Baron Louis Marie Baptiste Atthalin. His “Cartes Comiques” & the true fairytale of a fishermans daughter who became a Baroness in 1836.
Baron Louis Marie Baptiste Atthalin (22 June 1784 – 3 September 1856) is all but forgotten today. In mid 19th century France he was an incredible phenomenon. A dashing, aristocratic polymath, Atthalin combined being an accomplished artist, watercolourist and lithographer with a long distiguished military and political career. He began his soldiering at 22, fighting in campaigns with Napoleon’s Grande Armée in 1806 and 1807, bravely distinguishing himself at the battle of Eylau and the seige of Grandentz.
Battle after battle followed for Atthalin. He fought at Gardadeu, Molérès-M-Rey, Wals and at Texel in 1812. All this gained him a second call up to Napoleon’s Grande Armée where he rose to battalion commander by November 1813. By March 1814 he became Colonel Atthalin. That same year, his derring-do and Baronic status gained the Colonel admission to royal circles where he was held in high regard and he was swiftly named by the Duke of Orléans, Louis-Philippe d’Orléans (the future King Louis-Philippe 1st) one of his personal aide-de-camps. Once King, Louis-Philippe I of France sent Atthalin to Russia, to officially inform Emperor Nicholas I of his ascension to the throne. By 1830, and now General, Atthalin was further promoted by King Louis-Philippe to Maréchal de Camp, third in command of the French army.
Endless awards and distinctions were heaped upon Atthalin as an officer in the French army. He reached the rank of Lieutenant General, became a Knight in the Royal and Military Order of Saint Louis and was awarded the Grand Cross in the Royal and Military Order of Saint Ferdinand and the Order of Glory amongst many other honours. His chest was so encrusted with shining stars, medallions, orders, swashes and sashes that the cloth beneath was barely visible.
In the middle of all this fighting, painting and rising up the ranks and for reasons which remain forever unknown, Atthalin set himself a unique artistic challenge.
Sometime before 1817, he sat down and redesigned the humble playing card deck.
The result is the “Cartes Comiques du Colonel Atthalin”.
There are numberous examples of these “transformation cards” in existence from the mid-19th century, “Cartes comiques” with beautiful hand drawn illustrations but Atthalin’s pack, published around 1817, is different.
Drawn on and around, encompassing, even using the existing playing card graphics – the hearts, clubs, diamonds & spades of the numerical cards – are scenes. Within these impossibly constricting confines he faced he created another world within the world of cards. And each card is a whimsical artistic puzzle deftly solved. Brilliant and pleasing.
The court cards – jack, queen & king – show figures from classical literature & history; David & Goliath, the Greek god Pallas, son of Poseidon and messenger of the seas, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne King of the Franks & Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800.
These court cards seem flat to millenial eyes & minds but to a Frenchman in 1817 each one would have been loaded with modernity & meaning. The Jack of Clubs for example, is the artist Jaquemin Gringonneur and there’s card related storyline involved. Tarot cards. Around 1392 the story goes, the King of France had stolen a tattered old set of playing cards from some gypsies and become so entranced by them that he was losing his mind. For his amusement, the King commissioned Gringonneur to paint him a set of cards. What Gringonneur drew on the the gypsy’s cards turned them into what are thought to be the first pack of Tarot cards. As Gringonneur painted, the images came alive in his mind and he lost sense of who he was, what he was doing, what was real and what was not. Cards that send everyone that touches them mad. A man in the Kings court painting cards. Atthalin.
The numerical cards however, need no explanation, each is a marvel of inventiveness. The scenes on them show both everyday French life and that of the aristocracy. Perhaps Athallin wanted to create something for the masses, something that would endure, like Tarot. We also get a sense of Athallin’s worldiness. He’d travelled the world in Napoleon’s Grande Armée, something most French people would not have been able to do. The 2 of diamonds shows a sailor in his berth below decks, there are Arabs smoking hookah pipes, hearts become turbans and a diamond becomes a fez. There are rustic farming scenes, carpenters working, soldiers marching, alchemists, dancers, street performers on stilts, boxers, musical gatherings, religious tableaux, soldiers, a battle and a man carried by servants in a sedan chair.
One day in 1818 a fairy tale began. A beautiful 16 year old girl, the daughter of a dirt poor fisherman was working on the docks in Granville, a small coastal town in Normandy. Her name was Françoise Lelandais but everyone called her Fanchon and her meteoric rise in status would soon eclipse even that of Atthalin’s and scandalise the French royal court. 32 and unmarried, the Baron spotted Françoise from his carriage and was completely smitten. The aide-de-camp to the future King of France was so fascinated with her that he stepped down out of his carriage and walked over in his elegant officers regalia to chat with the working class girl. That same day he went to the girls mother and assured her that he could and would take care of her daughters future. Mrs. Lelandais cared enough about her daughters happiness to agree and Françoise, who had always dreamed of Paris, joined the Baron in his carriage and the pair left for la Ville Lumière that same day. Atthalin installed Françoise in an aristocratic school in the city and perhaps it was as they played the Baron’s “Cartes Comiques” together that the two became lovers.
Twelve years and a few wars later in 1830, King Louis-Philippe 1st took his aide-de-camp to one side. The King informed Atthalin that his concubinage with the commoner Françoise shocked his court and ordered him to either “Send her home or marry her”.
Built in 1653, Paris’s Baroque Église Saint-Roch on Rue Saint-Honoré has a mural above the altar. It shows Saint Suzanna, who was beheaded in 296 for refusing to marry a pagan relative of the Emperor Diocletian thus becoming a martyr. She’s fleeing her attackers, looking up to the heavens for God’s help. A month after the King’s rebuke and beneath Saint Suzanna, Fanchon the fisherman’s daughter from Granville became the Baroness Françoise Marie Baptiste Atthalin. They were immensely happy together, but childless.
Françoise liked from time to time, to return to Granville to smell the ocean air. In the Paris she once dreamed of she appeared in the society journal Belles Femmes de Paris and gained the sobriquet “La Belle Granvillaise”. In 1833 Françoise’s older sister Virginie died leaving six children in the care of her husband, a sailor. Françoise took charge of raising two of her sister’s children, the second son, Louis-Ferdinand, and the last daughter, Elisa Virginie who the childless Atthalin became especially devoted to.
Athellin would rise in the court of Louis Phillippe 1 and serve the King through two revolutions and political turmoil. Dominated by weathy bougoisie and numberous former Napoloenic officials like himself, the July Monarchy period led to the fall and exile of the royal Orléans family in 1840. This left Athallin stripped of his titles and postion. Despite this drop in status, in 1841 the Baroness sat for a pencil sketch with German painter of aristocracy and royalty Franz Xaver Winterhalter in the Paris suburb of St. Cloud. The Baron finally left left Paris for good on 14 August 1848 and retired with his Baroness, the fisherman’s daughter to Colmar, his birthplace near the German border in Alsace.
Athalin worked on his watercolours and stayed away from politics for the rest of his life. He died in 1856.
Fanchon, the Baroness Françoise Marie Baptiste Atthalin died in 1886, surviving her husband by thirty years.
The small pencil sketch of Françoise Lelandais, the poor fisherman’s daughter who became a Baroness went up for sale in March 27th 2009. In a Frankfurt gallery auction of Old Master & 19th Century Drawings. In a scarlet frame decorated with dusty gold roccoco, “Portrait of Thérèse Françoise Baroness Atthalin, née Lelandais” by Franz Xaver Winterhalter fetched 15,939 Euros.