French Anticlericalism in the Nineteenth Century.

The French Revolution marked an irreversible turning point in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the French population. More than ever before, it was acceptable to question the Church’s right to claim sole responsibility for the people’s souls and moral well-being. The mystical tie between the throne and the Church, the divine right of the King to rule and to situate national sovereignty in his body, had been broken. Governed according to new ideals of democracy and equality and imbued by the philosophies of the Enlightenment, radical revolutionaries expected to have the right to choose their own moral compass and spiritual beliefs. For radical thinkers then, the results of the Concordat signed by the Pope and Napoleon in 1802, were a huge disappointment. The Concordat not only recognised the Catholic Church as the religion of the majority of the French people but bestowed in the clergy powers over the education of future generations. It also gave the clergy state salaries which put them on an equal footing to the professional laic middle classes and in a superior position to the peasants in the rural parishes. As a consequence, the popular image of the clergy, who already stereotyped as gluttonous and lascivious, was concretised into a fat, heaving drinking and sexually immoral figure whose suitability for directing the people’s morality was highly questionable. Furthermore, the Church, now cut off from its official place as a support to the French rulers, became to the eyes of many a threat to the unity of the French Republic. It was now an insular society within the wider society whose ultimate loyalty was not to the French government and democratic values but to the Pope and absolutism.

The frustrations felt at what was an unfair and potentially divisive sponge on the State reverberated throughout the nineteenth century and eventually swelled to fuel the debates in the years between 1869 and 1905 on the necessity to officially separate the Church from the State. In what became a century long campaign, two clear approaches to anticlericalism stand out in the debates. The first from those who, while still believing in Christianity, rejected what they saw as an immoral institution from having the power to dictate their faith. The second from those whose atheism led them to reject any impingement of religion on personal liberty. For them, particularly those with socialist sympathies, the Church was guilty of absolutism and obscurantism which crushed the people’s consciences and led them to submissively accept their misfortunes instead of fight for better. This article will outline the two approaches illustrated by the work of two anticlerical caricaturists, Willette on the Christian side and Jules Grandjouan on the antireligious side, to compare these two approaches in their targets and their effectiveness in supporting the campaign for the separation of Church and State.

Adolphe Willette (1857-1926) is now known for his very ambiguous caricatures. Brought up in the Christian tradition, Willette never lost his faith in the teachings in Jesus. His anticlericalism was demonstrated in his anger at the Church for betraying what he saw as the profoundly humanist and socialist message in the Bible. Clear in his attacks is the image of the Sacré Cœur whose building, coming shortly after the suppression of the Paris Commune, was seen as an establishment icon reinforcing the government’s control over anarchist or socialist groups(1). In many of Willette’s caricatures, Christ is present to condemn the Church for its avarice in the face of severe poverty. Here Christ is transformed into a socialist activist who refuses to recognise in the Catholic Church his representatives on earth. In this vein, Willette condemns the Church’s claim to be the moral mediator for the laity and suggests instead that the people should reach for a more personal relationship with Christ. Like other spiritualist or deist anticlericals, Willette hated the obscurantist teachings of the Catholic clergy which depressed their followers’ consciences and taught them to accept their misfortunes with submission and humility. For many radical socialists, this was an unacceptable support for established wealth and capitalism. The message was that the working poor should rise up and take control of their beliefs, their education and their labour.

Another feature of Willette’s caricature which is highly characteristic of the anti-catholic as opposed to anti-religious side of anticlericalism is his sustained use of the long held popular beliefs that the Catholic clergy were sponging off the State. Thanks to the Concordat, the clergy could enjoy an easy livelihood without apparently having to work very hard. Frequently portrayed as drunk, fat and lazy, the clergy were associated with the factory owners and capitalist elites in French society as exploiters of the working poor and the social injustices still inherent in the Third Republic. A professed aim of many socialist caricaturists and journalists was to use satire to ridicule the wealthy classes and use laughter to undermine the social structures which maintained the injustices. By showing the clergy as unable to control their own materialistic passions and appetites, the caricaturists hoped to subvert the assumption that they were the best guardians of laic morality. Removing popular trust in the clergy, they hoped, would undermine the political dependence on the Church to maintain order and so push the government to find a republican alternative to the Church’s teaching and pastoral roles.

Willette was prolific in the fight against censorship and the full freedoms of the press, particularly the illustrated press, to publish whatever it wanted to. Even towards the end of his life when he converted to Catholicism and changed to a moralising, Willette continued to draw women partially naked in a light pornographic style. He delighted in painting the nipples pink as an extra mischievous emphasis, winking at his readers and thumbing his nose at the authorities. 

Adolphe Willette, [Collection Jaquet]. Dessinateurs et humoristes. Willette. 5 : [défets d'illustrations de périodiques] , published between 1900-1920, exact publication unknown, source:
Adolphe Willette, [Collection Jaquet]. Dessinateurs et humoristes. Willette. 5 : [défets d’illustrations de périodiques] , published between 1900-1920, exact publication unknown, source:

In Anastasie, Petite-Fille de Caton, de Toquemada, Fill Chère de M. Roujom… Comme la Lune, est très avariée, Willette offers a pictorial history of the ways in which the Church has tried to silence dissenting voices. The overarching theme is of organised religion in league with the authorities to punish or silence non-conformists or those accused of immorality. Authority is represented by a king, his crown surrounded by a halo, by the Roman senator Cato and by Anastasie herself, the personification of censorship made famous under the July Monarchy, standing next to an allegory of the law. The images of torture and punishment are particularly graphic and reminiscent of religious persecution, especially during the years of the Catholic inquisition. What is being silenced varies from religious dissent to hedonism, the latter a reminder of Willette’s battle to be allowed to draw pornographic illustrations. Willette’s message is finally made clear in the bottom righthand corner where a full moon, a familiar reference to naked buttocks, is covered by a fig leaf. Willette is characteristically ambiguous because he draws God being himself in league with the government and blames God for inventing the fig leaf. Yet the persecution is human, not divine, thus suggesting that the Church, in service of the King or the State, has exploited the people’s faith and fear of sin to control their self-expression. The criticism, therefore, does not go so far as to attack people’s faith – indeed, as religious dissent is also shown being suppressed, it would suggest the opposite – but to attack the Church’s role in restricting popular freedoms.

The ambition of the caricaturists against organised religion was to create a completely laic Republic without any State dependence on or subsidising of the Church: religion would be consigned to the private sphere. The anti-religious camp, however, aimed to completely destroy the foundations of faith and so the legitimacy of religion in private as well as public life. Characteristically, this group targeted religion through attacks on the Bible and the manifestations of the Holy Trinity, an approach not really seen since the first pagan anti-Christian caricatures of the Roman Empire. Jules Grandjouan (1875-1968) was similar to Willette in that he targeted several different socialist causes through his artwork. For instance, though clearly anticlerical, Grandjouan’s caricatures more frequently targeted the Tsarist regime in Russia in support of the working classes in revolt. He was particularly critical of the close relationship between the Tsars and the French government, denouncing a contradiction between France’s democratic ideals and Tsarist dictatorship. Grandjouan stands out in his anticlericalism, however, because it is possible to say that he was openly atheist (2). While anticlericalism was long established, atheism was still a much more radical step to take. It might have been the case that many of Grandjouan’s fellow caricaturists and anarchists harboured atheistic beliefs but very few made those public, such was the lingering influence of Catholicism and Christianity in France (3).

Ideas uniting atheism and socialism started earlier in the century. In the 1850s, Proudhon that obscurantist religious teachings brutalised the people by taking away their moral autonomy. He claimed that the Catholic Church’s real motive was to insinuate allegiance to an absolutist authority (the Pope) which would undermine the people’s confidence in democracy and their own sovereignty. The stupified expressions of believers is echoed in several artists’ drawings, particularly in Conclusion: En toi, mon Dieu, je croirai toujours by Bellery Desfontaines.

Pencil drawing, Bellery Desfontaines, L'Assiette au beurre, no. 180. 10/09/1904, source:
Pencil drawing, Bellery Desfontaines, L’Assiette au beurre, no. 180. 10/09/1904, Paris, source:

Staring open-mouthed, his eyes half-closed, at a shining light above him, the poor man looks entranced and half asleep. His masculinity and usefulness are stripped from him, leaving him looking small and oddly formless in a large shirt disappearing into shadow. This caricature suggests that it is shameful to believe so absolutely, unconditionally accepting the doctrines taught by the Church. Yet it does not go so far as to blame God or Jesus. This could still be interpreted as the criticism on the ambitions of the Church to raise a subdued and unquestioning society often levelled by education reformers. 

Grandjouan goes a step further in his edition of L’Assiette au beurre, ‘Ecce Homo’ (4), where he (unusally) provides both the text and the illustrations of an issue emphatically labelled “antichrétien” or antichristian. The front cover is explicit: a worker crushes the dying body of Christ over his cross. The perspective impresses on the reader the power of this action. Seen from beneath, the worker is huge, the sole of his boot coming down in the forefront of the drawing. Physically, the places of God and man are exchanged with the man taking the position of power and strength over a weak, soon to be extinguished manifestation of the Christian God. Jesus is oddly drawn as an ancient man, reinforcing this connection with God who is more frequently drawn as elderly and bearded. Emasculated, his groin pressed to the ground looks almost bare of genital parts while his bony, fleshless body makes him appear strangely disgusting and inhuman. The implications of the image are clear: Grandjouan emphasises that the time of religious predominance in the workers’ lives is over and that religion is soon to become obsolete and dead. The opposition between the worker, very much alive and an ideal of humanity, and the Christ-figure, dying and almost alien, distances the reader from religion and the comfort that it offered. The drawing is a call for the workers to make the last push to overthrow a corrupting influence that has been weakening them for centuries, first in alliance with the monarchy and then with the right-wing leaders of the Republic. In the background is the silhouette of a cathedral – possibly Notre-Dame – standing high above the rooftops of a city – most likely Paris – and reminding the viewer of the continued attempt of the authorities to cast the people into shadow through the Church.

Jules Grandjouan, 29/12/1906, L'Assiette au Beurre, Paris. Source:
Jules Grandjouan, no. 300, 29/12/1906, L’Assiette au Beurre, Paris. Source:

The cover of Ecce Homo is also an indirect attack on the bible. The image is an alternative biblical history where, instead of being crucified, Jesus is crushed over his broken cross. Anachronistically situated in turn of the century France, this reworking of the gospel seeks to undo the foundations of Christianity by rewriting Christ’s death and all-important resurrection. Ecce Homo, the phrase supposedly used by Pontius Pilate to present Jesus to the crowds at Jerusalem before his crucifixion, is used again with new implications (5). This is the man, a man and not a God, within the workers’ power to overthrow; this is the man who has been an obstacle to their autonomy and self-fulfilment. Alternatively, or additionally, Ecce Homo could refer to the other man in the print. The worker (whose face, incidentally, is very similar to Grandjouan’s) is the new model for masculinity and for public action. By destroying Christ, Grandjouan shows the fallibility of religion and the potential for another, atheist and empowering way of seeing the world. 

In the campaign for the separation between Church and State, many caricaturists who may have been atheists used the safer, anti-catholic as opposed to anti-christian, imagery to contribute to the polemic. Artists like Grandjouan prove that atheism was a very real part of the movement yet it is also clear that other artists had a more moderate stance towards Christianity if not towards religion. What is clear is that attacks from both groups could be devastating, both to the Church’s dignity and its authority over the people. That artists were willing to attempt more openly atheist caricatures shows that they were confident that enough of their readers would welcome such an intervention and that the atmosphere was right to push others who were perhaps doubting the legitimacy of their religious beliefs. Naturally, the violently anti-Christian images, particularly those attacking Jesus and the virgin Mary, were highly controversial. But this is further evidence that historians cannot interpret the anticlerical movement among anarchists and socialists as being internally homogenous. There were many degrees of anticlericalism, even as many as a different approach for each individual campaigner. This fairly simple categorisation does not go far enough to reflect that diversity but it does take steps to suggest it. A full account of the variety is not possible within such a short space. It is enough, for now, to point in that direction and open up the area for research. It may shed new light on why several caricaturists became seriously disillusioned with political caricature, drifting off either into purely non-political art or into more violent political movements (6) and why some eventually converted to a religious faith (7). These details on the mindsets of individual caricaturists help to understand what pushes individuals to break taboos and offend large swathes of the population, a highly controversial point today. Insight into this subject may help us in modern political debates to look on all sides with more empathy and tolerance and so avoid overreactions which lead to violence and hatred.

  1. This is in fact a mistaken assumption since the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur had been planned before the Paris Commune during the Second Empire.
  2. For more details on Grandjouan’s biography, see Michel Dixmier et al, La République et l’Église, Images d’une querelle.
  3. See Guillaume Doizy for more details on anti-biblical satire.
  4. The timing of this edition of L’Assiette au beurre, on the 29th of December or a few days after Christmas, demonstrates the daring of the artist. In the middle of the festive season, Grandjouan hoped to have a maximum impact with his attack on Christ as a figure.
  5. Ecce Homo has been used by several caricaturists throughout the nineteenth century in a pro-Christ if not pro-clerical sense. Grandville used it in 1833 in La Caricature to evoke the humiliation and seeming powerlessness of Christ in the power of the Romans. He replaced Christ with a naked Louis Philippe ironically comparing the pretended people’s king with the real king of humility and solidarity with the poor. Similarly, Widhoff, in L’Assiette au beurre, used Ecce Homo in 1902 to compare the Pope living in wealthy splendour with Jesus in his simple poverty. Grandjouan stands out as an artist attempting to make Jesus the victim of the declaration.
  6. Grandjouan joined the Communist Party after the Russian Revolution but stopped producing caricatures regularly, only created occasional posters. By 1930, he became disillusioned with caricature and moved into other areas of art. See Dixmier et al. for more details on Grandjouan’s biography, p. 145.
  7. As already mentioned above, Willette converted to Catholicism later in life when faced with the double domestic crisis of a split with his wife and the death of a child. See Bihl for more details, p. 258. Jossot converted to Islam after becoming disillusioned with political caricature – he even went so far as to call it an art of hatred. See Dixmier et al, p. 145.


  • Bihl, Laurent, ’Adolphe Willette, de la haine du clergé à l’obsession de dieu’, Ridiculosa: Caricature et religion(s) (ed. Jean-Claude Gardes et Guillaume Doizy, no. 15 (2008, l’Université de Bretagne Occidentale, Brest) pp. 247-260. 
  • Boespflug, François, ‘Brève histoire de la caricature des figures majeures du christianisme’, Théologiques, vol. 17, no. 2, 2009, pp. 85-110. Accessed at, 22 April 2016.
  • Dixmier, Michel, Lalouette Jacqueline, Pasamonik Dider, La République et l’Église, Images d’une querelle, (Paris, La Martinière, 2005).
  • Doizy Guillaume, Lalaux, Jean-Bernard, À bas la calotte. La caricature anticléricale et la Séparation des Églises et de l’État, (Paris, Éditions Alternatives, 2005).
  • Doizy, Guillaume, « De la caricature anticléricale à la farce biblique », Archives de sciences sociales des religions [En ligne], 134 | avril – juin 2006, mis en ligne le 18 octobre 2009, consulté le 22 avril 2016. URL : http:// ; DOI : 10.4000/assr.3660.
  • Grand-Carteret, John, Contre Rome: La bataille anticléricale en Europe, (Paris, Louis Michaud, 1906).
  • Petit, Vincent, ‘L’anticléricalisme est un art. Le Retour de la Conférence peint par Courbet et commenté par Proudhon’, Ridiculosa, Caricature et religion(s) (ed. Jean-Claude Gardes et Guillaume Doizy, no. 15 (2008, l’Université de Bretagne Occidentale, Brest) pp. 233 – 245.

Cite this blog post
Stephanie Williams (2016, June 29). French Anticlericalism in the Nineteenth Century. Only Joking. Retrieved June 20, 2024, from

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