cover: 20 November 1897
Émile Zola, writing J'accuse!, the letter that rallied public opinion on behalf of Alfred Dreyfus
by Charles Léandre
|Caran d'Ache [Emmanuel Poire]|
Theophile Alexandre Steinlen [1859-1923]
Background on the Dreyfus Affair [1894-1906] by Michael Sinclair, professor of history, Wake Forest University. A concise, clear presentation of the complexities and conflicts this seminal case raised; includes a 1995 article from Time Magazine, a belated concession by the French army that Dreyfus was innocent.
Additional web resources on the Dreyfus Affair:
Lorraine Beitler Collection of the Dreyfus Affair
New York Public Library images from the Dreyfus Affair
The Dreyfus Affair through postcards
Background on the Le Rire images relating to the Dreyfus Affair:
In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was court-martialed for treason and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island. At first, public opinion supported his conviction, bolstered by anti-Semitic propaganda. Édouard Drumont was the editor of one such virulent anti-Semitic newspaper. As a Jew living in a culture with a long history of anti-Semitism, Dreyfus became an easy target for hate and mistrust. But opinions changed when it was shown that evidence at Dreyfus's trial had been forged, and when the person who really was guilty, Ferdinand-Walsin Esterhazy, was court martialed. But Esterhazy was found not guilty. In response to this, Émile Zola wrote his famous "J'accuse!" letter, rallying public opinion on the side of Dreyfus.
People who figured prominently in the case frequently made the cover of Le Rire during this time, often drawn by Charles Léandre. Among those Léandre memorialized were Drumont, Zola and a Dreyfus supporter, Senator Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, as well as several army generals.
At the time (1897-98) the images below by Léandre and Huard were published, supporters (Dreyfusards) like Zola and others with left-wing, anti-cleric, pro-republican views urged that Dreyfus be given a new trial to clear his name. The anti-Dreyfusards, including Caran d'Ache, were not all anti-Semites, but the scandal was ready made for bigots.
In 1899, with public pressure mounting, Dreyfus was given a new trial. He was again found guilty, and sentenced this time to ten years imprisonment, but shortly after being returned to prison, he was offered clemency, and in 1904, a third trial overturned the verdicts of the previous two trials and cleared him of all charges. Finally, in 1906, his name was officially cleared. He lived to serve again in the army during World War I.
In time, the effects of the scandal and the polarization of public opinion would bring about fundamental changes in French political consciousness, society and government: a Radical-led government enacted the formal separation of church and state in 1905; in little more than a generation, the philosophy of radical republicans and right-wing nationalists was transplanted to Spain, impelling Republicans and Fascists there into the civil war that was the prelude to World War II.
In the first two covers for Le Rire [above] Léandre captures the antagonistic perspectives that polarized public opinion over the Dreyfus Affair. Zola is seen here writing his J'accuse! letter on behalf of Dreyfus; his proto-fascist counterpart, Drumont, is the ogre on the middle cover. To the right of Zola and Drumont is Senator Auguste Scheurer-Kestner. Zola's letter influenced the Senator, and as the caption and image suggest, a tempest is about to break over his head. Many of the actors in this drama appear in this single image: the Church cross marches amid a sea of pens (including Zola's and Drumont's, no doubt); a devilish character (for Devil's Island?) holding a quill dripping poison, perhaps referring to the forged documents that contributed to the initial Dreyfus conviction; a broadsword held by a second devilish creature indicates the Army, and dangling somehow from it, a length of chain for the prisoner, Dreyfus.
Born in Moscow to French parents (his grandfather was part of Napoleon's ill-fated Russian campaign), Emmanuel Poire came to Paris at the age of 20 to join the army. The drawings he made of military life and dress were published under the name Caran d'Ache, which means 'pencil' in Russian. His view of the Dreyfus Affair was anti-Dreyfusard, as much from his wish to support the army as from any anti-Semitic feelings he might have had.
Vallotton was a frequent contributor to Le Rire and other journals of satirical humor and social commentary. The lively street scene below stands on its own, a moment in a particular time and place, but the caption provides a touch of the risque humor, not uncommon in Le Rire and other magazines of the period.
Graphic Witness home page