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Art Under Siege

At the outset of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant sent William I of Prussia a message which the French, on seeing a copy, interpreted as expressing a position of benevolent neutrality. In December, after the ignominious collapse of the French armies, Victor Hugo bitterly accused Grant of helping the Prussians triumph over the very ideals that had once united France and the United States:

So he delivers his noble country to the Emperor,
So he mingles it with tyrants, murders, horror,
So he submerges it in this horrible and somber triumph,
So in this bed of opprobrium he lays down this virgin.1

Hugo then calls on the memory of American patriots:

Shuddering Kosciusko wakes up Spartacus;
And Madison stands up and Jefferson rises;
Jackson raises his two hands before this hideous dream;
Dishonor! cries Adams; and Lincoln, astonished,
Bleeds, and it’s today that he is assassinated.2

Napoleon III declared war on Prussia on July 19, little dreaming that his armies would soon be routed by Prussia’s better-equipped and better-led forces. On September 4, two days after Napoleon’s disgraceful surrender at Sedan, revolutionary Parisians invaded the Legislative Assembly and forced the declaration of a new republic. The troops of the German commander Helmuth von Moltke cut Paris off from the rest of the country by September 19, beginning the stifling siege of Paris that is the central event in the books under review.

Hugo suffered through the siege, having returned from self-exile on September 5, and chronicled the events of that fall, winter, and spring in his epic poem L’Année terrible. General Louis Jules Trochu was the president of the provisional government of national defense, although Léon Gambetta, based in Tours, was its most energetic leader. On January 5, 1871, the Germans began to bombard the capital, which was already mired in famine; because the invaders were also winning the war in the provinces, the Parisian leaders had to sign a humiliating armistice on January 28.

Ardent republicans and socialists, wanting a more aggressive defense of the capital, had failed to dislodge the provisional government in two abortive rebellions in October and mid-January. In the new legislative elections on February 8, 1871, they were badly outvoted by conservatives who, ever fearful of the radicals, elected Adolphe Thiers head of the government. Thiers negotiated a peace treaty with Bismarck on February 28 which ceded Alsace and part of Lorraine to the new German Empire that had been declared at Versailles on January 18. Radical Parisians, including many National Guard troops, humiliated by the treaty and disenfranchised by the reactionary government, resisted Thiers’s troops. They declared the Paris Commune on March 28 and set up their own government by committees, still hopeful that some of the successes of 1789, 1830, and 1848 could be repeated.

At first the Commune’s main committees included an entire spectrum of the left-of-center, from moderate republicans to adherents of the First International. While the Germans looked on, the members of the Commune held out for some weeks against Thiers’s government, now established at Versailles, and adopted measures that would favor the power of municipalities (hence “Commune”) over a central government; they also called for the separation of Church and State, numerous egalitarian measures, and the substitution of the National Guard for the standing army.

By early April the troops of the Versailles government were in Paris, fighting Communards who were increasingly radicalized and desperate. Fires, some deliberately set, consumed the Tuileries, the Hôtel de Ville, and hundreds of other, less notable buildings. The Communards’ Union of Women was organized to aid in the defense of Paris and its members sometimes took charge of the barricades. The Communards took hostages and executed dozens of them.

Thiers’s troops finally defeated the Communards in the Bloody Week of May 21–28; resisters and presumed sympathizers were summarily executed as part of Thiers’s deliberate campaign of terror to put an end forever to Parisian working-class rebellion. Hugo was horrified at the slaughter, in which probably more than 20,000 were killed.3 He blamed both the Communard leaders and the Thiers government, yet defended the abstract ideals of the Commune.

The outcome of the war and the end of the Commune meant a double defeat for the left; the wound was so deep that some leftists still hold ceremonies at the Wall of the Communards in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Conservatives were deeply shaken by the Commune and elected a government so reactionary that monarchists had a major, if finally unrequited, part in the “Republic of Dukes,” which lasted until a more liberal regime took over in 1879. (Catholic subscriptions paid for the building of Sacré-Coeur to expiate the alleged crimes of the secular Commune.)

The most brilliant recent study of the war and the Commune is Bertrand Taithe’s Defeated Flesh: Medicine, Welfare, and Warfare in the Making of Modern France. Despite its broad title, the book concentrates on the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. Taithe describes medical practices and the debates over them, and he gives the clearest account that anyone I know of has written so far of the daily hardship and suffering in Paris. He documents the military and civilian care of the wounded and sick, political controversy over how medical care and welfare should be administered, medical disputes about the treatment for alcoholism and syphilis and the use of amputation, as well as the growing poverty and famine during the siege, and the despair of people trying to cope with deprivation and chaos. He describes how the Communards survived partly by eating rats, cats, dogs, and animals from the zoo.

Taithe has a gift for the lapidary summary. Referring to writers both during and after the siege, he comments that

the wilderness and the cold of a harsh winter brought bourgeois authors to perceive their plight as a personal regression to primitive life. This regression was paralleled by the political regression to chaotic democracy.

Taithe reproduces only a few works of art, but is astute enough to see that the mostly postwar paintings treated military skirmishes and daily events as fragments because there was no clear moment of victory, not even an energetic sortie. Artists were reduced to memorializing isolated gallant actions of resistance or scenes of the siege.

The study of war,” Taithe writes, “as an intense but short-lived reorganisation of social and individual relationships is still in its infancy.” Two more recent books by historians of art attempt to provide such studies: Paris in Despair: Art and Everyday Life under Siege (1870–71) by Hollis Clayson, and Art, War and Revolution in France, 1870–1871: Myth, Reportage and Reality by John Milner. They use contrasting methods and arrive at different conclusions.

In Milner’s book the experience of the siege and the Commune is displayed in nearly four hundred caricatures, paintings, prints, maps, and photographs. He gives an almost day-by-day account of the dramatic events of 1870 and 1871, but he seldom intervenes in the text. Instead he has written an expository history as though an old-fashioned historian of “facts” had been told to give predominant attention to the arts in his account. He frequently cites artists as witnesses, including Courbet, Manet, Morisot, Rosa Bonheur, Ernest Meissonier, and Isidore Pils; he reproduces work by them and by battle painters like Edouard Detaille and Alphonse de Neuville. He makes more frequent use of the work of illustrators and caricaturists, among them Daumier, Auguste Lançon, Alexandre Bida, and Albert Robida. Milner never devotes more than a few sentences to any one image, whether a painting or a print, perhaps because he feels that they tell their own stories. Ken Burns could use his book without much alteration as the source for a televised program because Milner is really far more concerned with a chronology of the war and the Commune than with the works of art, which make up no more than a splendid gathering of visual witnesses.

Clayson’s new book takes a different tack entirely. Because, she writes, the Commune has been exhaustively studied, and because she wants to give space to her investigations of the autumn and winter siege, she stops with the armistice at the end of January 1871. Although she was apparently unaware of Milner’s book,4 it is the kind of history that she opposes, a narrative of public events she associates with male writers. Instead she uses current methods of cultural history and feminist history that look behind battles, monuments, and leading politicians in order to evoke the everyday lives of women, children, and men as they were transformed by war and siege. She draws upon the work of feminist historians of war who study not just “women’s issues,” but the challenges faced by men in war, and the confusions of gender when women take on men’s roles—not only providing a variety of social services, but fighting on the barricades—and men, rendered inactive, shed some of their masculinity.5

In her first book, Painted Love: Prostitution in French Art of the Impressionist Era (1991),6 Clayson examined the Parisian underclass of laundresses, milliners, waitresses, and café-concert entertainers who were often perceived as clandestine prostitutes; she also discussed brothel workers. Although she featured the work of Degas and Manet, she made generous use of illustrations in the popular press and other witnesses to social history. She consistently wrote as a feminist for whom class was as significant as gender. In college courses on Paris and Impressionism her book has long been a standard resource.

Clayson’s much-anticipated new book comes as a surprise because she is now far more concerned with individual lives and psychological readings of art, elements that many writers influenced by Marxism have rejected, as she had herself in Painted Love:

As I began to focus upon the individual histories of some of the artists who worked in Paris during the war of 1870, I came to rely less upon some of the procedures and assumptions usually employed in a social history of art, especially the view that artists are exemplars of a collectivity, usually of a social class—an approach that I have long found to be intellectually congenial. My concentration upon the actions of individuals lessened my dependence upon the theoretical and interpretive assumption that art is principally shaped—“caused”—by the class outlook of artists mired in a matrix of struggle and competition.

Before embarking on a close study of individual artists, Clayson devotes the first half of her book to 153 examples of paintings, prints, illustrations, and caricatures that establish the peculiar conditions of life under siege. She seldom treats these formally as works of art, but makes careful analyses of their subjects to reveal the altered circumstances of daily life. A few of her images duplicate those in Milner’s book, but most of them are less familiar; they concern, for example, women and men foraging for food and wood, seeking shelter from bombardments, going daily to the ramparts, coping with crowded temporary housing, and standing in long lines to shop.

In the pictures she discusses, most of the men are National Guardsmen and soldiers. In particularly sensitive readings of drawings by artist-soldiers, Clayson shows them at enforced leisure or in infirmaries. She draws from contemporary letters to prove that many artists were entirely unfamiliar with rifles and other military equipment when they pictured their comrades as quintessential soldier-heroes. Women appear as foragers, as cantinières who supplied some food and drink to men on the ramparts, and as ambulancières, amateur medical aides of whom the most famous was Sarah Bernhardt. Although Clayson does not inquire into the medical histories we find in Taithe’s book, she gives the reader a good idea of Paris as a gigantic hospital, both literal and metaphorical, in which many women continued to fulfill their domestic duties but devoted themselves to public service as well.

In the most interesting chapter in Clayson’s account of the siege she cites Paul de Saint-Victor, a conservative critic, who wrote in 1871 that

Paris stripped away the effeminacy of a city of joy, and rose again as a heroic city. It assimilated all the male virtues; all the valiant energies brought in its bosom by the militias from the provinces.

Although this heroic mustering of courage was construed as masculine, Clayson suggests that one can consider the besieged city as feminized because men were largely inactive while women gained new prominence in political and vigilance committees, and did the crucial work in supplying soldiers and noncombatants with food, medicine, and shelter.

Clayson’s rich collection of prints and caricatures allows her to analyze the ways in which women and men appear in new allegorical guises. In one, the Greek-draped and semi-nude Marianne is courted by contemporary politicians. She gives help to the weak and wields a vengeful sword; in another she is the victim of the cowardly signers of the armistice. Male figures sometimes are literally feminized, represented in drag as the Republic. Sometimes they are seen as heroes; at other times they are pitifully resigned. Weakened Paris is shown as an emasculated male, and in a particularly hilarious sequence, Clayson shows us the elderly Thiers as a prostitute, a madam, and a triumphant old harridan.

In the second half of her book, Clayson gives speculative accounts of individual works from her own highly subjective perspective, devoting separate chapters to Courbet, Manet, Henri Regnault, J.-A.-J. Falguière, Rosa Bonheur, and Degas. These seem all too independent of the social settings in which the artists worked. In these chapters, Clayson warns, she is describing individual reactions to the siege, from which one learns about particular artists and their subjects but not necessarily about art in any larger sense. Although she admits that the artists cannot be entirely separated from the shared conditions of the siege, “discovering how the artists acted and felt was as important to my study as what they produced.”

Courbet produced no art during the siege, but Clayson describes how prominent his public position was as he wrote and spoke for republican artists’ interests, constantly berating or nudging the fine arts ministry and involving himself in daily activities to shelter Parisian museums against the war. She recounts the fascinating story of how Falguière sculpted in snow a large female allegory of Resistance while he was serving as a soldier on the ramparts in frigid December weather. Word of the snow statue spread so rapidly that it entered prominently into the folklore of the siege.

Clayson is less convincing when she deals with the work of the four other artists during the siege. She begins her chapter on Manet with a comment on his enlistment in the National Guard:

It is clear from his correspondence that although he never questioned his decision to stay in Paris, he did not enjoy soldiering much at all and seems to have liked his administrative assignment [on the general staff] even less. He did, however, value the relief from utter boredom provided by guard duty, and though military service was difficult, it was better than being sick or doing nothing. Unlike the more radicalized and hearty members of the militia, he never expressed a real avidity for fighting, yet he evidently adored his uniform.

She follows this common-sense summary, however, with highly speculative and often doubtful readings of Manet’s art. He made only two quick paintings during the siege. One is lost, but Clayson thinks she has found the precise circumstances of the other, Snow Effect, Montrouge (in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff), which she believes was painted from the rampart walls during the December snows. Some readers may be puzzled by her assertion that the unfinished, smeary foreground represents the fortifications. It is also difficult to accept her belief that the shapes clad in white in Manet’s etching Line in Front of the Butcher Shop (Siege of Paris) (printed only posthumously) are to be seen as two soldiers rather than as women or civilian men.

Equally unconvincing, although perversely fascinating, is Clayson’s examination of two very polished watercolors by the Orientalist Henri Regnault. One shows a languid woman in a harem, the other a listless man reclining in the pose of Manet’s Olympia (a parallel unmentioned by Clayson) accompanied by a sober female musician. Clayson insists that the lassitude of the figures, the women’s lack of overt erotic appeal, and the men’s languid feminization suggest the artist’s own enforced inactivity as a soldier until he was killed in a skirmish in January 1871. This may be true, but the reader would have to be persuaded that these images are so unlike other Orientalizing pictures as to warrant her conclusion; they can also be taken as Regnault’s attempt to defy the siege by carrying on as usual. Clayson retells the very romantic story of the artist’s love for his fiancée, and her appreciation of his watercolors; but although this adds interest to her chapter, it does not reinforce her argument.

For both Rosa Bonheur and Degas, Clayson again presents speculative analyses that are open to question. In her reading of Bonheur’s large painting The Wounded Eagle (in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), which has been dated to around 1870, she tries to show that the eagle represents the painter’s hopes for defeat of the Prussians, for whom the eagle was a favored symbol. When Clayson turns to Degas, she again takes paintings that are only roughly dated and attributes them to the siege. The best known of these is Woman with a Bandage (in the Detroit Institute of Arts), whose subject is usually said to be a member of the Degas family, and which was painted around 1872. Clayson thinks it may show one of the many victims of the siege with whom Degas would have been familiar. As with her reading of the other two pictures, this one allows the reader to think that it might be correct or that it might not; the evidence is only circumstantial.

After discussing particular artists, Clayson gives brief accounts of much later commemorations or echoes of the siege. The most interesting of these is Falguière’s overly complicated allegory of the defense of Paris, his entry in a contest in 1879 which won only an honorable mention. In this and other sculptures he seemed unable to summon up the energy and conviction of his snow piece.

In the chapter “Summing Up,” Clayson reiterates her reasons for not dealing with the Commune—it has, she says, been extensively studied already—and for not discussing images of the siege and the war by other artists, including Meissonier, Doré, Morisot, Detaille, Tissot, Robida, Caillebotte, and many more:

I am making a clean breast of what remains in my files in order to forestall my guilt and my readers’ complaints, but also to encourage other scholars to take up this topic and trace its implications, building upon or dismantling the foundation I have erected.

It is easy to sympathize with the author and to feel grateful for all that she has uncovered, but one can nevertheless regret that she has not written a better-rounded history.

My own hope would be to see artists’ feelings and beliefs given their due, but only when they are linked more persuasively with their art and integrated with the social history of the siege rather than separated from it. Above all, it is the Commune that should have demanded Clayson’s attention. Many of the events and much of the art of the siege were reborn in the Commune. If she can leap forward to 1879 and to later echoes of the siege in her penultimate chapter, why not discuss the months of the Commune? I think Clayson gives herself away with disarming frankness when she mentions Louise Michel, the militant voice of Communard women. Her readers, she writes,

will find that my voice in these pages corresponds more to that of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway struggling to assimilate her disquieting encounter with a young soldier than it resembles the hortatory tone of political radical Louise Michel.

Since leftist passions have been devoted to the Commune, Clayson feels justified in moving on to a more direct awareness of individual artists’ reactions in a book she describes as “focused on representation,” one that is “not a sociopolitical polemic.”

The best part of Clayson’s study is her demonstration that the domestic duties of women were transformed into public service and that, as a result, women generally became heroically identified with the wartime state. As she points out, this central engagement of women with matters of life and death subsequently created the militant and collective consciousness of women in the Commune. How much better it would have been for her readers to see the tragic continuity in which the Commune emerged from the siege. They could then understand more fully why Victor Hugo, who was no feminist, would include verses in L’Année terrible that likened Parisian women to the fabled women of Rome:

As for women, be very proud in this moment
When everything tilts downward, they are simply sublime.
[…]
Well, in our Paris, under inhuman stranglehold,
Man is only a Frenchman, woman is Roman.7

  1. 1

    Qu’il livre sa patrie auguste à l’empereur,/Qu’il la mêle aux tyrans, aux meurtres, à l’horreur,/Qu’en ce triomphe horrible et sombre il la submerge,/Que dans ce lit d’opprobre il couche cette vierge.” These and the following verses are from “Le message de Grant,” a poem incorporated in his epic Terrible Year (1872), in L’Année terrible, edited by Yves Gohin (Gallimard, 1985), pp. 73–74. My translation is intended only to convey Hugo’s meaning, not his art.

  2. 2

    Kosciusko frémissant réveille Spartacus;/Et Madison se dresse et Jefferson se lève;/Jackson met ses deux mains devant ce hideux rêve;/Déshonneur! crie Adams; et Lincoln étonné/Saigne, et c’est aujourd’hui qu’il est assassiné.

  3. 3

    The numbers have always been disputed, low estimates being 10,000, high ones 35,000; see Robert Tombs, The War against Paris, 1871 (Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 191–194. Thousands of others were imprisoned, exiled, or sent to New Caledonia.

  4. 4

    I find no references to publications after 1998, but in the absence of a bibliography I cannot be sure. If I were a dictator I would require publishers to insist on bibliographies. The University of Chicago Press makes one scramble through ninety pages of Clayson’s endnotes to locate a given book or article.

  5. 5

    Among them Gay L. Gullickson, Unruly Women of Paris: Images of the Commune (Cornell University Press, 1996); Melissa Hall, “Militarism, Gender and the Imagery of the First World War,” Phoebe, Vol. 3 (Fall 1991); Gillian Russell, The Theatres of War: Performance, Politics, and Society, 1793–1815 (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1995); and Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins (Routledge, 1992).

  6. 6

    One of three books I reviewed in The New York Review, April 18, 1996.

  7. 7

    Quant aux femmes, soyez très-fière, en ce moment/Où tout penche, elles sont sublimes simplement. […] Eh bien, dans ce Paris, sous l’étreinte inhumaine,/L’homme n’est que Français, et la femme est Romaine.” See Victor Hugo, “Lettre à une femme,” January 1871, in L’Année terrible, p. 89.

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