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Celebrating 19th-Century Chaos and Calamity with Le Petit Journal

by Allison Meier on September 16, 2013

January 26, 1896 issue of Le Petit Journal, showing death taking a young soldier, illustrated by Frédéric Lix (via Wikimedia)

January 26, 1896 issue of Le Petit Journal, showing death taking a young soldier, illustrated by Frédéric Lix (via Wikimedia)

No calamity was too chaotic or crime too grotesque for Le Petit Journal to illustrate. The Parisian newspaper was published from 1863 to 1944 — its demise no doubt helped along by the French occupation during World War II — with its weekly illustrated supplement vividly depicting the major and minor news of the day, specializing in conflagrations, disasters, and any tumultuous street scene.

As Michael Stephen Smith notes in The Emergence of Modern Business Enterprise in France, 1800-1930, it was only with Le Petit Journal and other “true penny-press dailies” in Paris that there was “the full realization of the mass-circulation newspaper in France.” But perhaps most important of all was that it was “depolitisé (nonpolitical).” This meant that it was much more focused on news beyond politics, listing hard news alongside reports from courts and from culture, as well as serialized novels and small time crime, duels, assassinations, and family drama.

But the favorite subjects, illustrated by a rotating staff of artists including Fortuné Meaulle, and Frédéric Lix, were always the most disastrous, fantastic, and criminal — with no holds spared on the gore. And they were differentiated from other publications not just by the drama, but for the realism. The aim was rarely caricature, but instead to depict what actually happened, before photography became the quick way to get the news out. The whole run of Le Petit Journal is available on Gallica, the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s online archive, and some of the more dramatic covers from its 80 years of publication are assembled below.

1892 illustration of a mine explosion by Fortuné Méaulle and Henri Meyer (via Wikimedia)

1892 illustration of a mine explosion by Fortuné Méaulle and Henri Meyer (via Wikimedia)

May 15, 1904: The train accident of Roissy-en-Brie (via Gallica Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

May 15, 1904: The train accident of Roissy-en-Brie (via Gallica Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

December 1, 1912: Cholera (via Bibliothèque nationale de France)

December 1, 1912: Cholera (via Bibliothèque nationale de France)

November 25, 1893: Explosion at the Barcelona opera by the anarchist Santiago Salvador Franch (via Wikimedia)

November 25, 1893: Explosion at the Barcelona opera by the anarchist Santiago Salvador Franch (via Wikimedia)

May 10, 1897: Explosion at the Bazar de la Charité, by Osvaldo Tofani and Fortuné Méaulle (via Wikimedia)

May 10, 1897: Explosion at the Bazar de la Charité, by Osvaldo Tofani and Fortuné Méaulle (via Wikimedia)

August 21, 1910: the French airforce on the Eastern Front (via Wikimedia)

August 21, 1910: the French airforce on the Eastern Front (via Wikimedia)

February 21, 1916: "The Punishment of a Pirate," showing a Zeppelin returning from a raid on England sinking in the North Sea (via Wikimedia)

February 21, 1916: “The Punishment of a Pirate,” showing a Zeppelin returning from a raid on England sinking in the North Sea (via Wikimedia)

July 8, 1893: The collision of the HMS Victoria with the HMS Camperdown (via Wikimedia)

July 8, 1893: The collision of the HMS Victoria with the HMS Camperdown (via Wikimedia)

July 2, 1894: The assination of President Carnot (via Wikimedia)

July 2, 1894: The assassination of President Carnot (via Wikimedia)

April 16, 1882: The arrest of Ravachol (via Bibliothèque nationale de France)

April 16, 1882: The arrest of Ravachol (via Bibliothèque nationale de France)

May 12, 1907: The "ogresse" Jeanne Webber (via Wikimedia)

May 12, 1907: The “ogresse” Jeanne Webber, who killed at least 10 children (via Wikimedia)

October 10, 1891: General Georges Boulanger committing suicide in front of the grave of his mistress (via Wikimedia)

October 10, 1891: General Georges Boulanger committing suicide in front of the grave of his mistress (via Wikimedia)

November 14, 1891: The accident of Marly-le-Roi, where the mechanic Monsieur Cané died while pushing a woman out of the way of a train (via Bibliothèque nationale de France)

November 14, 1891: The accident of Marly-le-Roi, where the mechanic Monsieur Cané died while pushing a woman out of the way of a train (via Bibliothèque nationale de France)

See more of Le Petit Journal at the Bibliothèque nationale de Frances’s online archive, Gallica.

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