The Art Of Life Under Siege At Christmas-Time
Paris in the winter of defeat, 1870-71
Alphonse de Neuville served in the French Navy and saw the face of war in person. In the Trenches is one of his works related to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, and one of his best paintings ever, in this author’s opinion. Melancholy, suffering, endurance, dim hopes in the doldrums of winter — this sad snapshot of Paris under siege still has all the character and story of a Norman Rockwell production, but tragic, and oh so very French.
A Prussian helmet lies overturned by the stacked Chassepot rifles, for the enemy is close by and encounters with him have already happened. A lone sentry stays awake, on the lookout for any movement. His officer is still in charge despite being sound asleep. Soldiers doze, tend the tiny fire in the windswept scrape, nod off into restless sleep: Joyeux Noël.
A blog about Victorian Paris recently posted this image of a color plate illustration, Shelling during the Siege of Paris by Francisque Sarcey. Produced in 1871 from memories that remained quite fresh, it is from a diary of the drama within Paris under siege by the city’s chief drama critic. Sarcey liked to include illustrations in his work. This one is rare for illustrating the plight of civilians under bombardment.
A German shell has landed in a busy street, knocking down a light pole and blowing a shutter off the second floor exterior of a building. People flee, slip, fall over one another. A priest rushes towards the emergency, hand raised in benediction. Bismarck demanded the indiscriminate shelling of the city, yet it did not happen at scale, only at random.
Such experiences are terrifying the first time, less so the tenth or twentieth time around. Paris did not submit to fear, and in the broader history of cities under fire, it would be quite unusual for them to have done so. As terrible as the effects of siege on any polity can be, community solidarity consistently remains stronger than fear, through all the shelling and rockets and bombs, thoughout the ages. Searcey’s book includes this haunting image titled La Faim, “Hunger.” Privation may reduce civilians to skin and bones before they surrender.
Many artists portrayed the clearcutting of Paris parks during that winter of 1870-1871. Young and old, rich and poor, all alike needed heating. Lowered caloric intake made it even more imperative for survival. Thus the sacrifice of Paris’s trees became a solemn civic moment in art, a shared memory of the levelling effects of the siege and the social solidarity felt in the moment.
Of course, it was not to last. The German armies tightened their grip on the city and defeated the remaining French reserve armies. Forced to capitulate to Bismarck, the nascent Third Republic began its life by suppressing the Paris Commune in a bloody purge that killed far more Parisians than German shelling had. Nevertheless, it is striking how Jaques Giraud shows residents of Paris leaving the park with their firewood as if all at once, outward, as if to portray a unity of action.
Guiaud was a lithographer and engraver as well as a painter. His work is evocative, sometimes austere. Five-level tenements on a grand plaza frame the sky and throw long shadows on the scene. Despite the clouds and the street covered in snow taking up at least half the canvas, Guaiud has not left a lot of clean white. The closer we inspect this work, the more we can see the subtle shading that has been applied everywhere. Realistic snowscapes are surprisingly hard to paint, so color me impressed.
Here again, individual stories pop out. The man apparently inquiring after a load of wood at the park gate; the families carrying away their ration, or waiting for their own ration with apprehension. Trunks are dragged with ropes, kindling is bundled, logs are carried, finished firewood loaded in wheelbarrows.
Memories of war, and the privations of war, can be powerful bonding mechanisms for a society. Victory and defeat can both produce this same effect. French art of the period during and after the war, memorializing the siege of Paris, could fill out an entire book as a topic. The war of our own time is having similar effects on the art and society of Ukraine, galvanizing a nation that has rarely ever been allowed to have even a consciousness of itself as a nation. Perhaps an entire book will be needed to tell that story one day.
I will be taking the next week off. Happy holidays!
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