War and Glory
The Art of Valiant Defeat, Part Four

By any measure the Franco-Prussian War was a disaster, not just for France but also for Europe and the future. This war cemented the rising destiny of Prussia as a major power on the continent and the defeat of France set the stage for the Great War. Beginning like a comic opera with the Emperor of France being “punked,” to use a modern word, by a faked telegram, altered by the wily Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), and then throwing himself and his nation into a war that could end only badly, the Franco-Prussian War created a new chessboard with new players on the continent. If there are any lessons to be learned of French actions, they are simple–confirm any information you receive and do not be baited to war, do not assume that the enemy is weaker than you, and, perhaps most important, do not ride off to war in pain from a kidney stone. The Franco-Prussian War can be divided into two parts that, for the purposes of brevity, can be labeled as the war fought by the Napoléonic regime of the Second Empire, and the war continued by the French people under the fledgling Third Republic. The first war lasted a humiliatingly short six weeks, with the French army being routed, despite its new machine guns, by a technologically superior Prussian army. Ailing and in pain, Napoléon III, never a very talented military leader, allowed himself to be surrounded and, in despair, surrendered his army and himself at Sedan, ending the war on September 2, 1870.

Bismarck took the opportunity of the collapse of the Second Empire to unify Germanic principalities into one empire, the Second German Reich, under Kaiser Wilhelm I (1797-1888), the ruler of Prussia. There was a brief but bitter skirmish between the Chancellor and the Kaiser over Wilhelm’s sentimental attachment to his Prussian title, causing the new king to weep at his coronation. The coronation itself took place in a location selected to be the most humiliating to France, Versailles, in the Hall of Mirrors on the 18th of January 1871. However, despite this German crowning, the city of Paris fought on and it was not until March that the Prussians finally marched into the defiant city. While the Parisians starved, the disgraced Emperor made his way to safety, and that same month the deposed Emperor and his family arrived in England for an exile of luxury in an English country estate in Chislehurst, Camden Place, which had been transformed into a French château for his former majesty. The Emperor was safely installed and living in style during the terrible month of May and the uprising of the Communard late in the month. By the time “peace”–or at least order in France–was restored, Germany had come into being as a major power, seizing Alsace and Lorraine, demanding reparations for the cost of the war started by Napoléon’s folly. It was small comfort that by the time the former Emperor died from his kidney stone, the reparations were almost all paid off, and the French were filled with dreams of revanche–revenge.


Édouard Detaille. German Officers Paying Homage to the Injured French Prisoners (1877)

At this point, one would think that France would have had enough of war and military painting. But although no one wanted anther war–for a few years anyway–the public did want military paintings. What the artists do in response to the challenge of dealing with a war that cost France so much was quite interesting. A great deal of the military painting in Paris after the Franco Prussian War was nothing short of fantasy, skirting reality through the convincing realism of the academy, sometimes with outright lies. Having signed up as soon as the war broke out, Édouard Detaille served in the military and was able to observe the conflict was a soldier and as an artist, who knew the reality of the battlefield but very carefully shielded the art audience from the truth. In fact his own brothers also fought in the war, one dying in battle, the other in prison. His still-beloved painting, rumored to have been coveted by the Kaiser himself, was Salut aux Blessés underwent “a curious transformation” while it was on the easel. According to C. Stuart Johnson’s article “Édourad Detaille,” in volume eight (1892-1893) of Mumsey’s Magazine, “It was begun as a squad of French prisoners, ragged, wounded, and hart sore, yet drawing themselves up with a term soldierly pride as they encountered a group of German staff officers who were giving hem a courteous salute; and Detaillle intoned to call it ‘Honor to the Vanquished.’ But for some reason he reversed the composition, and made the officers French and the prisoners German. .Yet can the close observer of Detaille’s paintings discern that none respect the artist has sought revenge for Sedan–his Frenchmen are all better looking than his Germans! It is very natural and pardonable that he should embody inches figures of Von Moltke’s soldiers his belief–a belief hat all good Frenchmen share–in he louder germanique–the supposed mental and physical heaviness characteristic of Teutonic nationalities.”

The supposed reversal of the painting was indicative of the change in attitude towards the Germans from 1871 to 1877. Reparations being paid, German occupation forces having gone home, the French began thinking about beating there Germans at their own game, all in there service of revanch–revenge. German Officers Paying Homage to the Injured French Prisoners was painted at the beginning of a period of sudden interest in improving the French body and French health to compete with the Germans in the future.

Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891) had left not only his pupils but also other military artists with a mixed legacy. His celebrated military works were few and mixed in message but his practice, which featured the archaeological virtues of careful research into the past and a fidelity to accuracy, survived and became the standards to which younger artists aspired. The accuracy bequeathed by Meissonier did not stop with being sure that a saddle, for example, was of the right historical vintage but extended to his manner of painting, famously miniature and precise in his careful execution of tiny details. This level of accuracy, dependent upon minute and multiple details, celebrated a high level of realism and realistic painting in approach and style. The legacy of academic realism, albeit with a bit of brio borrowed from the looser Impressionist brushstroke, was carried on for decades in the academic salons, the site of the display of military paintings after the Franco-Prussian War. In her interesting 2009  book, Under the Shadow of Defeat: The War of 1870-71 in French Memory, Karine Varley, wrote that military artists took upon themselves the task of

“restoring French pride in images of heroic defiance. In a similar manner, the Salon of 1872 was packed with images portraying a nation whose honor remained intact..A tone of defiance emerged in the Salon of 1873 with the appearance of Alphonse de Neuville’s La dernière cartouche immortalizing the heroic defence of Bazeilles by men who preferred death to surrender. Hailed by critics and audiences for lifting the nation’s spirits, it came to be the most famous and popular visual representation of resistance..In the period between 1871 and 1914,  military painting gained considerable popularity, overshadowing contemporaneous moments such as impressionism for a public eager to consume images of patriotism and heroism..De Neuville and Édouard Detaille dominated the field, exercising in the critic Jules Richard’s words an almost ‘tyrannical influence,’ even after the death of the former in 1885.”

Varley wrote that the production of military paintings reached 2500 by the year 1914 ,noting that such paintings were often government commissions, forcing the terms of representation to work within “unchallenging stereotypes, representing the war in episodes  without reference to any specific events or locations, and depicting soldiers in unrealistic dramatized postures..”

As in any war, the losers have moments of chivalry and glory, but, for the most part, the French failed on many levels in their attempts to invade  and defeat Prussia in 1870 and suffered defeats that defied glorification. But the incidents in the village of Bazeilles, just a few miles from Sedan, were etched on the memories of the French people. The painting by Alphonse de Neuville (1835-1885), however, blanches out the true horrors of the tiny corner of the war by showing the brave French soldiers running out of cartridges, ammunition, and time. What the artist does not show is their actual fate, which was too terrible to depict. An American journalist and humorist, Melville De Lancey Landon (1839-1910), wrote of the destruction of the village twice, first, in terms of rumor at the time of the surrender at the beginning of September and then second, ten days later when he described the scene and the story of Bazeilles in his 1871 book, The Franco-Prussian War in a NutshellA Daily Diary of Diplomacy, Battles, and War Literature. With 18 Portraits and 14 Maps from Official French and Prussian Field Surveys:


 Alphonse de Neuville. Les dernières cartouches (1873)

“Here is the village of Bazeilles, which was destroyed by the Prussians in the fight that preceded the capitulation of Sedan. When the French troops had been driven back from their position outside the village, and were pursued into the streets, they got into the houses, and fired on their foes from the windows and the roofs. The Prussians could not drive them out; and the Prussian commander, to his eternal infamy, ordered his men to set fire, simultaneously, to every house in the village. The fire spread with almost lightning speed; in ten minutes the whole town was wrapped in sets of flames, and hundreds of families–fathers, mothers, and children–were ROASTED TO DEATH (sic) while the combatants, encircled with fire, died fighting to the last.”

After the Prussians were caught up in their own conflagration, they too perished along with the villagers, and the author concluded,“This is not a tale of the dark ages I am telling you–it is the simple of the story of what took place in a pretty and innocent French village, on Friday, the 22nd of September, in the year of grace and modern civilization.”

One of the results of the defeat at the hands of the Germans was the end of the cult of Napoléon, at least for the time being. There was an orgy of extermination as street were stripped their Napoléonic names and got new appellations. But this purge was only temporary. The Third Republic  floundered and, although the nation recovered from the German occupation, the government allowed France to fall behind England in the quest for global power. By the 1890s, lacking any more of the family waiting in the wings, it was safe to return to Napoléonic nostalgia, now culturally understood as the gloire of France. Shown in the Salon of 1888, Édouard Detaille’s The Dream was part of this need to take comfort from better times, a feeling about the first Emperor characterized by  Robert Gildea in his 1996 book, The Past in French History, as “an epic, legend, even as fantasy, a distant dream-world that continued to haunt and inspire.” The huge and impressive Detaille canvas, mostly in tones of blue, has always been thought to show, as Gildea stated, French soldiers of the Franco-Prussian War asleep and dreaming of the victorious days of Napoléon. If this is the correct setting, then the painting was something of a rebuke to the second Emperor who so badly let the nation down by surrendering so ignominiously, unworthy of the troops who had fought so bravely. However, a small detail suggests that the painting should be interpreted as being contemporary French soldiers, perhaps on an exercise, dreaming of the Grande Armée.

According to some reports, military painter Édouard Detaille (1848-1912) deliberately pictured a new rifle, issued in 1886, the Lebel Rifle Mle 1886 M93, the first service rifle issued to an army that had smokeless powder. The French army had gone into battle in 1870 carrying the Chassepot 1866 Needle rifle, the most advanced of its day, a rifle that gave the generals a misguided belief that their army was superior to that of the Prussians. In 1874, the Chassepot or the “fusil modele 1866” was replaced by the Gras rifle, which in its turn was replaced by the Lebel. If the rifles which are swivel-stacked for the evening repose are Chassepots, then the sleeping men are on the eve of a battle; if the rifles are the Lebel, then these soldiers are dreaming, not of victory, but of revenge. Art historians have usually interpreted these guns as the 1866 model and thus interpreted the painting as one of inspiration, but, in fact, the stacked buns are the 1886 model, because, according to a firearms expert I consulted explained the 1886 model in comparison to the 1866 gun: “..note that the 1866 model has a full length stock whereas the 1886 model has a separate buttstock and forearm.” So, final word..the sleeping soldiers are dreaming of revanche. Revenge.


Édouard Detaille. The Dream (1888)

Military painting was an important national project, part of the rebuilding of a nation that had been humiliated and shamed and saddled with three years of occupation. Small wonder that by the time of The Dream, the cult of Napoléon had fully revived into a cottage industry, which included theatrical productions, novels, a vast outpouring of history, and souvenirs and mementos of the early nineteenth century. In examining the impact of the cult in his book, The Age of Napoléon, J. Christopher Herold, wrote, “To a proud nation humbled by defeat, the memory of past greatness and glory is a necessity. However much harm it might have done them, however little they might wish to repeat it, Frenchmen can look without shame and with some pride on their epic adventure..It is thus scarcely surprising that the historians who wrote on Napoléon between 1870 and the First World War should have emphasized the greatness of the adventure and the genius, the vision, the luminously ideal qualities of Napoléon himself. Their scholarship was monumental, though their judgment was occasionally partial..The somewhat vainglorious rhetoric in which the words la gloire and l’honneur recur with irritating frequency is more characteristic of the French bourgeoisie and military class than of the working class, which on the whole has rejected the memory of Napoléon.”

The damage wrought by the Franco-Prussian War would proved to be greater than any suffered temporarily by the French–Germany had emerged as a dominant power, with allies, willing to fight with it, the victory overshadowed France, dealing the nation a blow from which it would never recover. The stacked rifles of Detaille’s The Dream with their barrels and bayonets pointing upward were smokeless, portending a future slaughter when soldiers would rise from their trenches, firing rifles that emitted no protective smoke screen, and march towards bullets in full visibility to be cut down by twentieth century guns. Dreaming of revenge would lead only to the stalemate of the Great War, the time and place where nineteenth century military painting would come to die. On the occasion of the death of Detaille in 1912, art historian James William Pattison wrote an obituary, “Edouard Detaille: Painter of Soldiers,” in the Fine Arts Journal in February of 1913. His cogent discussion of the career of an artist who remained famous to the time of his death indicates that, in a time of Fauvism and Cubism, military painting was a lost art. “It cannot be asserted tat this recent death took away a ‘great painter,'” Pattison wrote. “Detaille was delightfully clear, a keen observer and fine draughtsman. Of course he paid attention to every detail, straps, buckles or buttons of the Frenchman’s picturesque uniform, but it was not the extraordinary finish of Meisonier, his master, but quite sufficiently elaborated.” A nice inscription on a tombstone.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   

Thank you.

[email protected]

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

Get in Touch!

5 + 6 =