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Monday, October 25, 2010

War Is Hell on Art

We are accustomed to thinking of Paris as "Gay Paree" with strolling musicians, the sounds of violins and accordions at night, bright, sunny days, spring blossoms freshening the air with their flowery scent, and Gigi peeking around the corner of some street kiosk.  Well, it wasn't quite like that during the period of 1870-71. The French, under Napoleon III, decided to hold a little war. Their "guests" were the Prussians, and if "war is hell", then all hell broke loose in Paris during the fall and winter of that year. As in most cases, when two countries play war, the populace fled (at least those who could afford to).  Likewise, those of the artistic community faced a number of choices, none of them very "palette-able".   
If the war had been decided upon fashion, the French would have won handily.  But the bloated pretensions of the Second Empire were no match for the hardened Prussian war machine.  After the French defeat at Sedan in September, 1870, life in Paris deteriorated rather precipitously.  Artists were faced with the choice of fleeing, as Boudin, Diaz, Monet, Daubigny, Pissarro, and Bonvin did, to London or Brussels.  Or enlisting, as did Bazille, Manet, Degas, Rouart, and Renoir.  Or, they could hide out in the south of France, as did Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Zola (who was exempt from military service, being the only son of a widow).  Degas and Manet remained in Paris, trying all along to convince their female counterpart, Berthe Morisot and her family to leave (which she refused to do).  Likewise, Courbet remained behind and was made chairman of a committee to safeguard the country's art treasures.  Principally, he managed to safeguard his own works by shipping them to London.  Needless to say, there was very little painting being done.   
A Christmas menu from the 99th day of the siege of Paris
offered such delicacies as elephant consomme, roast camel,
Kangaroo stew, antelope terrine, bear ribs, cat with rats,
and wolf haunch in deer sauce. The population of the Paris
zoo must have shrunk considerably during the holidays.
Things got infinitely worse when Paris fell under siege in early January of 1871.  Prussian canons pounded the city mercilessly, day and night, for over three weeks.  The food supply became tenuous, at best. Signs went up on the street advertising the meat from cats, dogs, and even rats. The lucky ones could obtain horse meat. Manet complained in a letter that donkey meat was too expensive. And, by the time the city surrendered near the end of the month, even those delicacies, which must have woefully challenged the local artists of French cuisine, were completely gone.  Paris became a city where the "starving artist" was the rule, rather than the exception.   

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