One hundred and fifty years ago this week, Paris was under siege. On September 17, 1870, the French capital was surrounded by Bismarck’s armies who took refuge in what was to be a brutal nine-month occupation, which forced the civilian population to endure bombardments, food shortages, disease, wild rumors and crippling anxiety. . It is easy to see the Franco-Prussian war as one more setback in the long history of Franco-German antagonism, eclipsed by the subsequent armed conflicts it sparked (and in terms of military methods, anticipated) and by the murderous heroism of its revolutionary suite, the Paris Commune. But the war brought about political changes which are still present to us: on September 4, 1870, the Second Empire formally collapsed, putting an end to the French experience of the monarchical regime. Few then would expect that the improvised emergency national defense government that filled the breach would continue – like the Third Republic – to be France’s most enduring regime, for 70 years until the dark days. from 1940.
In the arts, too, the impact of war should not be underestimated. Like “Impressionists in London” at Tate Britain in 2017-2018, the flight of Daubigny, Monet and Pissarro to London allowed their introduction to the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel and hence the emergence of Impressionism as a brand. But the impact of the war on those who remained in France was equally profound and traumatic. Impressionism itself might have taken a very different direction if Frédéric Bazille, the most brilliant figurative artist in Monet’s entourage, had not died at the Battle of Beaune-la-Rolande in November 1870, just before his 29th birthday. His final and incomplete work – the exquisite Study for a naked young man at the Musée Fabre – underlines the immensity of its loss.
The appeal of the artists who donned the uniform in 1870 is remarkable. The conflict left powerful traces in the work of Tissot, Manet, Rodin, Daumier and Meissonier, who served as colonel commanding an infantry unit (the war had consequences for Menzel, Anton von Werner and Max Liebermann from the other side). Artists of all political stripes have joined the country. Even Rosa Bonheur did her part in the forest of Fontainebleau, refusing to dine with the Prussians who visited her workshop, and dreaming of transporting them to the Jeanne D’Arc. Berthe Morisot’s mother recalled that Degas had become “impossible” when he learned that his friend the equestrian sculptor Joseph Cuvelier had fallen in battle. “He and Manet almost came to blows with an argument over methods of defense and the use of the National Guard, although each of them was prepared to die to save the country.
Among the victims, the most idolized is perhaps the painter Henri Regnault, shot dead at the Battle of Buzenval at the age of 27. After winning the Prix de Rome, Regnault was the Salon’s toast in the late 1860s for his alluring orientalist fantasies. He hastily returned from North Africa to enlist, putting aside plans for a work on the scale of Veronese’s. Wedding party in Cana. The news of his death in January 1871 created a flood of memories in various media, from Carolus-Duran’s sketch of his friend lying in the snow – the pose modeled on Manet’s toreador – the publication of Regnault’s private letters and the imploring marble weeper by Henri Chapu at the École des Beaux-Arts. As Marc Gotlieb noted, Buzenval was ironically the first of Regnault’s deaths, as this former lion of the French school quickly brought down the canon and popular memory.
Thanks to art historians such as Hollis Clayson and John Milner, we have a clear idea of how the war and the siege affected life in the imprisoned city. The ordeal of two million civilians marked many artists, as evidenced for example by the balloons and pigeons (vital buoys for the outdoors) represented by Puvis de Chauvannes. But it is possible to think more about what the Franco-Prussian war did to combat painting. Édouard Detaille had learned his love of battle painting while studying under Meissonier, even before his service in the National Guard. He used his vast collection of tin soldiers, photographs and uniforms – kept at the Army Museum – to piece together the campaigns with forensic precision. But while being acclaimed for his precision, Detaille also forged a feverish nationalist mythology. His famous painting The Rday before (1888) was purchased by the French State and displayed at the Universal Exhibition of 1889: depicting the fallen soldiers of 1870 awakening from their graves to contemplate the charge of the Napoleonic Grande Armée, galloping above as of spectral Valkyries, Detaille redeemed past defeats with the memory of past glories and the prophecy of future accounts, uttering the nationalist cry of revenge.
Detaille’s spectacular canvas shows the appetite for the art of war on a colossal scale. Unfortunately, only fragments remain of the two panoramas he made in collaboration with Alphonse de Neuville depicting the battles of Rezonville and Champigny (the latter, during the first four months of his exhibition in 1882, attracted around 1600 visitors per day and took 400,000 francs). But a similar gargantuan project can be seen today in Lucerne: painted by Edouard Castres in 1881 on a circular canvas measuring 14 x 112 meters, the so-called Panorama Bourbaki represents the entry of General Bourbaki and his 87,000 disheveled soldiers (the remaining half of an army which had tried in vain to lift the siege of Belfort) into the Val-de-Travers valley in Switzerland. The result is an epic and immersive celebration of Swiss traditions of humanitarianism and neutrality.
The monumental legacy of the war is enshrined in the architecture of Paris, which was drastically rebuilt after the devastation of the terrible year. Following the scheme drawn up by the Marquis de Chennevières in the 1870s, the frescoes inside the Pantheon trumpeted the victors of the former France, such as Clovis and Saint Louis, alongside Sainte Geneviève watching over her favorite city. At the Opéra Garnier, also completed in the early 1870s, Paul Baudry’s dazzling ceilings celebrated the supremacy of “classical” French civilization (even, improbably, in music). Made famous by the metro map, the heroes and memorials of the war are little known today in Paris: take the reduced bronze version of Bartholdi’s Lion of Belfort on Place Denfert-Rochereau (named after the French general who defended the city during its 103-day siege). The skyscrapers of the Grande Arche have completely eclipsed the sculptural ensemble by Louis-Ernest Barrias from 1883 which gave the district its name. Barrias’ pairing of a strident, towering Marianne and a slumped male soldier illustrates the inverted gender dynamic within Republican iconography at the time, which one performer referred to as “hermaphrodite.”
The invasion, defeat and occupation had been a nightmare for France. His horror has been captured in desolate allegories like The riddle by Gustave Doré – himself from Strasbourg annexed – and later in Odilon Redon’s surrealist charcoal and lithograph series known as Black. The motif of the black sun is surely an allusion to the solar eclipse which Redon witnessed in December 1870, two days after the defeat of his battalion at La Monnaie, and which seemed a cosmic echo of the national catastrophe. The humiliation of defeat was obsessively ruminated on: one of the most popular prints of the late 19th century was by Jean-Jacques Henner’s painting She attends (1871). This female personification of Alsace adorned the walls of hundreds of thousands of French homes. Its popularity is testament to the perverse attraction that the tragic events of 1870 exerted on the French psyche.
After Detaille, Neuville was the first French war artist at the end of the 19th century, although his depictions of the Crimean War or the Zulu campaigns lack the despair and bitterness of his scenes from 1870-1871. When asked why he obsessively painted scenes of defeat, Neuville replied, “Because we should remember precisely what we are trying to forget.”
Correction: an earlier version of this article indicated that nothing remains of the panoramas made by Édouard Detaille with Alphonse de Neuville. This has been corrected to reflect that fragments have survived.