Slashers in the Louvre, and the beautiful Ideas that kill

Nicolas Poussin. L’hiver ou Le Déluge. 1660-1664. Louvre inv. 7306.

At three in the afternoon on July 7, 1907, a visitor to the Louvre paused before Nicholas Poussin’s Le Déluge (also known as Winter, L’hiver, or Flood). The thirty-one-year-old man from Lorient took in the dark Arcadian landscape, one of four works in a cycle of the seasons that the French artist painted near the end of his life, between 1660 and 1664. Desperate figures scramble in vain to escape the Great Flood in small boats as Satan in the guise of a serpent monitors the cataclysm from a rocky outcrop. As if inspired by a bolt of lightning that slashes diagonally across the painting’s sky, Paul Cousin produced a knife and began hacking at the canvas, delivering eight cuts that measured more than two meters in all. He stopped only when he was subdued by a crowd of gallery patrons and two guards.1

Cousin’s assault on Déluge was a shock for the national treasure house of art, where security was minimal and anyone could roam its galleries, free of charge. What sort of act was this? Was Cousin some avant-garde artist striking a blow against hidebound academic tastes? Was he a socialist or anarchist trying to make a statement of some kind against wealth and the elites? Cousin was none of those things. He said he had lost his job at a green grocer’s, had nowhere to live, and was angry at his well-off parents in Lorient for refusing to come to his aid. He wanted to commit a notorious act that would sully the name of his family and draw attention to his plight. Slashing up Poussin’s painting fit the bill. He had not had Poussin or this particular painting in mind: it just happened to be the one he was standing in front of when he decided to act.

At his trial later that month, Cousin changed his story: his father, he asserted was a navy lieutenant who had blown up his ship, the Bisson, in the sea off Greece. As the government could not go after his dead father, it had decided to persecute him instead, and Cousin had slashed the painting to draw attention to his cause. The story was a raving fiction. In Cousin’s home town of Lorient, one could find a statue of Hippolyte Bisson, erected in 1828 in honour of the local French naval officer who blew up his brig in the Greek archipelago when under attack by pirates, killing himself and the pirates.

A doctor assigned to examine Cousin decided he was hallucinatory and exhibited classic traits of paranoia, along with a persecution complex, and advised the court that could not be held criminally responsible. He was, however, a danger to society and others. Heeding the doctor’s advice, the judge, rather than send Cousin to prison, committed him on July 30 to a mental institution.

Three days after Cousin committed the act of vandalism, the art critic, collector, and sometimes dealer Jean Schopfer (writing under his pen name Claude Anet) had published his assessment of the attack in Les Annales. Cousin, Schopfer argued, had decided to take vengeance on society for his misfortunes. As art treasures at the Louvre belonged to the entire nation, by attacking a painting, he would inflict a wound on society. Schopfer also believed Cousin  wanted to make a name for himself, and compared him to Herostratus, who burned the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, simply to be renowned. Schopfer’s erudite readers would have known that to deny Herostratus his glory, Ephesian authorities (after torturing and executing him) forbid his name ever being uttered. Schopfer was concerned that, rather than Cousin being forgotten, some unnamed journals were making a hero of him, which could inspire copycats. “The great danger in an act like that of Cousin is the folly is contagious,” Schopfer warned. “We now have to fear a series of similar acts.”2

Two months later, on September 3, Schopfer’s fear came to pass. The contagion spread. Another Louvre visitor, twenty-seven-year-old Valentine Cantrel from Rouen, pulled out a pair of scissors and began stabbing Ingres’ La Chapelle Sixtine, which portrayed Pope Pius VII and three cardinals in the Sistine Chapel. She plunged the scissors into Pius’s eyes and disfigured the cardinals. As the painting was in a seldom-visited gallery and Cantrel was unable to draw attention to her act, she went to a police station to report what she had done. Under questioning, Cantrel revealed that she had read about Cousin’s attack and had decided it suited her own needs. She was portrayed as a young women in distress who wanted to commit a crime just serious enough to land her in prison, where she would have a place to live and something to eat. She admitted that she had previously smashed a glass case (and killed the butterfly in it) at the Jardin des plantes, but a gendarme had taken pity on her and let her go without charges.3

A more political dimension to her attack on the Ingres painting emerged in questioning. Society must provide everyone with the material before the ideal, she lectured. A museum belongs to everyone, but not everyone can enjoy it. “A worker like myself, who works all week, does not have the time to go to the Louvre. It would be best if there were fewer paintings and that every worker were assured of having a good soup every night.” Asked where she got such ideas, she said they came to her on her own, although she added that as a child, she heard her parents complain that we do not pay enough attention to the fate of workers. “They had reason to do do so, and I well understood, when I saw the enormous expenses devoted to pleasure, especially to entertain monarchs, when that money could be best employed helping the people.” The administration overseeing the Louvre proposed that if all workers were as unhappy as Cantrel and followed her reasoning and example, the budget for painting repairs would have to be increased by a factor of ten and the Louvre would be closed while all the damaged paintings were repaired.

At her trial on October 3, Cantrel (unlike Cousin, having been found of sound mind) declared the assault on Ingres’ painting was meant to protest her state of misery. She was accused of being a lazy thief who had stolen 1,200 francs from her pastor in the Salvation Army, before coming to Paris. She replied that she had been working since the age of thirteen as a seamstress and had never earned more than seventy-five centimes a day. How was someone supposed to live on that? She blamed society and the pastor for her misery.

Unimpressed, the assistant prosecutor demanded a severe penalty, as a deterrent to others who might decide to vandalize national treasures. Sensing that her case was going badly, Cantrel spoke up, offering her profound regret for the act, firstly because the painting was a fine work, secondly because she now understood that the artist had suffered misery throughout his life, as she had. Her lawyer asked the court to be lenient, as she had considered suicide, and a couple of good heart were prepared to take charge of her. The court instead sentenced her to six months in prison and a fine of 100 francs.

The works by Poussin and Ingres were repaired and rehung; with security increased, the attacks at the Louvre ceased. But in shocking, quick succession, the vandalism at the Louvre in 1907 had suggested violence against art could be a compelling political act. As much as he abhorred Cousin’s attack on Poussin’s painting, Schopfer had admitted that there was a logic to the reasoning he presumed was behind it—indeed, he articulated it in a way that Cousin, plainly of unbalanced mind, never did. It was as if Schopfer, speaking on behalf of the leisure class, understood how and why someone might attack fine art.

Already, in the language of the avant-garde, the new was routinely obliterating the old, even if the idea was metaphoric. In Fauvist circles, something of a link had been forged between art and literal violence. “There is evidence that some of the Fauves, though not Matisse, were attracted to anarchism in their early years,” John Elderfield has written. The critic Félix Fénéon was even implicated in an anarchist bombing in the 1890s, but they all had left their radicalism behind them when the Fauvist movement gelled in 1905, and there was never a manifesto linking the art movement to political ideology or action.4

Art was not actually being slashed or stabbed or pulled from gallery walls and burned in piles, in a cleansing act, to make way for new visions and approaches. But art and violence —and violence against art—became explicitly associated on February 20, 1909, when the Futurism manifesto of the young Italian poet, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, appeared for the first time in print, on the front page of Le Figaro in Paris.5 Marinetti spoke of poetry, but was reaching out to artists in general in articulating an expressive philosophy that was vigorously, dangerously, young and male. Superficially, it was a celebration of the machine, of automobiles, locomotives, and airplanes, of mass manufacturing, all of which he associated with masculine power and youth. The oldest of us in the Futurist movement, Marinetti advised, was not yet thirty, which was not true: Marinetti had turned thirty-two in December. Still, Futurism was modernity with youthful testosterone firing the engine of progress. To move forward, young artists needed to destroy, or at least reject, the art of the past, along with the social impediments hindering the ambitions of Marinetti and his acolytes.

Futurism’s essential elements, Marinetti declared, were courage, audacity, and revolt. It celebrated aggressive movement, and a new beauty in the world: speed. There was no greater beauty than that of struggle, no masterpiece without aggression. Poetry must be a violent assault on unknown forces, making them lie down before man. “We are on the extreme promontory of the ages! What is the good of looking behind us, when we have to smash the mysterious windows of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, since we have already created ever-present, eternal speed.”

Marinetti declared that Futurism’s aim was to glorify war, the sole cleanser of the world, along with militarism, patriotism, “the destructive gesture of the anarchists,” and les belles Idées qui tuent, “the beautiful Ideas that kill.” He endorsed “contempt of the woman” and vowed to “demolish museums, libraries, fight moralism, feminism, and all opportunistic and utilitarian cowardice.” Museums were no different than cemeteries, where bodies unknown to one another lay side by side. Marinetti conjured “the mutual ferocity of painters and sculptors killing each other with lines and colours in the same museum.” To admire an old painting, he charged, “is to pour our sensibility into a funerary urn instead of throwing it forward with violent jets of creation and action. Do you wish, then, to spoil your best energies in a useless admiration of the past, from which you inevitably emerge exhausted, diminished, trampled on?” For an artist, daily attendance at museums, libraries, and academies–cemeteries of spent effort, crucifixes of crucified dreams, registers of worn-out energy–was like intelligent young people, drunk with ambitious talent and willpower, enduring the prolonged guardianship of their parents. The admirable past is, perhaps, a balm to the wounds of the moribund, invalids, and prisoners, Marinetti allowed, since the future is denied to them. But we—the young, the strong, the living futurists—do not want it!

It was remarkable, even astonishing, that Marinetti’s manifesto commanded the front page of the Paris daily less than two years after the Louvre attacks on individual paintings by Cousin and Cantrel. If Marinetti was not actually going far beyond their singular destructive acts and organizing mobs to tear down the Louvre and other great museums, Futurism was, in Marinetti’s own words, a “manifesto of overthrowing and [of] incendiary violence.”

Violence defined the new age, and was its medium of transformation. When violence was granted an aesthetic dimension, as in the Futurist manifesto, it implicitly became an artistic act. Even artists that rejected violence would have to confront the impending, appalling destruction of the age, and many would find themselves recognizing and depicting the aesthetic of the coming Great War that the Futurists so welcomed.


[1] For coverage of Cousin’s attack, see “Nouvelles Diverses. A Paris. Un Act de Vandalisme au Louvre,” Le Figaro, 8 July, 1907; “Le Vandale du Louvre,” Le Radical, 27 July, 1907; “Le Vandale du Louvre,” Le Radical, 30 July, 1907.

[2] Claude Anet, “Coups de Crayon,” Gil Blas, 10 July, 1907, (translated).

[3] For coverage of Cantrel’s attack, see “Un nouvel acte de vandalisme au Louvre,” Le Figaro, 4 September, 1907; “La protection du Louvre,” Le Figaro, 5 September, 1907; “Nouvelles Diverses a Paris. Un Act de Vandalisme au Louvre,” Le Figaro, 13 September, 1907, “Les Tribunaux. Le tableau d’Ingres lacéré,” Le Radical, 4 October, 1907.

[4] See John Elderfield, The “wild beasts”: Fauvism and its affinities (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1976), 36-40; quote, 36.

[5] F.T. Marinetti, “Le Futurisme,” Le Figaro, 20 February, 1909 (translated).

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