• Cholera morbus


  • Cholera in France published in L'Illustration

    CLAIR-GUYOT Ernest (1883 - 1938)

© BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / BnF image

Cholera in France published in L'Illustration

© BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / BnF image

Publication date: April 2020

Historical context

The evil of the XIXe century

The world experienced a total of seven cholera pandemics from 1817, the last still active outside Europe. Coming from the Indian subcontinent, they struck France four times in the 19th century.e century: in 1832, in 1854, in 1866 and in 1884. This highly contagious and devastating disease has been the subject of numerous representations - starting with the description of its consequences in Paris in 1832 which Victor Hugo gave inWretched(1862). That year the President of the Council Casimir Perier was taken away by the disease as illustrated by the etching entitledThe Cholera Morbus. He is famous for having brought photography straight into journalism by training himself in this new documentary tool and, in the 1890s, by gradually imposing photoengraving in place of drawings engraved in the press. illustrated.

Image Analysis

French society to the test

The Cholera Morbus is presented as a vertical format leaflet that was to be distributed with other products from the same printer. On the blank page, the drawn part occupies the upper three-quarters, the title and the commentary the lower quarter. The etched and colored scene takes place in an unidentified urban setting. The height of the building in the background and the monument on top of which the tricolor flag flies signal a city of importance. Four figures make up a painting of geometric proportions in the foreground: the head of the two dying men is at the level of the knees of the standing man and woman. All three men have a greenish complexion, a sign of illness. Those who are dying on the ground hold their stomachs, their features are marked by suffering. Harsh and gaunt but vigorous, the man in rags is quite a wanderer: he unquestionably embodies the epidemic. His blue jacket, the white apron and the red dress of the kissing woman resonate with the tricolor. Only the woman retains a rosy complexion: wearing the Phrygian cap, she embodies the July Revolution which precisely imposed these new national colors.

The Illustration dated July 12, 1884 offered its readers several pages to enable them to visually grasp the situation. The review chooses in particular to highlight the prophylactic measures taken to prevent the spread in France and beyond its borders. The two images on page 40 emphasize the disinfection of travelers and their luggage at the border with Italy. Above, an abandoned building surmounted by a cross (an old chapel) shows all the signs of decrepitude with its fallen plaster, a breach in the surrounding wall, wild grasses, piles of stone and abandoned planks. The type of vegetation corresponds to the Mediterranean climate. Down below, on the contrary, the image is filled with characters who congregate on a winding path between high walls. Occupying the upper half of the stage alone, they connote confinement; a man wiping his forehead suggests the warmth. Guarded by soldiers armed with bayonets, two men spray liquid on open baggage. Their healing solution is contained in the large glass bottles at the bottom left. No words are exchanged between the characters, who observe the process and wait.


A political epidemic

In 1832, everyone knows that the capital was hit hard by the epidemic, going so far as to kill the President of the Council. So there is no doubt for readers of the time that the scene takes place in the streets of Paris. The sartorial contrast between the two victims and the two allegories can be read in two ways. A disease born out of the promiscuity and insalubrity in which the poor classes live attacks everyone without distinction, money and property do not protect anyone. The charge launched by the text suggests that it could above all be a criticism of the alliance between the people and the census bourgeoisie, the great beneficiary of the Three Glorious Years of July 1830. In the text, the term propaganda (political ) connotes that of propagation (epidemic). The author sharply denounces the democratic wave that has swept through Europe. Finally, the drawing undoubtedly has an anti-Semitic charge: with its satchel and its singular profile, who other than the wandering Jew, cosmopolitan in essence, roams Europe relentlessly? Who has always been known to sow the Plague there? Who is a licensed revolutionary instigator? The author of the drawn pamphlet of 1832 clearly ranks among the proponents of autocratic monarchy. It is part of a long line of representations establishing the equation between epidemic and revolutionary "fever", emphasizing the animal nature of its propagators, which must therefore be eliminated.

Fifty years later, many societies continue to look for scapegoats to explain epidemic explosions. The nations that were the cradles of industrial revolutions, however, have entered the Age of Science. In Europe, the fifth cholera pandemic broke out especially in Hamburg, but spared the rest of France. However, the memory of the huge wave of 1853-1854 (more than 143,000 dead) is still vivid and The Illustration dispatch reporters on site. This weekly allows its readers to follow step by step the preventive containment and decontamination measures of those crossing the Franco-Italian border near Menton: luggage, check-in, and waiting in barracks (women and men are separated) of the lazaretto. of the Latta. The series engraved from sketches made on site by Clair-Guyot testifies to the passage from one era to another: from the exclusion of "plague victims" to preventive treatment, and from the primacy of police control to that of doctors. In 1884, Erich Koch isolated the vibrio that caused cholera and which, contaminating food and water and hands, causes lethal diarrhea. Pasteur has already demonstrated the role of bacteria in the transmission of diseases. Public opinion is not yet convinced because the scientific debate is still raging. The scenes of The Illustration spread the idea that collective control is possible, that science is working to find solutions, and that health policy is now part of the means of administration of the population.

  • Cholera
  • disease
  • Casimir-Perier (Jean)
  • epidemics
  • hygiene
  • medicine
  • Pastor (Louis)
  • Marseilles
  • Italy
  • Three Glorious
  • industrial Revolution


Jean-Pierre Bacot, The illustrated press in the 19th century century. A forgotten story, Limoges, Limoges University Press, 2005.

Patrice Bourdelais, André Dodin, Faces of cholera, Paris, Belin, 1987.

Philippe Régnier (dir.), The Caricature between Republic and Censorship, Lyon, University Press of Lyon, 1996.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "Le Choléra"


  • Lazaret: Establishment where subjects suspected of contact with contagious patients are isolated and where they may undergo quarantine Source: Larousse

  • Video: The Story of Cholera