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About this collection

Communards and the Paris Commune of 1871

This digital collection was created from an album consisting of cartes-de-visite photographs of members of the Paris Commune of 1871, supporters of the resistance, and prominent people assassinated by the Commune.  Marxists hail the Paris Commune of 1871 as the first successful worker’s revolution.  Members of the Commune, called Communards, established a temporary government in Paris along socialist and anarchist revolutionary principles that influenced later communists.  


The Franco-Prussian War, which lasted from 1870 to 1871, had resulted in the destruction of Napoleon III of France’s Second Empire at the hands Otto von Bismarck. During the war, Parisians had formed a militia to fight the Prussian invaders. The provisional French National Assembly under monarchist Adolphe Thiers ordered the disarmament of the militia. When Thiers’ troops overwhelmingly defected to the militia in disillusionment with the outcome of the war, the insurrection gained momentum and insurgent Communards took control of Paris.


The Communard resistance lasted from March 18 to May 28, 1871. Communards consisted of skilled workers, doctors, journalists, and political activists and they represented a variety of political affiliations including Jacobins, Republicans, and anarchists.  The short-lived commune proclaimed Paris autonomous and sought to recreate France as a federation of communes. Their main objective was for ordinary citizens and workers to take initiative to manage public life and state administration.


During the “Bloody Week” ending on May 21, 1871, the French regular army killed over 30,000 Communards -- the actual amount is unknown as many were buried in mass graves without being counted.  Another 7,000 were exiled to New Caledonia (a French territory in the southwest Pacific). Some of the pictures in the collection were likely used by French regulars and Prussian forces under Otto von Bismarck to identify, track down and execute the remaining insurgents.   Others were taken as the subjects were prisoners in Versailles, before many of them were executed by firing squad.  It is possible that some of the portraits were taken prior to the establishment of the Commune or before its demise, and that the police included the photographs in their files.  The photographs were also sold in stores and by street vendors.


Notable Portraits


Gustave Courbet, renowned French Realist painter, was elected as Delegate of Fine Arts for the Commune, despite his opposition to some of the Commune's endeavors.  After the fall of the Commune, he was tried and spent six months in jail, avoiding the death penalty that many Communards faced. He later went into exile in Switzerland to evade paying for the reconstruction of the Vendôme column that was demolished under his supervision as a Communard. 


Félix Pyat, a Socialist journalist and politician, was elected to the Paris Commune after he refused to vote for peace with Germany in the French National Assembly of 1871. He also oversaw the overthrow of the Vendome column, the destruction of the aristocratic Thiers residence, and the destruction of the memorial chapel of Louis XVI. He fled the Versailles government after the fall of the Commune, and, although he was sentenced to death, returned to Paris after receiving amnesty in 1880.


We also hold portraits of female Communards in our collection, including Hortense David, dubbed “Cannonier of the Seine Fleet”.  Women actively participated in the Paris Commune rebellion as orderlies, cantinières and vivandières, as well as in the armed front. In fact, men, women, the elderly, and children all defended the barricades during the Bloody Week.  Also during the Bloody Week, many fires burned in Paris.  Female members and supporters of the Commune, as well as other working class women, were blamed for setting the fires and became known as pétroleuses (female arsonists).  Despite a lack of evidence that any of the women purposefully set fires, and that no women were actually convicted of arson, the rumors were generally accepted as truth.


Unlike the portraits of Courbet, Pyat, and the pétroleuses, the portrait of Georges Darboy is an image of one of the hostages of the Paris Commune. Darboy was the archbishop of Paris, and had been recognized for organizing relief at the commencement of the Franco-Prussian War.  He was imprisoned by the Communards on April 4, 1871. The next month, he was shot along with other prominent political prisoners.  The reinstated Versailles government embalmed and buried his body with public ceremony in June of 1871. 


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Related Resources:

Please note that UMBC and the University System of Maryland hold many items related to the history of the Paris Commune.  For a full list, please search the catalog using the term:  Paris (France) -- History -- Commune, 1871.


Selected resources with imagery related to the Paris Commune of 1871:

Unruly women of Paris : images of the commune / Gay L. Gullickson (UMBC)

La Commune photographiée / [commissaire de l’exposition, Quentin Bajac] (UMBC)

Paris incendié, 1871 : album historique (UMBC)

The Siege and Commune of Paris, 1870-1871 digital collection at Northwestern University; entire collection:

Encyclopedia of Marxism's History of the Paris Commune

Le Guide des sources d’archives de la Commune

University of Sussex Paris Commune Collection

Women in the Paris Commune, International Institute of Social History


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