Michelet and romantic history

Michelet and romantic history

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Jules Michelet (1798-1874), historian.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

The birth of committed thinkers

The July Monarchy (1830-1848) saw the birth and assertion of a new class of men of letters or sciences who, by making themselves for the most part the spokespersons of political, national or social emancipation movements, played a major historical role. Their autonomy, however, could only be achieved through a permanent struggle against the State and the Church, which exercised severe censorship in the cultural sphere.

Among the thinkers of this period, Jules Michelet (1798-1874), historian who, after having passed the aggregation of letters in 1821, from 1838 cumulated the functions of head of the historical section of the National Archives and professor at the College de France , occupies an eminent place.

Image Analysis

Portrait of Jules Michelet, historian

Thomas Couture (1815-1879), genre and history painter and main representative of the eclectic movement within the academy, painted a portrait of Jules Michelet when he had reached a certain age. This canvas depicts the historian comfortably seated at his desk, surrounded by books. His haughty bearing - straight but slightly slanted bust, clear and penetrating gaze - his white hair and dark coat reflect the degree of respectability he achieved during his career. By scattering books around Michelet, the painter was able to evoke the way of life of an intellectual and recreate the atmosphere of his study.

Neatly crafted, this portrait is at the crossroads of several artistic trends: if the light background, devoid of any decorative effect, as well as the majesty and serenity of the character denote a strong classical influence, the disorder in which are arranged books on the other hand give a romantic touch to the painting. Likewise, the noble expression of the historian which reflects the elevation of his thought shows how much consideration the time accorded to intellectual genius. For the Romantic generation in particular, to which Jules Michelet belonged, the real hero was the thinker who moved the world forward. Thus, through this painting, Thomas Couture paid a fine tribute to the committed historian Michelet was.


A committed story

Jules Michelet distinguished himself not only by his historiographical conceptions, but also by his political convictions.

A hard worker, he is the author of several important historical works, including a monumental one History of France (1833-1853), who renewed the purpose and methods of history. Partisan of the "resurrection of integral life" - to use his own words - his ambition was not only to revive an era in its smallest details, by stripping all the archives, but also to go beyond political history to consider the whole social body. Thanks to his epic style and poetic imagination, he was also the instigator of a living history.

But this totalizing vision was partially defeated by his anticlerical and republican convictions, which influenced his writings. Man of character, his manifestos such as Jesuits (1843) or People (1846) and his chair open to democratic ideas during the days of February 1848 earned him sidelining following the coup d'état of December 2, 1851. Subsequently, he was celebrated as the prophet of new times , the founder of people's authority and democracy.

  • anticlericalism
  • History
  • portrait
  • romanticism
  • republicans
  • France secondary school
  • Michelet (Jules)
  • July Monarchy
  • National archives


Roland Barthes, Jules Michelet by himself, Paris, Seuil, 1954.

Guy BOURDÉ, MARTIN Hervé, Historical schools, Paris, Seuil, reed. 1997.

Christophe CHARLE, Intellectuals in Europe in the 19th century, Paris, Seuil, 1996.

Eric FAUQUET, Michelet or the Glory of the History Teacher, Paris, Le Cerf, 1990.

Jules MICHELET, Complete Works, 21 vol., Paris, Flammarion, 1971-1995.

Pierre NORA, Michelet, historian of France, Compact Disc, Gallimard Jeunesse, 2000.

To cite this article

Charlotte DENOËL, "Michelet and romantic history"


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    This argument is simply unbelievable

  3. Britton

    What a lovely topic

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