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Friday, November 23, 2012

Paris, Autumn,1871

War paintings, no match for the photography documenting the carnage.
Like the future of the American republic prior to this year's presidential election, the future of the artists in Paris of 1871 was drastically "undecided." France was at war with Germany. And the results were far from "too close to call." Germany was winning by a landslide. The emperor, Napoleon III, was captured by Prussian forces at the battle of Sedan; and forced to surrender. Soon thereafter the French defiantly proclaimed what was known as the Third Republic, which promptly set as its first course of action, hightailing it out of Paris, leaving what passed for an army and the frightened populace to fend for themselves, as German forces encircled the city and began a siege.

Though fortunately outside the siege ring (blue), Pissarro's  hometown of Louveciennes
would have been an important staging area for Prussian troops during the war.
Manet, Monet, Durand-Ruel, Daubigny, Cézanne, and others fled the city for the countryside. Others, like Bazille and Degas enlisted. Still others, including the Morisot sisters, Corot, Courbet, and Renoir chose to remain in Paris, and were gradually reduced to eating donkeys, then horses, then dogs, cats, and finally rats as the food supply slowly dwindled to almost nothing. Difficult as it might be, as you contemplate this, try to put yourself in the position of Camille Pissarro. He wasn't wealthy by any means, but he did have a comfortable home in Louveciennes, today a western suburb of Paris but then some ten miles outside of town and not far from Versailles. As the Prussian army moved to encircle the city, Louveciennes was directly in their path. He and his family were awakened in the middle of the night and faced with the decision whether to remain and endure the invading forces or flee with little more than the clothes on their backs. They fled north to Le Havre and eventually, along with Monet, Daubigny, and Bonvin escaped to London.

Pissarro and his wife, Julie, around the time
of their return to Louveciennes.
What they left behind was tragic. Pissarro was forced to abandon virtually his entire life's work to that point, hundreds of canvases, thousands of drawings, and a sizeable number of Monets left with him for safe keeping by his friend. In his home, the Germans established a slaughterhouse to feed their army. His paintings were used as doormats, indeed used to line the path to the door through the mud so the German officers might not get their boots dirty. During the occupation, from London, Pissarro was quite understandably concerned as to the fate of his lovely home. A friend, the painter Beliard was not optimistic:

A Road in Louveciennes, 1872, Camille Pissarro,
the scene Pissarro returned home to.
"I have no news of your house in Louveciennes. Your blankets, suits, shoes, underwear, you may go into mourning for--believe me--and your sketches, since they are greatly admired, I like to think will be ornaments in Prussian Drawing rooms. The nearness of the forest will no doubt save your furniture." Beliard was right on all counts, and after the war, Pissarro was able to return to his beleaguered home, losing "only" several hundred of his paintings dating back as far as 1855, while Monet lost a lesser, uncounted number. And we today lost a huge chunk of the history of Impressionism.


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