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Germinal, Floréal, Prairial: The Re-Imagined Spring of the French Revolutionary Calendar

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ah, the first day of spring. As snows begin to trickle away and green slowly reappears, spring brings with it the perennial promise of longer, warmer days. If you happened to live during the heady days of the French revolution, today would also mark the start of a spring month: Happy first day of Germinal!

Following the unseating of the French monarchy and the institution of the French Republic in 1792, cultural revisionism was all the rage. Those newly in power methodically stripped away the relics of France’s ancien régime and sought ways to modernize. During this era, the metric system and a decimal clock were introduced as more rational, symmetrical measures befitting a new era of progress. In 1793, after the revolutionaries rejiggered the calendar into 36 décades, or 10-day weeks (and 5 or 6 Sansculottides to keep the calendar in line with the sun), poet Philippe Fabre d’Eglantine was tasked with revising the names and designations of the Gregorian calendar for the French Republic. Revealing his revisions to the French National Convention that year, the poet presented the new calendar as “substituting for visions of ignorance the realities of reason, and for the sacred ... the truth of nature.”

A self-professed nature-lover, Fabre longed to bring France back to her agricultural roots, and he drew inspiration from natural and rural life for the new calendar. The 12 months were re-aligned to the year's natural intervals—the solstices and equinoxes (hence the arrival of spring ushering in a new month). Each season was subdivided into three months, and Fabre played on French and Latin roots to coin new names that evoked each month’s moment in the natural cycle. Painter Louis Lafitte was commissioned to provide illustrations for each month, and they beautifully display the pastoral symbols and themes.

Spring arrived with Germinal, a name that calls to mind sprouts, buds, and the germination of plant life.

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It was followed by Floréal, named for flowering blossoms.

Wikimedia commons // Public Domain

The next month, Prairial, was named for the cultivation of meadows.

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The months of the other seasons were given names like Messidor (from the Latin messis, meaning grain harvest), Vendémiaire (from an old Occitan word associated with the vineyard harvest), and Nivôse (drawing on the Latin nivosus, meaning snowy).

The new names didn't evoke positive images for everyone. When the rival British wrote their own translation of Fabre’s new names—“Messrs. Slippy, Drippy, Nippy, Showery, Flowery, Bowery, Hoppy, Croppy, Poppy, Wheezy, Sneezy, and Freezy”—they were unmistakably poking fun at his creations. Even more problematic was a glaring bias toward the region in and around Paris. Nivôse may have drawn light-hearted mockery in the French Mediterranean, but in the overseas territories, the calendar was downright chauvinistic. For a government proclaiming liberté and égalité, the calendar was a glaring insult to fellow citizens scattered among France’s holdings as far afield as Haiti and Mauritius. And even if Fabre’s ode to farm-life were received quaintly in France, the décades’ longer workweek and fewer rest days drew the ire of the country’s laborers. Add in a lasting discrepancy over the reckoning of leap year, and the calendar could hardly be considered a success.

In the end, the calendar suffered the same fate as the Republic. Having been crowned Emperor by the Catholic Pope, Napoleon swept the calendar to the wayside in 1806. Fabre wasn't around to see his revolutionary creation’s fate: Like many of his comrades, Fabre lost his head to the guillotine in 1794 as the revolution crumbled into the “reign of terror.”

Like Fabre, France’s new Emperor recognized the power of symbols in reinforcing systems of thought. The calendar was resigned to the footnotes of history. Ironically, one of its most lasting vestiges is in 18 Brumaire, the notorious date historians agree ended the republic and marked the ascension of Napoleon as head of state.

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0
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Get Your GIFs Ready for This International Public Domain GIF-Making Competition
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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0

Excellent GIF-making skills can serve you beyond material for your clever tweets. Each year, a group of four digital libraries from across the world hosts GIF IT UP, a competition to find the best animated image sourced from public domain images from their archives.

The competition is sponsored by Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), New Zealand’s DigitalNZ, and the National Library of Australia’s Trove, all of which host millions of public domain works. The requirements are that the source material must be in the public domain, have a 'no known copyright restrictions' statement, or have a Creative Commons license that allows its reuse. The material must also come from one of the sponsored sources. Oh, and judging by the past winners, it helps if it’s a little whimsical.

The image above won the grand prize in 2015. And this was a runner-up in 2016:

via GIPHY

This year’s prizes haven’t been announced yet (although Europeana says there will be a new one for first-time GIF makers), but last year’s grand prize winner got their own Giphoscope, and runners-up got $20 gift cards. (Turns out, there’s not a lot of money in public domain art.)

Not an expert GIFer yet? You can always revisit the audio version of DPLA’s advanced GIF-making tutorial from last year.

The fourth-annual GIF IT UP contest opens to submissions October 1.

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