This extraordinary collection of prints about the French Revolution was acquired by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839-1898) in the 1890s. Bound into four large volumes, the prints record major events (such as the storming of the Bastille and the executions of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette), but also some of the more obscure episodes of the Revolutionary decade, often with a highly satirical, political eye. The images are available online as part of the Waddesdon Manor online collection catalogue.
The albums contain nearly 500 prints depicting the unfolding of the Revolution, from the events leading to the storming of the Bastille in July 1789 to the execution of King Louis XVI in January 1793 and beyond, through the Terror to the advent of Napoleon in 1799. A few date to after 1815. Political turbulence from 1788-9 led to the relaxation of censorship laws, to which printmakers responded with a surge in production. Prints reported events, provided images of key personalities and sought to reflect and to influence public opinion. The Waddesdon albums encompass crude images produced quickly to keep up with the rapidly changing times; sophisticated propaganda; and more finished works of retrospective contemplation.
About half of the works in the Tableaux de la Révolution were made by anonymous artists or printmakers. Perhaps the often incendiary nature of the subject matter encouraged them to hide their identity. However, the fact that just under half have named engravers and around a third have named designers indicates that this was not always the case. Prior to 1789, printmaking had not been given a prestigious status by the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, but the Revolution gave printmakers an extraordinary opportunity to profit from the public appetite for images of current events. Many were made as quick etchings, while others were carefully crafted using complex, combined techniques: some images even exploited the latest colour printing technology. However, the majority of coloured prints in the Waddesdon Collection were painted by hand after printing, some possibly later in the 19th century, when a lively market for Revolutionary prints developed.