This very striking image of Captain Dreyfus on trial at Rennes is from the Vanity Fair issue of September 7th, 1899.
The Dreyfus Affair was a scandal that rocked France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A Jewish artillery captain in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), was falsely convicted of passing military secrets to the Germans. In 1894 he was court-martialed, found guilty of treason and sentenced to life behind bars on Devil’s Island off of French Guiana. In a public ceremony in Paris following his conviction, Dreyfus had the insignia torn from his uniform and his sword broken and was paraded before a crowd that shouted, “Death to Judas, death to the Jew.”
In 1896, the new head of the army’s intelligence unit, Georges Picquart, uncovered evidence pointing to another French military officer, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, as the real traitor. However, when Picquart told his bosses what he’d discovered he was discouraged from continuing his investigation, transferred to North Africa and later imprisoned. Nevertheless, word about Esterhazy’s possible guilt began to circulate. In 1898, he was court-martialed but quickly found not guilty; he later fled the country. After Esterhazy’s acquittal, a French newspaper published an open letter titled “J’Accuse…!” by well-known author Emile Zola in which he defended Dreyfus and accused the military of a major cover-up in the case.
In 1899, when this image was published, Dreyfus was court-martialed for a second time and found guilty. Although he was pardoned days later by the French president, it wasn’t until 1906 that Dreyfus officially was exonerated and reinstated in the army.
My copy is from the London magazine, Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair was founded in London 1868 and aimed to expose the contemporary vanities of Victorian society. It offered its readership articles on fashion, current events, the theatre, books, social events, serialised fiction and the latest scandals.
A full-page, colour lithograph of a contemporary celebrity or dignitary appeared in most issues, and it is for these caricatures that Vanity Fair is best known today. Subjects included artists, athletes, royalty, statesmen, scientists, authors, actors, soldiers, religious personalities, business people and scholars. More than two thousand of these images appeared, and they are considered the chief cultural legacy of the magazine, forming a pictorial record of the period.