth is as wide as its face. It has the horns of a bull and teeth two inches long. Its hair reaches to the ground. It has the ears of an ass, bat-like wings and two tails, one flexible enough to seize prey, the other ending in a dart which helps it kill. Its entire body is covered with scales”.
Soon, prints appeared depicting its mate, whose loose, flowing hair and breasts would have resonated with the public given the appeal of sexual scandal in fashionable literature and the booming trade in pornographic texts and engravings. Coincidentally, the queen herself was often the main the character in these illicit publications, whose titles range from “The Private, Libertine, and Scandalous Life of Marie-Antoinette of Austria” to “The Austrian Woman On the Loose, or the Royal Orgy”.
The South American harpy is generally depicted against a bleak, empty landscape, echoing contemporary scientific debate and discourse on cross-breeding and the sterility of hybrids and other monstrous entities. The effect was such that the other pseudo-scientific obsession of the day, animal Mesmerism, was all but forgotten by Parisians in favor of the Lake Fagua monster according to the editors of the thirty-ninth issue of Gazette de la santé in 1784. One of the engravings mentions that the beast, presented to the viceroy of Peru, was to be brought back to Spain for the court of Carlos V. “It is hoped”, one explains, “that a female will be taken in order to perpetuate the race in Europe”. Reflecting on the uproar caused by the harpy’s “discovery”, Louis XVIII noted that the monster “became a reality”, with members of the Academy preparing dissertations and savants proposing to travel to Cadiz to see it for themselves. He was obviously pleased at the result of his trick.
At the same time, harpies played another role, figuring in at least one popular fashion. Around 1784, Parisian marchandes de modes began offering creations embellished à la harpie. Fashionable ladies, including Marie-Antoinette, immediately took to adorning dresses and hats with block-printed ribbons decorated with triangles evoking the horns, fangs, and claws of the Peruvian monster. Although difficult to discern in the image below, the crowns of both ladies’ hats are trimmed with this “harpy” design.
In the wake of the “Marlborough” (the title of a popular song that took its name from the Duke of Marlborough) and the “Figaro” (after the play by Beaumarchais), playwright François-Benoît Hoffmann noted the rise of the harpy style in a poem published in December of 1784 entitled Les modes: “Ribbons, lévites (a type of loose-fitting gown inspired by Near-Eastern dress), and bonnets, all will be made à la harpie . Ladies, your taste shines: you abandon your baubles for a dress of character”.
Harpies made on-stage appearances as well. The Théâtre-Italien of Paris (coincidentally under the protection of the comte de Provence) showcased Les Trois Folies, a parody of Figaro “in one act and with vaudevilles” by Charles-Simon Favart, in January of 1786. The folies are the same three evoked by Hoffmann. Figaro and Suzanne are shipwrecked on an exotic island; Suzanne is taken captive by a hostile native chief. The audience is then informed that a dreaded harpy also inhabits the island. Marlborough (or Marl-bourouk, as he is identified in the January issue of the Journal de Paris) appears to Figaro, presenting him with a pair of pistols that he uses to combat the harpy that lays waste to the island. Suzanne escapes her captor, and the other natives rush to proclaim Figaro their new king. He makes his way off-stage carried on a sort of litter or dais upon which is mounted the harpy’s head. The Journal notes that the play was applauded, “the public wanting to recall the heyday of the three folies”.
In effect, these cultural developments refashioned the harpy, reducing its claws, horns, and fangs to a geometric embellishment for a hat or its fierce nature to a comic effect in a play. This fashion for harpies was not without its critics, however. In response to Hoffmann’s epigram, an anonymous contributor warned readers that “the harpy is a bad choice, let us forget this thoughtless caprice”. Despite capturing public curiosity and integrating itself into fashionable dress and popular culture, the harpy’s negative qualities soon made it the perfect metaphor for the corruption of the Ancien régime; the opening of Les trois folies was delayed for several months on the grounds that it made allusions to Calonne, and a 1787 print of a chapeau à la Calonne from the Galerie des modes incorporates the harpy triangles. Subsequent revolutionary institutions were also likened to the beast. The similarity between Calonne’s name and that of Coleano, a harpy from the Aeneid, did not help, either, and was cited in a satirical pamphlet printed in Amsterdam in 1787. After affixing the queen’s profile to a harpy’s body, the creature reappeared to caricature the National Assembly, shown as a blind harpy with sagging breasts, moustache, and horns stringing together a series of beads upon which listed the names of various acts and declarations. With the Assembly’s fall in 1792, a new figure came to represent France’s government: Liberty. Depicted as a beautiful woman, crushing a three-headed serpent or hydra under her feet and often accompanied by children, the new French Liberty was the antithesis of the ugly, carnivorous, and sterile harpy that had less than a decade ago captured public attention and imagination.