The provisional French government had been very circumspect about capitulating at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in late January 1871, because of their fears of insurrection. The dangers of this were greatest in Paris, where those defending the city had necessarily acted independently of the rest of France throughout the siege. Cracks started to appear soon after the armistice came into effect, and by the eighteenth of March, Paris was under the rule of its own revolutionary government.
The Commune ran Paris for two months before the French government sent the army, drawn almost entirely from the provinces, to suppress it. In the week that followed 21 May 1871, the city was again engulfed in war. Several major public buildings, including the Tuileries Palace and City Hall (the Hotel de Ville), were destroyed, many more were badly damaged, more than seven thousand died, and over fifteen thousand were brought to trial for offences committed during the Commune.
Although only a boy at the time, Maximilien Luce must have retained vivid memories of the Paris Commune, which he finally committed to paint in his A Street in Paris in May 1871 (also known as The Commune) in 1903-6.
Édouard Manet was nearly forty, and his vivid sketch of The Barricade (Civil War) (1871) shows a firing squad shooting a couple of Communards at very close range.
Eugène Varlin was a political activist who had started his career as a bookbinder, and become a socialist revolutionary and pioneer trade unionist. During the seige of Paris, he had distributed aid from his co-operative restaurant.
In March 1871, he took part in the storming of the Place Vendôme, following which he was elected to the Council of the Paris Commune. In ‘Bloody Week’ in May, he fought against government troops. When the Commune had been suppressed and broken, he was captured, taken to Montmartre, tortured and blinded by a mob, and finally shot on 28 May.
Maximilien Luce painted this in The Execution of Varlin (1914-17).
Other painters used historical metaphor.
Édouard Debat-Ponsan’s One Morning in Front of the Louvre Gate (1880) shows Catherine de’ Medici (in black) gazing impassively at the bodies of French Protestants who had been slaughtered in the massacre of Saint Bartholomew in 1572. King Charles IX of France is said to have ordered this massacre, at least partly under the influence of Catherine, his mother, allegedly in fear of a (Protestant) Huguenot uprising. The reading of Debat-Ponsan’s painting relies on the massacre of the Communards for context.
With most of Alsace and the Moselle department of Lorraine annexed by the new German Empire as part of the reparations of defeat, tens of thousands of French refugees were on the move back to the safety of French territory.
This is shown in Louis-Frederic Schützenberger’s Exodus (Alsatian Family Abandons the Country) of 1872, now on display in Mulhouse, which became German in 1871, and was restored to France following the First World War in 1919.
The most obvious effect of the war on art was the loss of two of France’s leading young painters.
Henri Regnault had won the Prix de Rome at the start of his career, and had already become one of its leading history and narrative painters when war broke out. On 19 January 1871, during the second Battle of Buzenval, near St Cloud to the west of the city of Paris, Regnault was among the defenders who was killed. He was 27.
Carolus-Duran, John Singer Sargent’s influential teacher, had served alongside Regnault, and later in the year painted this oil sketch of Henri Regnault Dead on the Battlefield (1871).
Frédéric Bazille was the most promising figurative painter among the Impressionists, and his work was already starting to have impact on painting well beyond that circle of friends. Within a month of the start of the war, Bazille had enlisted in the Third Zouave Regiment. He spent September training with the regiment in Algeria, then returned to fight in France. On 28 November 1870, Bazille was killed at the Battle of Beaune-la-Rolande. He would have celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday just over a week later.
Immediately before he joined up, Bazille had been working on three paintings while he was staying at Méric, alone. Study for a Young Male Nude was being painted over an unfinished painting of two women in a garden, and the lower third of the canvas shows the lower part of their dresses.
Paul Cézanne fled Paris for L’Estaque; Jean-Léon Gérôme and several of the Impressionists fled to London; Ernest Meissonier and Édouard Manet served together in the defence of Paris; Rosa Bonheur, the famous animal painter, joined the local militia and even fired on a Prussian camp.
Charles Daubigny took his family to London, where he introduced Monet and Pissarro to Paul Durand-Ruel, who was Daubigny’s dealer and had just opened a gallery in London. Daubigny co-arranged in London an exhibition of paintings which included some of Monet’s. These relationships with Durand-Ruel were to prove decisive in Monet’s and Pissarro’s careers. In 1871, Daubigny exhibited nine paintings at the International Exhibition in London, following which he and his family returned to France.
When Monet and his family were in London, he saw the works of Constable and Turner, which were a significant influence over the subsequent development of his style, and what we now consider to be Impressionism. Monet submitted paintings for the Royal Academy exhibition in early 1871, but they were refused.
Camille Pissarro lived with his family in Norwood, then a village outside London, returning to France the following year to discover that Prussian troops had destroyed almost all his works, which he had left behind in his house.
During the war, Odilon Redon served as a private soldier in the Loire. Once the Paris Commune had been suppressed in 1871, he returned to the capital, where he was welcomed into literary and artistic circles.
Berthe Morisot stayed with her family in Paris during its long and bitter siege, and remained there during the Commune too. Like many others who were there, her health suffered; friends remarked that she appeared to age prematurely as a result, which may have accounted for her early death.
Gustave Doré had a very personal involvement, as he had been born in Strasbourg, a French city which the Prussians had taken early in the war. He volunteered to serve in the National Guard, and produced several moving paintings of the suffering of Paris.
His The Enigma (souvenirs de 1870) and two other works were painted using grisaille, greys normally used to model tones in traditional layered technique. This shows the shattered and still-burning remains of the city in the background, bodies of some of the Prussian artillery in the foreground, and two mythical beasts silhouetted in an embrace.
The winged creature is female, and probably represents France, who clasps the head of a sphinx, who personifies the forces which determine victory or defeat. The enigmatic question would then relate to the Franco-Prussian War, and the reasons for France’s defeat.
The war and its aftermath caused many artists to question the identity of France, and the meaning of Frenchness. Some of the most thoughtful paintings which address those issues are those of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.
The role of balloons during the siege of Paris was the inspiration for Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’ The Balloon of 1870, which became popular as a lithograph made by Émile Vernier. The following year, Puvis de Chavannes painted a pendant The Pigeon, which showed another means of communication used during the siege.
A woman seen almost in silhouette waves at one of the balloons bearing news, as it flies near Mount Valérien. In her right hand she holds a musket, symbolic of the arming of the people of Paris at the time. The same woman appears in mourning in The Pigeon, collecting a carrier pigeon which had flown through the predatory hawks flown by the Prussians.
The pair of paintings meant a great deal to Puvis de Chavannes, who reluctantly gave them to the government a few years later, to be prizes in a lottery organised to provide aid to the survivors of the great fire of Chicago in 1871. They didn’t return to Paris until 1987, and are now in the Musée d’Orsay.
Puvis de Chavannes’ Hope from 1872 develops the post-war theme further, and was exhibited at the Salon in 1872, the first following the war. A young woman sits amid a landscape which has been destroyed by fighting. The bleached rubble of a farmhouse is seen in the right distance, and there are two improvised graveyards with clusters of crosses. She holds a sprig of oak as a symbol of the recovery of the nation.
Puvis de Chavannes’ paintings provoked reflection rather than taking sides, and became popular across the range of public opinion. Some artists were stuck in revanchism, though, playing on the same feelings of patriotism which had taken France and Prussia into the war – like Édouard Detaille’s Le Rêve (The Dream) (1888).
Rather than showing military action from the war, Detaille here makes a direct political statement. Showing a group of young conscripts just before reveille, when on exercise probably in Champaign, he paints their (imaginary) collective dream of previous battles, spread across the coloured clouds of the dawn sky.
This ‘flashback’ technique sided with the rising militarism and thirst for righting the wrongs which the Franco-Prussian War had done France, and the following year conscription was introduced. The painting was awarded a medal, was bought by the French state, and presented at the 1889 World Fair. Its huge canvas is now one of the less popular works on display in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
One painter with a particular problem was James (Jacques Joseph) Tissot. He had served in the National Guard during the defence of Paris, following which he may have become involved in the Commune, perhaps to protect his own property. When the Commune was suppressed, Tissot was forced to flee to London for his own safety. On arriving there in June 1871, he had just a hundred francs to his name.
One way or another, there was hardly a painter in France at the time whose life and work was not dramatically affected by the Franco-Prussian War and its aftermath.