A Dozen Portraits of Pétroleuses


Clara Fournier Paris, spring 1871. Women participate in great numbers in the Paris Commune people's rebellion. Characteristically, women figure as ambulancières, orderlies and cantinières who bring boxed food to the front. At the front, men are predominant, but women take part in the armed fight just as well. They are considered brave lionesses by some, ugly dragons by others.
Especially appealing to the imagination is the pétroleuse, the female arsonist. Whether she really existed is not certain. But in the statutes of the 'Union des femmes pour la défense de Paris', the organization founded by communardes in April 1871, the 'purchasing of petrol and weapons for the fighting female citizen' is announced. Some government buildings burn down during the last week of the Commune, the 'Semaine Sanglante', in which tens of thousands people get killed. During these events, women - often accompanied by their children - are seen, bearing cans of petroleum.
Degenerate mothers, madwomen: the pétroleuses embodied Evil in women. Hence, all women participating in the Commune were labeled pétroleuses. Eventually, only a mere handful of women were sued for committing arson and they all denied the charge.
These women - and many others awaiting their court case in a jail in Versailles - were immortalized by a photographer called Eugène Appert.

Eugène Appert, photographer

Ernest Eugène Appert (1830-1891) was a Parisian photographer in the service of the authorities. He advertised as 'Photographe de la Magistrature' and proudly mentioned his connections with the Spanish monarchy. He had no sympathy whatsoever for the rebellious people during the Paris Commune in the spring of 1871. Appert was the genius behind a series of photomontages meant to discredit the communards. He probably staged the shoot with actors.
In the jails where the communards were detained after the rebellion, Appert made portraits of hundreds of individual prisoners. This was not an assignment of the authorities, but an initiative of Appert himself with a commercial aim. His photos were indeed eagerly purchased and reproduced once and again. The police included the photos in their card indexes. But the pictures were very popular among the friends of the Commune just as well. It is said that Louise Michel, the great heroine of the Commune herself, always carried one of Appert's pictures (of her friend Marie Ferré) with her until she died. In many a Parisian newsstand, Appert's pictures were posted up to maintain a vivid remembrance of the Commune. The authorities became nervous and tried to prohibit these practices.
Making a contribution to hero worship must have been contrary to the photographer's aim, when he made these series of portraits. Possibly, Appert had the latest craze in mind: 'physiognomy'. Around1870, this was a very popular pseudo science, based on the idea that a person's appearance conveys his or her character and personality. Thanks to Appert's portraits, people could endlessly contemplate the guilt or innocence, social class and descent of the communards and communardes.
The dozen 'Pétroleuses' shown here are just a small selection of the collection photos by Appert (322 photos, 66 of which are women) in the IISH.

Further reading:
▪ Gay Gullickson, Unruly women of Paris. Images of the Commune (Ithaca 1996)
La Commune photographiée (Paris 2000)
▪ View all pictures by Appert in the IISH
▪ More photographs by Eugène Appert at the McCormick Library of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL - USA)

Text: Margreet Schrevel