One of our newest acquisitions here at Cotsen is an example of juvenilia,or a musical, or visual art created by a child artist (we apply it to works made by children who did not grow up to be famous). This particular piece is a cleverly illustrated French-language poster presumably created and inscribed by J. M. Legeay (Jean-Marc?) September 1896 (see final panel). The poster tells a story in pictures about a murder and what ensues after the despicable act, complete with a sobering moral.
Although this murder is resolved and justice is meted out, many mysteries surrounding the piece itself. Where was it made? Who made it? Why was it made? Without further ado: Un Crime Effroyable [A terrible crime].
This handmade poster in ten panels of paper with a folding cardboard border is illustrated in crayon, ink, watercolor, and pencil. All the panels are backed on black linen cloth and is carefully designed so that it can be hung on the wall or neatly folded up.
The top two panels bear a decorative title:
From these physical facts we might infer that this item was diligently worked on by a young (and presumably amateur artist) with a good degree of skill. It would have taken several hours at least to illustrate, cut, lay out, and paste down on the backing. But we don’t get a clear indication of why he spent so much time creating it. Legeay probably didn’t create a this story of crime and punishment just for his own amusement. Rather, it seems possible that it might have been a school assignment, an exercise in moral education. Let’s see what the young man learned…
In this first scene there are two characters: a middle-class fop in bright yellow pants, who has just left the wine and liquor store in the background, and a small green blob in the middle distance, whom we soon learn is the malefactor.
Here, with no explanation, our friend with the cherubic face who is feeling no pain is stabbed by a mustachioed assailant. But notice how the clothes of the victim and the murderer identify their respective classes. The bourgeois with his top hat and parasol is cut down by a working class man in his plain green coat and matching kepi. At this point we might ask if this is an illustration of class conflict; an instance of a working-class man preying on a defenseless middle class-man by a middle-class child evincing a common bourgeois fear of the supposedly brutal and violent lower class. Of course, the artist Legeay is just a child and foisting a propagandist motivation upon him may not be warranted. I believe he is just reflecting the world views around him in a school assignment.
Our murderer contently relaxes in a local café after his grisly deed, as the be-spurred officer enters. In this panel are the first clues as to the place of origin for this poster. On the door is written “Café” and “Cidre.” “Cidre” is French for cider, specifically the kind produced in Normandy and Brittany. This familiarity with cidre might be an indication that Legeay is from one of these regions (or just a budding drunk). But as we will see, there is other evidence that points in a very different direction.
In this scene the action of the story comes to a close. Our killer is escorted to a smiling executioner manning the infamous guillotine.The perpetrator’s escorts are none other than our officers-in-spurs and a crucifix bearing priest. This panel, however, shows us more than just the moments leading up to our murderer’s death. Look closely at the left side of the illustration and you might just be able to make out the most puzzling feature of this item, what appears to be debossed text reading: Hollonge.
Provided here are two closer images of the text (one vertical, one horizontal):
This text could be a hand-written inscription or a trade mark on the paper itself. It seems unlikely that it is the debossed trade mark of a paper manufacturer named Hollonge, because the mark does not appear on any other panel of the poster and no such company was turned up in my research. So it might be an inscription. But who wrote it and why? What does it mean?
“Hollonge” might be a corruption of “Hollogne,” or short hand for the town of Grâce-Hollogne in the Ardennes. But Grâce-Hollogne, it turns out, is located not in France, but in Belgium. Bu tif the poster is from Belgium, why the text is written in French? The Ardennes is located in the province of Liège in the region known as Wallonia and Walloons are French speakers. So perhaps Legeay was a Walloon.
The word “Hollonge” seems to have been etched by a tool. It is composed of recessed markings and some of the strokes appear too thick to have been written by pencil or pen. However it was made, it appears to have been a mistake:if the word is supposed to be “Hollogne,” it is spelled wrong. Furthermore the final character “e” also resembles an “l”. Maybe Legeay wrote “Hollonge” by mistake, which is possible because he made spelling errors elsewhere. But why would Legeay write the place of origin on his own work? Surely he knew (and doesn’t need to share) where he lived and where he made the poster. Though the erroneous word is an inscription, it probably isn’t Legeay’s.
It’s more reasonable to assume that the inscription was written by a later owner of the work, perhaps a collector of juvenilia or an antiquarian bookseller. This owner was probably French, considering that “Hollogne” is written with two l’s rather than with one, which is the Wallonian spelling. The word might have been erased because of the spelling error or because the attempt to place the origin of the work in Hollogne was unfounded.
With the limited evidence we have, all I can do is offer a few guesses about this work’s place of origin. Does the mention of “cidré” point towards Normandy or Brittany or does “Hollonge” point to Belgium? We would need more information to make this call.
But what we can be more certain of is that Legeay is probably a middle-class boy, that he was a better illustrator than he was a speller. This brings us to the final panel:
This final panel delivers the coup de grâce of the piece, a moral from our insightful creator that caps off the story: “N’assasinez point et vous n’serez point gigotiné” [Don’t murder and you won’t get the guillotine]. Pointedly, young Legeay has spelled two words wrong: “assasinez” is missing a the second double ess (“assassinez”) and the spelling of that last word, “gigotiné,” instead of the Francophone “guillotine.” Legeay was much more careless with the text than with his illustrations. I don’t think the boy was as motivated to draw out the moral lesson as in illustrating violence (probably to the chagrin of his teacher).
But let’s return to that very odd word “gigotiné.” It might be indicative of more a child’s bad spelling. Using “gigotiné” might prove that Legeay was cleverer than he appears. “Gigotiné,” if spelled this way on purpose, has a double meaning. Not only does it denote the guillotine, it also associates another word with that infernal machine: “gigotin,” a prepared leg of lamb. Coupled with this association, “gigotiné” reminds us of the outcome of the guillotine.. It’s tongue and cheek, of course, and probably not meant to be taken too seriously. It was probably a common euphemism; not something Legeay came up with himself.
This gory but humorous poster is still shrouded in mystery. I’ve tried my best to explain who might have made this work and why they might have made it, but my interpretation of this child’s work should be taken with a grain of salt. Though this poster begs more questions than it provides answers, it is nevertheless a bracing look into how a child represented with gusto gory murders and swift guillotines.