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 place: 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
Publication date: August 2005
The defeat of Napoleon III's army at Sedan (Mac-Mahon) and Metz (Bazaine) in the fall of 1870 brought about the collapse of the Second Empire and the proclamation, on September 4, 1870, of the Third Republic. The proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles on January 18, 1871 and the signing of the armistice on January 28 marked the triumph of the Prussian army.
A specialist in military painting, Alphonse de Neuville had participated in the Franco-Prussian war. It is therefore with full knowledge that he painted several combat scenes such as the Latest cartridges (1873, house of the Last Cartouche, Bazeilles), the Defense of the Longboyau gate (1879, Army Museum) or the Saint-Privat cemetery (1881, Orsay Museum). These dramatic works show the desperate efforts of the French to try to stop the advance of the Prussian army. With this Bivouac after the fight at Le Bourget, de Neuville breaks with these combat scenes to relate the daily life of soldiers during the war. Under a leaden sky, in an intense cold, the soldiers camp next to a house destroyed by fire during the fighting at Le Bourget (November 28-30). They warm up as best they can under blankets in front of bivouac fires. Some improvise a meal; others have fallen asleep. It is all the desperate misery of a lost war that is portrayed here. The soldiers no longer believe in anything and only hope to save France’s honor. A scene of everyday life rather than a scene of war, this painting shows military as well as moral collapse. On the right, a prancing spahi reveals that de Neuville was a student of Delacroix for a time.
Having all the feeling of a lived scene, this painting announces the themes of the panoramas that de Neuville would paint a few years later, such as that of Battle of Champigny (1882). In these paintings, de Neuville acts as a historian, recounting the episodes of war without any sudden appearances. Compared to his most famous works, violent combat scenes intended to rekindle the flame of national resistance, heroic acts, this painting rather evokes the extreme abandonment of an army perfectly disciplined, but whose ultimate efforts are never crowned with success, arousing deep bitterness. For the first time, it is no longer the hero, sovereign, general, who is painted, it is the soldier, the soldier whose spirit of resistance has far exceeded that of his political or military leaders. He has taken his fate into his own hands, and it is on him that an unattainable victory depends. It is him that de Neuville paints, and he alone, in his patriotic determination as in his misery. But he does not complain, he remains standing in the face of adversity, arousing admiration among visitors to the Salon of 1872. No despair indeed in this painting, but an unwavering tenacity on the part of these soldiers who improvised a bivouac.
- War of 1870
Stéphane AUDOUIN-ROUZEAU, 1870: France in the war, Paris, A. Colin, 1989.
To cite this article
Jérémie BENOÎT, "Bivouac after the Battle of Le Bourget, December 21, 1870"