1870: from defeat to the desire for revenge

1870: from defeat to the desire for revenge

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  • Bivouac after the fight at Le Bourget, December 21, 1870.

    NEUVILLE Alphonse (1835 - 1885)

  • The dream.

    DETAILED Jean-Baptiste Edouard (1848 - 1912)

To close

Title: Bivouac after the fight at Le Bourget, December 21, 1870.

Author : NEUVILLE Alphonse (1835 - 1885)

Creation date : 1873

Date shown: December 30, 1870

Dimensions: Height 57.5 - Width 79

Technique and other indications: Oil painting on canvas

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Picture reference: 97DE21909 / MV 8327

Bivouac after the fight at Le Bourget, December 21, 1870.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais

To close

Title: The dream.

Author : DETAILED Jean-Baptiste Edouard (1848 - 1912)

Creation date : 1888

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 300 - Width 400

Technique and other indications: Oil painting on canvas

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 95DE11769 / RF 524

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Publication date: October 2006


1870: from defeat to the desire for revenge


Historical context

The French defeats of 1870

France declared war on Prussia on July 19, 1870. On August 7, the Seine department was put under siege. On September 2, Napoleon III surrendered in Sedan. The forfeiture of the Empire is proclaimed, followed by the proclamation of the Republic on September 4. On September 19 the siege of Paris begins, while the cities of the East capitulate one after the other: Toul, Strasbourg, Metz, Thionville, Mézières, Longwy ...

Despite Gambetta’s efforts, anxious to organize resistance in the provinces, the French troops experienced an unprecedented debacle across the country where the fronts had multiplied. The defeat was final, as confirmed by the attempts to leave the capital at Le Bourget - this is the setting for Neuville's painting -, at Champigny or Buzenval, which resulted in heavy loss of life.

Image Analysis

Images of war

Designed from personal recollection, the painting by Alphonse de Neuville (1835-1885) is the first work exhibited by the painter after the war, at the Salon of 1872 - the "Salon de la Defeat".

Neuville shows the French troops bivouacking in a desolate plain, bristling with destroyed houses. The cloud-laden sky crushes this scene where soldiers are swarming busy improvising a makeshift camp. The commotion turns to confusion: men are lying, injured or sleeping on the floor; materials and packages are piled up in disorder; the uniforms alternate with the blankets in which the soldiers are wrapped; trees were cut down to make fires.

This work, in which the rout and the debacle are underlying, is part of a military painting hated by some critics: "The countless episodes of combat which every year since our defeats encumber the Salon cause me repulsion. […] Enough wounded French people, surprised and fleeing, enough corpses in the foreground, gaping wounds and torn clothes! "(Review of the Two Worlds, June 15, 1875.)

In the later work of Édouard Detaille (1848-1912), the scene is similar although the arrangement is different. The troops bivouac in the countryside and collectively dream of the victories of Napoleon's Grande Armée appearing in a cloud. The soldiers sleep on a future battlefield, in the shadow of the flag resting on the rifles neatly arranged in bundles.

By its celestial and reassuring lyricism, this work widely popularized by press engraving, chromos, calendars, illustrated songs or photography operates a transfiguration of the defeat to which Neuville does not subscribe in his painting, more concerned with compassion than of celebration and heroism.


Metamorphosis of defeat

From Alphonse de Neuville's painting to Detaille's, a conversion of defeat takes place, aimed at exalting patriotic sentiment, calling for revenge and founding nationalism.

The ideology of defeat is based on moral depression counterbalanced by exasperated idealism. This process is only possible through a series of shifts from the historical to the anecdotal - the subjects are no longer necessarily localized in time and space -, because of the scene - they refer less and less to a precise historical event to favor the dramatized scene - or from the collective to the individual - acts of heroism favoring stereotypical attitudes and expressions outweigh the collective impetus.

The exorcism of defeat will be one of the concerns of the Republic in the decades 1870 to 1900.

  • army
  • defeat
  • War of 1870
  • nationalism
  • ruins
  • Second Empire
  • Paris Headquarters


François ROTH, The war of 70, Paris, Fayard, 1990.

To cite this article

Bertrand TILLIER, "1870: from defeat to the desire for revenge"