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As Courbet watched the mob mount the barricades in Paris, the shock waves of revolution reverberated throughout Europe. In Germany and Italy there was a series of violent uprisings, and in England there were ugly scenes in Trafalgar Square. Meanwhile, King Louis Philippe had fled France and, more sensationally, a gigantic sea serpent had been sighted off the African coast.
Everyone agreed that it was a most dramatic year. Popular writers vied with each other to find words grand enough to describe it. 'The year 1848', declared one, 'will be hereafter known as that of the great and general revolt of nations against their rulers.' A more cynical observer was heartily relieved when it was over. 'One cannot but feel glad,' he noted in his diary, 'at getting rid of a year which has been so pregnant with every sort of mischief.'
But the real words of power for 1848 had already been written when the year began and were in the hands of a London printer. 'Workers of the world, unite!' they ran, 'You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win.' The printer's client was a German refugee called Karl Marx and his commission was The Communist Manifesto.
The first rumblings of revolution came from Sicily in January, but they were not taken very seriously for Sicily was a notoriously volatile and lawless region. Then on 24 February the moderate middle-class monarchy of King Louis Philippe in France fell with startling suddenness. In the early hours of the morning, during a large demonstration outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris, a man from the crowd walked up to the officer in command of the guard and shot him dead.
This had the intended effect of making the soldiers fire on the demonstrators, several of whom were killed. Their bodies were paraded through the streets in a cart to the accompaniment of revolutionary songs remembered from the 1790s. Barricades were set up, some 1,500 altogether, and by daybreak the mob was in complete control of the city centre.
Louis Philippe abdicated in favour of his grandson, a boy of 10, but the leaders of the revolution brushed aside the boy's claims and proclaimed a republic. Courbet did a drawing of a man at the barricade, to serve as a cover design for a revolutionary journal. 'Without 1848,' he said later, painting would not have happened.'
The first reaction came early in March from Hungary, where nationalist leaders demanded and obtained concessions from their Austrian rulers in Vienna. Then there was an uprising in Vienna itself, which forced the Emperor of Austria-Hungary to grant a new and liberal constitution to his people. The King of Prussia made similar concessions after an uprising in Berlin which left hundreds of demonstrators and troops dead. Revolutions followed in other German kingdoms and a national assembly for the whole of Germany was convened at Frankfurt, dedicated to sweeping away the existing petty principalities and creating a united Germany.
In Italy, too, a series of revolutions led to a movement for national unity. After popular uprisings had driven the Austrian occupying forces out of Milan and Venice, the King of Sardinia later to be joined by the Grand Duke of Tuscany embarked on a war to unify the country. The declaration of war came on 24 March. It had taken just a month for the shock waves from Paris to bring down the European state system from the Baltic to the southernmost tip of Italy.
From all over Europe refugees streamed into Britain, some of them conservatives who had been toppled and others revolutionaries who had been too extreme. The first to arrive was Louis Philippe, who landed at Newhaven in the early hours of the morning on 3 March. He wore a jacket borrowed from the captain of the ship that had brought him, and he had a week's growth of beard on his face. The Queen was muffled in a large plaid cloak, with a heavy veil to hide her face.
One Mr. Stone,' the newspapers reported, 'signalized himself by recognizing the King from afar off in the boat that brought him ashore.' Mr. Stone welcomed the deposed monarch, assuring him that the British would protect him from his enemies, and Louis Philippe, 'much agitated', gave him grateful thanks. The King then took refuge in coincidence, observing that he had travelled as 'Mr. Smith' and that he now found the landlady of the inn at which he stayed, as well as the Rector of Newhaven, had the same reassuring name.
Three days later the British had their own first taste of revolutionary activity, when a certain Mr. Cochrane organized a demonstration in Trafalgar Square to protest against the income tax. Since only the rich paid the tax, it was not a very popular cause; and it became even less popular when Cochrane was scared off by a government ban on the meeting.
His supporters amused themselves by tearing down the fences around the column being erected to the memory of Lord Nelson. On the same day there were uglier troubles further north and cries of 'Vive la Republique!' were heard.
The authorities took fright and began to enrol special constables to deal with an enormous demonstration due to take place in London in April, when hundreds of thousands of radicals would present a petition for the reform of Parliament. One of the constables was Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the Napoleon Bonaparte who had once sought to invade Britain. He was responsible for the area between Park Lane and Dover Street, but in the event he had little to do. The demonstration came to nothing and its petition was rejected.
In August there came news sufficiently sensational to crowd out revolutions and radicals. The officers of a ship sailing off the African coast reported the sighting of a sea serpent over 100 feet long. Scientists said they were deluded and a fierce public controversy ensued, in the course of which most of the European revolutions collapsed without a great deal of attention being paid to them.
In the autumn Louis-Napoleon slipped across to France and was elected President of the French Republic. He might have had little to do in London, but in Paris he meant to maintain law and order. Courbet read the signs and began work on his great picture The Burial at Ornans. Its real subject, he insisted, was the death of romantic idealism and the acceptance of reality. The heady days of 1848 were over.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish