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