Poliorcetic Art: Paris Does Not Exist
Ernest Meissonier's 1871 allegory
Paris. The city’s very name screams European culture and civilization, not to mention stubbornness. The Siege of Paris was huge, for the city was enormous and ringed with powerful fortresses. So huge, in fact, was the Siege of Paris that no single painting could possibly take in its full scale.
After Napoleon III was surrounded and forced to surrender, the French nation fought on largely because Paris would not surrender. When Helmuth von Moltke had finished the encirclement of Paris and destroyed both armies still resisting in the field, the government capitulated — only to see Paris continue resisting. Ultimately, Bismarck chose to let the new French government do the work of crushing resistance in Paris for him. German artillery did much of the work to win the war, but left barely a scratch on the defenses around the City of Lights.
This is why I like Ernest Meissonier’s “Siege of Paris,” seen above. The famous capital is completely absent — it might as well not even exist. Instead, his scene is nakedly symbolic and allegorical. Gloom and smoke dominate the skyline. A Valkyrie scoops up the souls of heroes. Sailors man the cannon, a notable historic detail. Man and beast alike suffer the torments of wounding and war. Rather than a naked-breasted Marianne, France (Paris?) is represented by the older matron, the mother of dead sons. Wounded men lean against her, symbolically relying on the French nation to provide for them. A woman mourns a dying man. A mother on her knees implores a husband. A crowd of regulars and irregulars exits stage right, burdened by the trauma of war, disappearing into memory, moving on to live lives of regret, or to inhabit living memory as ghosts.
Hunger and crime killed far more Parisians than bullets or cannons did. That is normal in sieges. Switch the cannon out with a catapult, replace the uniforms with bronze armor, and the portrait would remain true to life.
Meissonier, who commanded a scratch unit during the siege, chose not to show us the actual siege. Defeated but still defiant, he is processing the fall of Paris in this painting. All five stages of grief are present: the gun firing in anger, the denial inherent in the tattered tricolor banner, a pleading negotiation, a depressed atmosphere, the mute acceptance of death. Meissonier painted a psychological portrait of his own mind amid the despair of a nation.