The image of Marianne first became significant in 1792, although her origins date back to 1775 Marianne first appeared on a medal in July 1789, celebrating the storming of the Bastille at the start of the Revolution. From then until September 1792, Marianne was used less than other images, particularly those of the gods Mercury & Minerva who were felt to be more in keeping the the Revolution’s aesthetic sensibilities. In September 1792 the new Republic sought a new image to represent the State & Marianne, the female allegory of Liberty, was chosen to represent the new regime, while continuing to symbolise liberty at the same time.
The first “official” imagery of Marianne is clad in a classical gown & in her right hand, she supports a pike with the Phrygian cap resting on it, representing the liberation of France. Although she is standing & holding a pike, this version of Marianne represents the ideology of the conservative Girondins in the National Convention as they tried to move beyond the initial violence of the Revolution.
Although the figure of Marianne from 1792 stood in a relatively conservative pose, the revolutionaries were quick to abandon that figure when it no longer suited them & by 1793, the figure of Marianne had been replaced by a more violent image; that of a woman, bare-breasted & fierce, usually leading men into revolutionary battle. While the first Marianne was neutral, the shift to an image embodying radical action came at the beginning of the Terror, which called for “militant revolutionary action” against foreigners & counter-revolutionaries. As part of these tactics the more “violent” Marianne was used to rouse the French people to action, but even this change was seen to be insufficiently radical by the more extreme republicans. After the arrest of the Girondin deputies in October 1793, the Convention sought to radicalise the new Republic, eventually using the symbol of Hercules to represent the Republic, rather then the more politically compromised & ambivalent Marianne.
After the Reign of Terror finally drew to its inevitable but bloody close there was a need for another change in the imagery, to represent the more civil & avowedly non-violent nature of the Directory. In the Official Vignette of the Executive Directory, 1798, Marianne made her return, now wearing the Phrygian cap but surrounded by different symbols. In contrast to the Marianne of 1792, this Marianne was not armed, instead she leans on the tablet of the Constitution of Year III & instead of looking straight at the observer, her face points towards the side, & so seems less confrontational.
The symbol of Marianne continued to evolve in response to the needs of the State long after the Directory was dissolved in 1799 following the coup carried-out by Sieyès & Bonaparte, & Marianne endured because of her abstraction & political flexibility. The “malleability” of what she symbolised has allowed French political figures to continually manipulate her image to their specific purposes, even to the present day.