On 31 December 1813, Geneva, which had been the capital of the département du Léman since its annexation by France in 1798, proclaimed its independence. Encouraged by Napoleon’s recent defeats, members of the old aristocracy, led by Ami Lullin and Joseph Des Arts, seized this opportunity to restore the republic.
Interview at the Museum with Olivier Fatio, in front of a painting by W.-A. Töpffer (in French)
On 31 December 1813, Geneva, the capital of the departement of Léman since its annexation by France in 1798, proclaimed its independence. Encouraged by Napoleon’s recent defeats, members of the old aristocracy, led by Ami Lullin and Joseph Des Arts, seized this opportunity to restore the Republic.
It soon became clear that the only possibility for Geneva was to join the Swiss Confederation. To do so, it would need to meet two conditions: expand its territory so as to have a common border with Switzerland and write a new constitution.
Pictet de Rochemont was put in charge of negotiating the territorial issue at the Congresses of Paris and Vienna.
The new constitution was written by Des Arts, the mayor of Geneva. This reactionary document omitted most of the democratic rights gained since 1789. It abolished the former General Council of Citizens, concentrated power in the hands of a 25-member Council of State, and created a Representative Council, which had limited power and was elected by census suffrage: only citizens with a high income could vote. The constitution was voted and adopted without debate in August 1814; only a few enlightened men, such as Jean de Sismondi, Etienne Dumont and François Bellot expressed reservations.
For his part, the painter Wolfgang-Adam Töpffer, father of Rodolphe Töpffer, who was close to liberal circles, denounced the flaws the new constitution in his satirical drawings and paintings. He depicted it as a document worthy of a tyrant, especially with regard to article eight; hence, the number eight appears on syndic Des Arts’s clothes. This article exempted certain notables, considered to be favourable to the regime, such as pastors, professors, directors of charities and hospices, from the income test required to vote.
Töpffer’s work targeted more than politics. He also skewered the lack of generosity of men in power towards the arts, portraying them as more interested in agricultural machinery than in supporting artists; denounced the struggle opposing the Catholic clergy and the Protestant pastors; and caricatured the physical defects of many political figures of his time. In sum, he painted a humorous portrait of the human comedy of Restoration Geneva.