French artists during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune (1870)

I have written elsewhere about:

These combined calamities seared the minds of a generation of Frenchmen and marked a watershed in the lives and careers of many of France’s most famous writers, artists and composers. Considering who and how and why is like taking a snapshot of an artistic generation, an X-ray of a nation’s soul:

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) Best-selling author of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862), Hugo had spent the Second Empire period (1852-70) in exile in Jersey. Now he returned to be elected a member of the National Assembly, make impassioned speeches, write windy pamphlets and publish bombastic poems. When the Commune was declared, he wisely went back into exile (in Brussels) where he wrote the moving poem, Sur une barricade, on June 11, 1871.

Honoré Daumier (1808-79) Satirical cartoonist under the Second Empire, Daumier stayed in Paris throughout the siege and continued to publish bitter and highly political images. He was drafted onto Courbet’s Federation of Artists in September 1870, then onto the Commune’s Committee of Artists in April 1871, though never a Communard.

Théophile Gautier (1811–1872) An established poet and critic, Gautier made his way back to Paris upon hearing of the Prussian advance on the capital. He remained with his family there throughout the invasion and the aftermath of the Commune.

Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (1819-77) A notorious radical and freethinker, Courbet was the hugely influential ‘Father of Realism’ in Art in France. He established a Federation of Artists when the Empire fell, and went on to set up a Committee of Artists under the Commune. Although he managed to save Paris’ art museums from looting mobs, Courbet was a moving force behind demolishing the Vendôme Column in the square of the same name. Once the Commune was crushed, Courbet was sentenced in September 1871 to six months in prison and a fine of 500 francs. When it was proposed to recreate the Vendôme Column Courbet was condemned to pay the exorbitant costs. He fled to Switzerland where he continued to paint, and died of liver disease just as the cost of the re-erection was settled as 323,091 francs. Surprisingly, he didn’t leave any paintings or sketches of the war or Commune.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-80) The most famous literary novelist of his day, during the Franco-Prussian War Flaubert’s home was occupied by Prussian soldiers and he suffered a nervous breakdown.

Maxime du Camp (1822–1894) Literary journalist and travel writer, du Camp was elected a member of the French Academy in 1880 mainly due to his history of the Commune, Les Convulsions de Paris (1878–1880).

César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck (1822–1890) Organist and composer, Franck and his family suffered during the siege and Commune. Afterwards he was a leader of the movement to create a truly French art, an Ars Gallica which explains the tone of much of his music. In part this was a patriotic reaction against the heaviness of the music of the invader.

Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) At the outbreak of war the painter Pissarro moved his family to Norwood, then a village on the southern edge of London. His early impressionist style did not do well but he met the Paris art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in London, who helped sell his art for the rest of his life. Durand-Ruel put him in touch with Monet, who was also in London during this period.

(In the spring of 2015 the National Gallery put on a blockbuster exhibition of Impressionist art as a tribute to Paul Durand-Ruel – the man who invented Impressionism.)

Monet and Pissarro both went to see the work of British landscape artists John Constable and J. M. W. Turner, which confirmed their belief that their style of open air painting gave the truest depiction of light and atmosphere, an effect that couldn’t be achieved in the studio alone.

During his stay Pissarro painted scenes at Sydenham and Norwood at a time when they were semi-rural and had only just been connected to London by railways. Twelve oil paintings date from his stay including The Avenue, Sydenham (now in the London National Gallery), Norwood Under the Snow, and Lordship Lane Station.

Pissarro is often credited with inventing Impressionism – the rough use of paint to capture plein air affects. He had produced some 1,500 paintings over the preceding 20 years, works which amounted to documentary evidence of the birth of Impressionism. But, tragically, when he returned to France after the Commune, Pissarro discovered that out of this huge oeuvre, only 40 had survived! The rest had been damaged or destroyed by the soldiers, who used them, among other things, as door mats or to wipe their boots with.

Back in Paris Pissarro got back in contact with the other artists of his generation – Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Renoir and Degas – and helped establish a collective called the ‘Société Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs et Graveurs’. In 1874 Pissarro was the driving force behind the group’s first Exhibition, at which the critics ridiculed them for their ‘impressionism’ – and the name stuck.

Edouard Manet (1832-83) Godfather of the Impressionists, the thirty-eight-year-old Manet was in Paris during the Prussian siege and conscripted to be a member of the National Guard. As soon as the siege ended (in January 1871) he left town. In his absence his friends added his name to the ‘Fédération des artistes’ of the Paris Commune but he stayed away from Paris until after the semaine sanglante. He published some harrowing sketches of scenes from the war.

Edgar Dégas (1834–1917) At the outbreak of the War Dégas enlisted in the National Guard, where his duties left him little time for painting.

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) The organist and composer Saint-Saëns was relieved from fighting duty as a favourite of a relative of the Emperor Napoleon III. He fled to London when the Commune took power, as his fame and Society connections made him a possible target. Later that year he co-founded with Romain Bussine the ‘Société Nationale de Musique’ to promote a new and specifically French music. After the fall of the Commune, the Society premiered works by Fauré, César Franck, Édouard Lalo and Saint-Saëns himself, who became a powerful figure in shaping the future of French music.

Émile Zola (1840-92) Father of literary Realism, Zola published his only historical novel, Le Debacle, about the war, in 1892.

François-Auguste-René Rodin (1840–1917) When the war started Rodin was called up for the National Guard but he was soon released due to his near-sightedness. At the time he was working as a decorative sculptor and, as work dwindled due to the war, he took up an offer of work in Belgium where he lived for the next six years. None of his work refers directly to either the war or Commune.

Claude Monet (1840-1926) On the outbreak of the war Monet and his friend Pissarro fled to England. While there he studied the work of Constable and Turner and met the art dealer Durand-Ruel, who was to become one of the great champions of the Impressionists.

After the Commune had been suppressed (May 1871) Monet went to Holland for a spell, and then returned to France at the end of the year, settling in Argenteuil, a village on the Seine near Paris. The next year he painted Impression, Sunrise (depicting Le Havre) which was shown in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. When critics used the title to deride him for his ‘impressionism’, he and his colleagues adopted the term as the name for their movement.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) During the Commune some Communards found Renoir painting on the banks of the River Seine, thought he was a spy and were about to throw him into the river when one of the most bloodthirsty leaders of the Commune, Raoul Rigault, recognized Renoir as the man who had protected him on an earlier occasion. Rigault intervened and vouched for him. By this slender thread, Renoir was saved to go on to become one of the giants of Impressionism.

Paul Verlaine (1844-96) At the proclamation of the Third Republic the poet Verlaine joined the 160th battalion of the Garde Nationale, turning Communard on 18 March 1871. He became Head of the Press Bureau of the Central Committee of the Paris Commune. He escaped the deadly street fighting and went into hiding in the Pas-de-Calais. Verlaine returned to Paris in August 1871 and, in September, received the first letter from Arthur Rimbaud with whom he was to have his passionate and ill-fated affair.

Gabriel Urbain Fauré (1845–1924) On the outbreak of war Fauré volunteered for military service and saw action at Le Bourget, Champigny and Créteil, for which he was awarded a Croix de Guerre. During the Commune Fauré escaped to Rambouillet where one of his brothers lived, and then travelled to Switzerland, where he took up a teaching post. Though some of his colleagues – including Saint-Saëns, Gounod and Franck – produced elegies and patriotic odes affected by the events, Fauré’s compositions from this period don’t overtly reflect the conflict. However, according to his biographer, his music does acquire ‘a new sombreness, a dark-hued sense of tragedy…evident mainly in his songs of this period including L’Absent, Seule! and La Chanson du pêcheur.’

Guy de Maupassant (1850-93) On the outbreak of war, 19-year-old Maupassant abandoned his law studies to volunteer for the army. He served first as a private in the field, and was later transferred through his father’s intervention to the quartermaster corps. Many of the short stories he published throughout the 1880s describe brutal or haunting episodes in the war.

Selected Short Stories by Guy de Maupassant

The French short story writer Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant (b.5 August 1850) was a close contemporary of Robert Louis Stevenson (b.November 13 1850).

The comparison immediately highlights Maupassant’s seriousness as an artist against Stevenson’s delittantism, Maupassant’s subtle explorations of war and human relations contrasted with Stevenson’s boy’s own stories. The difference is typified by Maupassant’s adult depiction of sex compared with the almost complete absence of believable women in Stevenson’s fiction.

Love Contrast the improbable ‘love affair’ at the heart of Stevenson’s ‘Olalla‘ (1885) – the visiting English officer falls immediately head over heels in love with the beautiful daughter of the ‘degenerate’ Spanish family – with the themes  of human sexuality, bourgeois morality and the corrupting influence of military occupation in Maupassant’s first published story, ‘Boule de Suif‘ (1880).

France and Britain Hard to avoid the conclusion that 19th century French culture was adult while British Victorian culture was somehow deeply childish: Flaubert and Maupassant, Zola and Mallarme versus Stevenson and Haggard, Conan Doyle and Kipling.

Workrate The success of Boule de Suif inaugurated an amazingly productive decade. In the 1880s Maupassant wrote six novels and over 300 short stories, became well-known as a reporter and columnist, travelled widely and wrote accounts of his journeys; he bought a yacht, had numerous affairs and became celebrated for his parties. The nearest comparison for workrate and stories might be Kipling. Not for the affairs or parties though.

Thirty of the ‘best’ short stories are collected and translated by Roger Colet in the 1971 Penguin edition I’ve had since school.

Sex, treated frankly and openly, just is a major theme of French fiction in a way it isn’t among the more repressed English. Thomas Hardy gave up writing novels because of the intense criticism he received over the alleged immorality of ‘Tess of the Durbevilles’ and ‘Jude the Obscure’. In the first five stories in this collection, three are about prostitutes, one about an unfaithful wife and one about a man prevented from chatting up a pretty girl on a riverboat.

‘Boule de Suif‘ (1880) is the nickname of a prostitute. The carriage in which she and a crew of bourgeois is fleeing a town occupied by the invading German army of 1870, is held up at a hotel on the border by a German officer who refuses to let it proceed unless Boule de Suif sleeps with him. Her bourgeois companions, gentlemen and ladies all, are initially scandalised – but as the days pass, slowly begin to put pressure on her to relent and be screwed by the enemy. After a week-long siege of her feelings she finally gives in, she is laid, and the officer lets the coach continue – at which all her high-minded companions promptly treat her like an immoral slut. This perfectly naturalistic story – on the face of it an ironic commentary on the self-righteous hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie – is at the same time a wonderfully subtle parable of the mental collapse of a nation conquered in war. Maupassant was just 20 and a soldier in the army when France underwent the humilation of defeat in war to Prussia.

In ‘Madame Tellier’s Establishment‘ (1881) all the prostitutes of a friendly brothel in a small Normandy town decamp en masse 50 miles to attend the First Communion of the brothel-keeper’s niece. The village festivities and the church ceremony are wonderfully described – as is their return after many days away to be welcomed and partied by the leading men of their small town who had missed them so badly!

In ‘The Graveyard Sisterhood’ a man sees a beautiful widow weeping at the grave of her husband, a gallant officer killed in the recent war. He offers to buy her a tea and cheer her up and one thing leads to another and they go to her apartment and become lovers. After a while the affair dwindles, they lose touch. One day he feels nostalgia for her and goes to visit the cemetery again where he is flabbergasted to see her picking up another distinguished gent in the way she picked him up. She is a prostitute who has figured out that graveyards bring out something amorous in some kinds of men!

A Ruse‘ is told by an old doctor who once attended a young married woman whose lover has collapsed and died in her bed. And her husband is due back in half an hour! Together they come up with a ruse to save her… ‘

Happiness Ironic and knowing his stories may be but they are mostly happy. Madame Tellier’s Establishment made me beam with content all the way through. The punchline of ‘A Ruse’ made me burst out laughing. Even when the protagonists of ‘Two Friends’ are shot dead by the swinish Germans, their deaths have less impact than the preceding sunny description of the spring countryside and their happy fishing.

The ‘implied author’, the ambience created by these texts, is of a relaxed, amused, worldly-wise man with an amazing gift for selecting just the right details, snatches of dialogue and incidents to lay bare the soul of a character or the essence of a situation. Effortlessly charming. And economical. they never outstay their welcome. His stories have tremendous good manners.

Guy de Maupassant

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