Ernest Narjot was born in the port city of Saint-Malo, France. He developed an early interest in art, and received a classical education in drawing in Paris. Following the discovery of gold in California, Narjot set off for San Francisco, arriving there in 1849. During the late 1840s and early 1850s, thousands of Frenchmen came to the state in search of gold.
In San Francisco, Narjot augmented the income that he earned from prospecting gold by executing portraits of fellow miners. He moved to Sonora, Mexico in 1850, following the enactment of the Foreign Miners Law (a monthly tax on foreigners working claims in the fields). In Sonora he found moderate success as a miner, and painter of portraits, genre scenes and landscapes. In the mid-1860s, Narjot apparently served in Frances military intervention in Mexico (Letter from Edward Curtis to Mrs. Alma Spreckles, December 1, 1915). In 1864, Maximilian I was enthroned as Emperor of Mexico by Napoleon III. The United States refused to recognize the new Mexican government, and following the Civil War executed a series of measures that led to the withdrawal of most of the French forces.
"Aux Armes Citoyens!" was created in the wake of the French defeat by the Prussian army on September 2, 1870, and the political insurrection that ensued two days later in Paris. These events were precipitated by Frances declaration of war on Prussia in mid-July of 1870. This action was taken in the hope of halting Prussian expansion in Europe, and to maintain Frances position as the continents leading power.
"Aux Armes Citoyens!" was inspired by the composition and iconography of Eugene Delacroixs well-known "Liberty Guiding the People" (1840, Louvre, Paris). Delacroix and Narjot's paintings feature a group of armed French citizens towered over by Marianne, the goddess of Liberty, who came to the fore as a symbol of freedom during the course of the French Revolution of 1789. In the two works Marianne wears a so-called Phrygian cap (whose use dates back as far as the Roman Empire), which was adopted during the French Revolution as an emblem of Liberty. The Phrygian cap appears on the seal of the French Republic. It was removed from the seal during the reign of Napoleon III, but reestablished during the Third Republic.
In Narjot's painting Marianne has a sword and pistol tucked in her belt, and stands upon the crown and cape of the French emperor. Her intense wide-eyed expression recalls that of the sword-wielding figure of Marianne in Francois Rudes sculpture La Marseillaise (1831-1834, Arc du Triomphe, Paris), which celebrates the courage and fervor of the French revolutionary army as it headed off to the front in 1792. La Marseillaise is also the title of the French national anthem, which served as the rallying cry of the Revolution. The title of Narjot's painting refers directly to the chorus of this song:
Aux armes, citoyens!
Formes vos bataillons!
[To arms, citizens!
Form your battalions
Lets march, lets march!]
In the foreground of Narjot's canvas are two Zouaves. The origin of these colorfully dressed light infantrymen has been traced to the Zouaoua, an independent Kapyl tribe residing in the rocky hills of Algeria. They were recruited in 1830 to assist the French colonial army, and immediately were organized into two battalions of auxiliaries. In future years the Zouaves were increasingly comprised of native Frenchmen, who continued to wear the soldiers distinctive dark blue and red uniform (which derives from North African dress), and is comprised of a short jacket, a sleeveless vest, baggy trousers, a 12-foot long woolen sash, white canvas leggings, leather greaves and a tasseled fez and turban. In 1852, Napoleon III ordered the Zouaves restructured into three regiments of the regular French army. The fighting reputation and exploits of the Zouaves were well known and highly admired in Europe and America. Their past glories did not help them, however, during the period of 1865-1870, when they fought losing battles against Mexicans and Prussians. The dark skinned Zouave seated on the ground at right raises his left arm up toward Marianne symbol of the Republic - as if acknowledging her majesty, power and righteousness.