Rejecting the authority of the French government, helmed by Adolphe Thiers, an industrial class of Parisians embarked upon one of the most radical leftist projects in European history. Known as the Paris Commune, this short-lived, 10-day experiment attempted to usher in drastic working-class and democratic reforms amid a climate that also fermented feminism. Though delegates were sent out to try and spurr revolution elsewhere, the uprising remained largely isolated to Paris.
Manet left in 1871 before the Commune’s establishment, but he returned in May, just in time to witness its destruction. To regain control, Thiers, whose government had retreated to Versailles, sanctioned the massacre of 20,000-30,000 Communards. The rebellion died with them, and—as is so often the case in the revolutionary history of Paris—it died in the streets. As the barricades fell, “Manet actually saw it,” wrote his friend Théodore Duret. The artist’s allegiance to the Commune, likely too radical for his republican bourgeois taste, is dubious. But he certainly had sympathies for their slaughter. In The Barricade (1871) Manet shows the Commune’s suppression, the haze of smoke and and prostrate bodies depicted with the same manipulation of perspective and form he became famous for. He was more than a flâneur quickly jotting down modern life—Manet’s choice to depict the massacre of revolutionary Parisians by the French state was political with the potential for impact. The government censored The Barricade.