Carve, Reverse, Reflect: Émira Sergent Marceau’s Printmaking and the French Revolution

By Sarah Lund
November 18, 2021
A color print portrays a portrait bust of a light-skinned woman set in an oval frame. The woman wears a pink robe, white veil, and a gold jeweled crown as she turns her head to gaze out at the viewer. The background of the frame is black.
Émira Sergent Marceau (Madame de Cernel), French, and Antoine-François Sergent, French, Frédegonde, Queen of France, 1791. Print. Harvard University, Houghton Library f (Typ 715.86.218 (A)), Folio JJJ3. Courtesy of Houghton Library.

Artists from marginalized groups, whether identified by race, class, nationality, or gender, are often those for whom little biographical information or testimony remains. Émira Sergent Marceau is one such artist.

Émira established herself as a printmaker during the eruption of the French Revolution in late 18th-century Paris. While we may not have her own words or writings, many of her prints are preserved, including at Harvard’s Houghton Library. They allow us to imagine how she interacted with her media—how she carved lines out of metal, navigated the construction of an image in reverse, and perhaps caught her own reflection in the shiny copper plate. 

In this article, Sarah Lund, a Ph.D. candidate in Harvard’s Department of History of Art and Architecture and former graduate intern at the Harvard Art Museums, creatively describes her own printmaking process as well as Émira’s before providing the rich historical context in which the artist created her prints. 

Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2019

I place the tip of the sharp metal burin, or carving tool, against the copper plate and begin to press. Thin swirls of copper emerge as I make my marks, carefully tracing my forms in reverse so they appear in the correct orientation when printed. I hold the plate up to the light to examine my progress and see my face in the warm glow of the copper surface.

I position the plate on the bed of the press, laying a dampened sheet of paper on top. I crank the gear of the press, feeding the bed beneath the massive roller. I know the imprinting has begun when I feel the resistance of the crank and the intense weight of the roller on my plate. The pressure releases with a jolt. I peel back the paper, now scarred with the emboss of the plate, and see lines, shapes, and tone appear, each having turned inside out.[1] 


Paris, 1789

A color print on a page portrays a portrait bust of a light-skinned man set in an oval frame. The man wears a blue robe with a fleur-de-lis decoration and a gold crown that repeats the pattern. He looks at the viewer, with a benevolent smile. The background of the frame is dark gray. “Philippe IV, Surnommé Le Bel” is written just below the oval frame. Beneath these words are a coat of arms and other details related to his status.
Émira Sergent Marceau (Madame de Cernel), French, and Antoine-François Sergent, French, Philip IV, 1789. Print. Harvard University, Houghton Library f (Typ 715.86.218 (A)), Folio Y1. Courtesy of Houghton Library.

Émira Sergent Marceau pressed a burin into copper to form the gentle curl of King Philip IV’s hair. Holding a steady pressure, she stayed her arm and swiveled the board beneath the plate until a satisfying swirl of copper emerged, as thin as thread. Her focus may have been interrupted by the clamoring of four presses and the men who operated them on the ground floor, or by the spectacle of Parisians discussing the dozens of prints pinned up in the shop’s display on the busy streets outside.[2] Looking away from her plate for a moment, she may have considered the story of the face she carved: the medieval French king who was the first to gather an assembly of representatives of the people as part of his government. 

The Early Years

The details of Émira’s life are obscure. Born Marie-Jeanne-Louise-Françoise-Suzanne Marceau-Desgraviers on July 11, 1753, she would later jumble the letters of her first name to form a new one: Émira. It is this chosen first name that I will use here.[3] Educated and intensely curious, Émira spent her youth in Chartres outside Paris, practicing amateur botany and reading philosophical works like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie; or, The New Héloïse. She recorded notes about her reading into eight volumes that were published. The texts are now apparently lost.[4] It was in Chartres that she first learned the art of engraving. In 1789, Émira relocated with Antoine-François Sergent to Paris. She primarily worked on images for large series, such as Portraits of Great Men, Illustrious Women, and Memorable Subjects of France, in which her image of Philip IV was included, along with 28 other portraits she made.[5] 

Biographies and archives define her in relation to her brother, General Marceau-Desgraviers, a revolutionary war hero, and her second husband, engraver Antoine-François Sergent. While Sergent’s biographies recount his work and his ardent love of his wife, there is no equivalent documentary record for Émira’s autobiography. Émira did assert her voice in the public and published record: in 1798 and 1799, she wrote two pamphlets that insisted on General Marceau-Desgraviers’s glory as well as her role in raising him. She wrote these in response to a speech at a governmental session that questioned her importance to the deceased war hero.[6] In 1811, she confidently petitioned for a pension in honor of her brother’s military heroism and her role in his upbringing, addressing her letter to Napoleon himself.[7] While her extant writings ultimately centered her male relatives, she cleverly utilized their superior political status to her own advantage. About herself and her engraving we have only her husband’s words: Sergent says she wrote with hands full of grace in their movements. He describes her as voluptuous, with a strong and defined neck, remarking also that her physiognomy was lively and gay and that her superb eyes burned.[8]

The Spark of Revolution

When she moved to Paris in 1789, Émira’s eyes burned with the sight of revolution. She witnessed the meeting of the Estates General, the legislative assembly called by the king for the first time in more than a hundred years; the destruction of the Bastille prison; and the subsequent declaration of the National Assembly and constitutional monarchy on the lines of the king’s tennis court at Versailles.[9] 

The revolution promised freedom, liberty, and equality. It also promised “fraternity.” As French women like Émira began to discover, fraternity did not mean sorority.[10] As early as January 1, 1789, working-class women directly petitioned the king to assert their rights, uncertain of their representation in the upcoming Estates General legislative meeting. “Sire,” they wrote, “at a time when everyone is trying to assert his titles and his rights . . . wouldn’t it be possible for [women] also to make their voice heard amidst this general agitation?”[11] Seamstresses, embroiderers, and dress designers asked for access to education and for the exclusion of men from their trades. The king declined.[12] 

While Émira could not participate as representative nor voter in the politics unfolding around her, she could and did express her political concerns through her art.[13] She carved forms of historical political figures like Philip IV, portraits of her new representatives, and buttons for the new citizens to display their revolutionary politics.[14] 

On October 5, 1789, 7,000 women marched on Versailles to claim an audience with King Louis XVI and to transport his body back to Paris. The women cried, “To Paris! Long Live Parisian Women!”[15]

Paris, 1791

“Open the great book of the past,” commanded the Parisian women to the National Assembly shortly after their 1789 march on Versailles, “and see what illustrious women have done in all ages.”[16] In 1791, two years into the revolution, the distant past pushed closer while recent events receded. Revolutionary festivals celebrated antiquity, and supporters donned the ancient Phrygian bonnet. All the while, King Louis XVI, only recently hailed as a “friend of the people,” was now deemed a traitor for having attempted to flee France with his family.[17] For French women however, the revolution stayed its exclusionary and fraternal course. On October 1, 1791, the new constitution formally excluded women from active citizenship as voters.[18]

The Harvard Art Museums’ luxurious, large-scale color print by Sergent below exemplifies the masculine heroics of the era. The print commemorates Émira’s brother, General Marceau, a soldier and martyr, with no mention of Émira, who likely facilitated Sergent’s access to his model. This omission, however, did not stop Émira from participating in the presentation of the print to the government in 1798, signing her name alongside her husband’s.[19]

A color print portrays a full-length portrait of a soldier who wears a red, white, and blue uniform and points forward, posed near a battlefield.
2016.12 Antoine-François Sergent Marceau, French, François Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers, 1798. Wash manner printed in six colors on cream antique laid paper. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Acquisition Fund for Prints, 2016.12.

A Queen Reinterpreted

In 1791, Émira turned to the deep French past to answer the call of her fellow Parisians and put forth, in print, an unlikely candidate to the canon of illustrious Frenchwomen: Queen Frédegonde of the sixth century. 

A seemingly minor character to 21st-century eyes, the 18th century knew Frédegonde as a firebrand. She was a supposed assassin of kings and so infamous for her villainy and crimes that, in 1793, Queen Marie-Antoinette was formally accused as a “new Frédegonde” in the trial that would end her life.[20]

A color print on a page portrays a portrait bust of a light-skinned woman set in an oval frame. The woman wears a pink robe, white veil, and a gold and jeweled crown as she turns her head to gaze out at the viewer. The background of the frame is black. “Frédegonde, Queen of France” is written just below the oval frame. Beneath these words are a coat of arms and other details related to her status.
Émira Sergent Marceau (Madame de Cernel), French, and Antoine-François Sergent, French, Frédegonde, Queen of France, 1791. Print. Harvard University, Houghton Library f (Typ 715.86.218 (A)), Folio JJJ3. Courtesy of Houghton Library.

While the historic character of Frédegonde had been dragged before the court and represented as a diabolic type, Frédegonde’s image was now pounded by the weight of Émira’s press. Yet this time, she was celebrated as one of France’s illustrious women for instructing the king to destroy tax impositions, as the description of the print recalled. The printing process allowed Émira to reverse Frédegonde. In a metaphoric echo of the press, Émira turned Frédegonde inside out, from murderess to eliminator of taxes such as the gabelle, the salt tax that plagued the French on the eve of the revolution.[21] 

The reception of women’s agency and violence, while it pervaded the revolution, was confused and contradictory. The women who brought the king back to Paris in 1789 were celebrated for their revolutionary fervor. It was a female allegorical figure, Marianne, who first led the revolution’s charge. Yet as the revolution progressed, the emphasis on “fraternity” became increasingly exclusionary. Violent women were perceived as threatening, and Marianne was replaced in the public imagination with the ancient hero Hercules as symbolic leader of the revolution.[22] In her 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizeness, activist and writer Olympe de Gouges—herself later condemned to the guillotine—lamented that disdain and scorn seemed to be women’s only gain during the revolution. “Oh women!” she cried, “Women, when will you cease to be blind?”[23] 

Émira was seeing, though, evidenced by her portrait of Frédegonde. Laboring over the strong curve that shapes Frédegonde’s jaw and the gentle shading of her pursed lips, Émira gave a new face to this ostracized woman condemned for her violence. As she layered the cuts that would form the queen’s eyebrows, making the left one sharp and the right one curved, perhaps she thought of the queen’s uncertain balance between resolve and tenderness. Perhaps in creating the wash of flush on Frédegonde’s cheeks and tight lips, she thought of the agency and control the queen exhibited in her rule. As Émira turned Frédegonde’s face to meet the viewer, against the profile positioning of the queen’s body, she seems to ask us to see Frédegonde’s complexity—to find the contrast between the bright whiteness of the queen’s veil and the deep shadow it creates, the glint of her crown and the muddled tone of her robe, the sharp line of her nose and the soft droop of her eyes. In checking the layers of lines that hang like vulnerable skin on Frédegonde’s neck, perhaps Émira thought of her own strong neck, as her husband described it.[24] Through the polished mirror of the plate, Émira saw Frédegonde’s humanity, a figure capable of calculated violence as well as public service and political leadership. Frédegonde exhibits the deep nuance demanded in the negotiation of her place in the public, political sphere—the same nuance demanded of Émira, who searched for a way forward through the past. 

On November 14, 1791, the print of Frédegonde was presented by its publisher, Pierre Blin, to the king.[25] The printed portrait found Louis XVI not in the comfort of Versailles, where Blin had presented previous prints in the series, but as a prisoner under guard in the Tuileries Palace in Paris, after his treasonous failed desertion of his country. The portrait print of Frédegonde greeted the captive king from a position of authority on the other side of history. In the form that Émira created, queen confronted king with a narrative of redemption through care for the people. Vilified, tried, and exiled from canonical history, here Frédegonde stands resolute in her frame, perpetually in her position of power by the printing press. 

The woman who carved these lines was not allowed to vote, not allowed to hold office, not represented in the National Assembly. Yet here was her work, its lines and marks in the hands of the king and in the visual culture of a country at a moment of intense vulnerability. This was Émira’s speech, her march, and her violence. With the sharpness of her burin and the gravity of the press, she mobilized a language of valleys, scratches, tones, and color to defend women’s place in the public sphere.

A young woman stands in front of a thick stone plate marked up in black. She wears an apron and holds a can in her right hand as she looks down on the printing matrix.
Sarah Lund processes a lithograph, another type of printing technique, in the print studio of Harvard’s Carpenter Center for Visual Arts.

Sarah Lund is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History of Art and Architecture and a former graduate student intern at the Harvard Art Museums. This article draws from her dissertation in progress, which examines the work, materials, and political engagement of French female printmakers from 1789 through the early 19th century.


[1] This vignette recounts my experiential research in printmaking. I learned and experimented with traditional intaglio techniques in the Harvard seminar Critical Printing, taught by Jennifer Roberts and Matt Saunders in Fall 2019. Maya Jasanoff’s seminar Narrative History, taken the same semester, sparked the first iteration of this article and its narrative style.

[2] See Robert Darnton, Philippe Minard, and Jacques Rychner for the location of press, the number of staff, the displays, and how it was common for a printer to also serve as a shop: Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 75–106; Philippe Minard, “Agitation in the Work Force,” in Revolution in Print: The Press in France, 1775–1800, ed. Robert Darnton and Daniel Roche (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), 109–14; Jacques Rychner, “Le travail de l’atelier,” in Histoire de l’édition française, t.ii: Le livre triumphant, ed. Henri-Jean Martin, Roger Chartier, and Jean-Pierre Vivet (Paris: Promodis, 1984), 42, 53. Pierre Blin, publisher of Portraits des grands hommes, femmes illustres, owned the press and shop located at 17 Place Maubert, as indicated on the prints themselves. While I am not certain that Sergent and Cernel completed their work in his shop, it was common for engravers to work in their publisher’s space, as Rychner discusses on p. 53. With regard to the street debates of printed works, scholars like Eirwen Nicholson have noted the theatricality of crowds blocking sidewalks in front of printsellers’ shops. Eirwen E.C. Nicholson, “Consumers and Spectators: The Public of the Political Print in Eighteenth-Century England,” History 81 (261) (1996): 16–17.

[3] Émira is the name she gave herself, which first appears formally in the record as linked to her submissions to the 1793 Salon. Gaïte Dugnat and Pierre Sanchez, Dictionnaire Des Graveurs, Illustrateurs Et Affichistes Français Et étrangers (16731950), vol.1 (Dijon: Echelle De Jacob, 2001), 463. However, the majority of catalogues list her works under the name “Marie de Cernel” or “Marie Desgraviers Marceau Sergent.” M. C. M. Simpson and Sergent Marceau, Reminiscences of a Regicide: Edited from the Original Mss. of Sergent Marceau, Member of the Convention, and Administrator of Police in the French Revolution (London: Chapman and Hall, 1889) forms the main biographical source. This work records the reflections of Antoine-François Sergent on the revolution, as recounted to an English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Davenport, during the end of Sergent’s life in Nice. The entire second chapter of the work focuses on Émira and her early life, 7–30. I am careful to consider that Émira herself was no longer alive when her husband’s words were recorded. Other key biographical sources include Pierre Larousse, Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siécle, vol. 14 (Paris: Administration du grand dictionnaire universel, 1875), 588; Ralph Nevill, French Prints of the Eighteenth Century (London: Macmillan and Company, 1908), 65–68; Noël Parfait, “Sergent (Antoine-François) et Marie-Jeanne-Louise-Françoise-Suzanne Marceau Desgraviers son épouse; en premières noces, femme Champion De Cernel,” in Le Bulletin des beaux-arts: France de 1500 à nos jours (Paris: Fabré, 1884–85), 71–78; MM. Le baron Roger Portalis and Henri Béraldi, Les graveurs du dix-huitième siècle, vol. 1 (Paris: Damascène Morgand et Charles Fatout, 1880–82), 348–54 ; MM. Le baron Roger Portalis and Henri Béraldi, Les graveurs du dix-huitième siècle, vol. 3 (Paris: Damascène Morgand et Charles Fatout, 1880–82), 537–46.

[4] Simpson and Sergent Marceau, Reminiscences of a Regicide, 9–11, discusses her having read Rousseau and her practice of writing notes on her reading. I have thus far been unable to locate the published version of her reading notes, Glanures dans le champ de la verité, in any library catalogue, including the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The source is also mentioned in Émile Bellier de la Chavignerie and Louis Auvray, Dictionnaire général des artistes de l’école française depuis l’origine des arts du dessin jusqu’à nos jours: architectes, peintres, sculptures, graveurs et lithographes, vol. 2 (Paris: Librairie Renouard, 1885), 494, and Octave Teissier, “Iconographie du Bailli de Suffren,” in L’art: revue mensuelle illustrée 61, vol. 2 of the third series (1902), 509.

[5] For additional information on the series Portraits of Great Men, see Margaret Morgan Grasselli, Colorful Impressions: The Printmaking Revolution in Eighteenth-Century France (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2003), 136–37.

[6] Émira Sergent Marceau, Emira Marceau-Sergent, sœur aînée du Gal. Au citoyen Guillard, . . . en réponse à un passage de son opinion sur les testamens militaires (Paris: Patar-Jouannet, 1798); Émira Sergent Marceau, Réponse . . . au discours pronocé au Conseil des Cinq-Cents, le 17 messidor, par le citoyen Guillard (Paris: Fauvelle et Sagnier, 1799).

[7] For Émira’s 1811 letter, see Archives Nationales AF/IV/1468.

[8] Portalis et Béraldi, Les graveurs, vol. 1, 349.

[9] UCL Art Museum’s “26 Chronology of the French Revolution.” Peter McPhee’s Liberty or Death: The French Revolution (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2016) also provides a key source of revolutionary history.

[10] Many scholars of social history have done important work in considering the fraternization of the public and political sphere that occurred during the French Revolution. See, for example, Dominique Godineau, The Women of Paris and Their French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Carla Hesse, The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2018); Lynn Hunt, ed., Eroticism and the Body Politic (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991); Lynn Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); Joan Landes, Visualizing the Nation: Gender, Representation, and Revolution in Eighteenth-Century France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018) and Joan Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988); Paris Amanda Spies-Gans, “Exceptional, but Not Exceptions: Public Exhibitions and the Rise of the Woman Artist in London and Paris, 1760–1830,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 51 (4) (2018): 393–416.

[11] Petition of Women of the Third Estate to the King, 1 January 1789, as reprinted in Mary Durham Johnson, Darline Gay Levy, and Harriet Branson Applewhite, eds., Women in Revolutionary Paris, 1789–1795: Selected Documents Translated with Notes and Commentary (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979), 18.

[12] Ibid., 19.

[13] Biographies of Sergent note his fervor for the revolution and his position as administrator under Robespierre; see note 3 above. Émira’s political leanings are more difficult to decipher, although we can infer that through the support of her brother and her following of Sergent into exile that she was sympathetic to the revolution. Pierre Larousse writes more explicitly in his biography of Émira that she shared with Sergent “her artistic taste and her ardent attachment to the Republic.” Larousse, Grand dictionnaire universel, 588.

[14] Émira made sheets of buttons in 1788, and I believe that an unsigned sheet of political buttons now catalogued under Sergent’s name may also be hers: BnF SNR-3 (Sergent-Marceau, Émira). For further discussion on the button prints, see my presentation “Liberty, Equality, Sorority? A Woman Printmaker in the French Revolution,” Art Talk Live (Harvard Art Museums), given on April 6, 2021.

[15] Johnson, Levy, and Applewhite, Women in Revolutionary Paris, 36–50.

[16] Rêquete des dames l'Assemblée Nationale (1789), trans. by Karen Offen, reprinted in Les Femmes dans le Révolution Française 1789–1794, presentés par Albert Soboul, vol. 1 (Paris, EDHIS, 1982).

[17] See McPhee, Liberty or Death, 119–41.

[18] Hesse, The Other Enlightenment, xviii–xix.

[19] Émira Sergent Marceau and Antoine-François Sergent Marceau, Corps législatif. Conseils des Cinq-Cents. Présentation au Conseil des Cinq-Cents du portrait du general Marceau (Paris: Impr. Nationale, 1798).

[20] From the Moniteur Universel, as quoted in Hunt, Family Romance, 92. Details of Frédegonde’s accusations and assassinations can be found in the text beneath the narrative image, as well as in Louise-Félicité Guinément de Kéralio, Les crimes des reines de France (Paris: L. Prudhomme, 1791), 7.

[21] See McPhee, Liberty or Death, 1–23, for a detailed discussion of the unequal tax structure of ancién régime France, including the gabelle.

[22] Lynn Hunt’s work (see note 10) is the best source for the important discussion of gendered violence and the transition from Marianne to Hercules during the revolution.

[23] Olympe de Gouges, Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne, 1791.

[24] Portalis and Béraldi, Les graveurs, 349.

[25] La Gazette de France 92 (Paris: Imprimerie royale, November 22, 1791), 407.