By a horrifyingly odd coincidence, in the months that I’m remembering a small and strange war that took place forty years ago in the Falkland Islands, we’re watching helpless as thousands of Ukrainians are being killed and maimed in their own country. This weekend I pause for just a couple of days and remember what war has brought to art.
Like so many wars, that between France and Germany in 1870-71 should never have happened. France invaded German territory on 2 August, but the German response quickly overwhelmed inferior French forces, and by 4 September the Germans had all but won. It took a further four months for the besieged city of Paris to fall and force the French to capitulate.
This brief moment of national insanity took a terrible toll on artists, many of whom were called up to fight, and two of whom were killed.
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.
Bazille painted two related but different versions of La négresse aux pivoines (Young Woman with Peonies) in the Spring of 1870. His professional model is normally read as being a servant who is engaged in making the floral arrangement, although in the other version (at the National Gallery of Art in Washington) she appears to be a flower seller.
At the time, the dominant flower, the peony, was a relatively recent import to France, and would probably have been seen as bringing exoticism to the two paintings. The striking vase may have been borrowed from Fantin-Latour. Rishel has proposed that this painting, in Montpellier, was intended as homage to Gustave Courbet, and that in Washington was homage to Eugène Delacroix.
In the summer of 1870, Bazille worked on three paintings when he was staying at Méric, alone. Within a month of France’s declaration of war, he had enlisted in the Third Zouave Regiment. He spent September training with the regiment in Algeria, then returned into combat in France. On 28 November 1870, he was killed at the Battle of Beaune-la-Rolande. He would have celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday just over a week later.
In just eight years of painting, Bazille had shown great technical skill, originality, and high promise for his future in the Impressionist movement. Unlike his close friends Monet and Renoir, he was particularly interested in and adept at depicting figures in landscapes. That brilliant future, which could so easily have changed Impressionism too, was abruptly ended in a futile attempt to relieve the Siege of Paris.
That same year Henri Regnault had caused a sensation at the Salon with his Salome (1870). Most unusually, Salome is alone, equipped with a short sword with which to behead John, and the large platter to bear his head. She is dressed as an ‘oriental’ (North African) dancing girl, and Regnault had originally intended to make her appear North African too. On her face is a knowing smile, of someone who is about to get just what they wanted. Although it questioned the Biblical account, Regnault was careful not to contradict it.
Regnault was clearly destined for much greater paintings in the future, and promised to be just what history painting most needed. Then on 19 January 1871, during the second Battle of Buzenval, near St Cloud to the west of the city of Paris, he was among the defenders and was killed in battle. 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).
Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, who commanded an infantry regiment defending Paris during the war, included Regnault as the soldier slumped on the white plinth in The Siege of Paris in 1870 (1884). The composer Camille Saint-Saëns, another veteran of the defence of Paris, dedicated his Marche Héroïque (1871) to Regnault’s memory.
Mercifully, the toll of artists killed in the First World War wasn’t as great, but the pandemic influenza which followed it was far worse. With many very talented war artists, its unprecedented mass slaughter was painted more effectively than any previous conflict.
To accompany his famous painting of the effects of trench warfare in Paths of Glory (1917), C R W Nevinson quotes from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written In A Country Church-Yard (1750):
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Nevinson leaves the viewer to construct their own narrative of the deaths of these two soldiers behind the Western Front, and to draw their own conclusions. Its frank depiction of two of the more than 5.5 million Allied (and 4.3 million Central Powers) dead was judged too much by the official censor. Nevinson therefore exhibited the painting with a brown paper strip across it, marked ‘censored’, for which he was reprimanded. As is so often the case, this amplified the publicity.
François Flameng’s A Park Gate of the Château de Plessis-de-Roye (1918) shows a particularly poignant scene, set in this village in the Oise to the north-east of Paris. During the battle of Matz, part of the second battle of the Marne, in June and July of 1918, nearly five thousand French cavalry were killed here, and the village was razed to the ground.
Among many painters who went to the front lines was Henry Tonks, who just over thirty years earlier had been a practising surgeon, but was then a teacher of painting at the Slade School in London. He put his unique experience to good use when painting what he witnessed during the war in France.
Here, Tonks shows a cellar being used to receive and assess the wounded in An Underground Casualty Clearing Station, Arras.
Perhaps Tonks’ most important painting is that of An Advanced Dressing Station in France, 1918, a near-documentary depiction of an ad hoc medical facility not far from the front line, and an apocalyptic vision of war. Travelling and painting alongside Tonks was John Singer Sargent, who features in the next and concluding article.