Detaille, like his friend de Neuville, specialised in military painting, celebrating the "glorious vanquished" of 1870-1871. Yet this large painting, presented at the 1888 Salon, is a direct political statement. The young conscripts manoeuvring, probably in Champaign, are dreaming of future revenge. This was the implicit program of the "brave general" Boulanger, whose popularity was then at a high point. The Boulangistes federated all the discontents and disappointments caused by the first decade of republican rule. Likewise, Detaille's soldiers associate reminiscences of the glorious French past : the victorious soldiers of the Revolution and Empire have the lion's share, but neither are neglected their comrades of the Restoration, whose white flag also carried the day in the Trocadero or Algiers, nor the "brave people" of Reichshoffen, under a hail of bullets, or the survivors of Gravelotte, gloriously vanquished. The Boulangiste stance of the painting was soon forgotten. The modern spectator finds in this great heroic painting a celebration of the army, the "holy ark" of the country.
Detaille was awarded a medal and his painting was bought by the state and presented at the 1889 World Fair. All republicans acclaimed this exaltation of the national army at a time when the Republic was instituting military service for all young citizens (law passed July 15, 1889). [Musée d’Orsay]
A pupil of Gleyre and Gérôme at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Charles Delort debuted at the Salon in 1864. He accompanied Gérôme to Egypt and returned to France via the Maghreb. The scenes of Algerian life inspired many of his artworks. He also enjoyed painting pastiches inspired by the eighteenth century, a vein displayed in the current painting, showing young women about to be sold as slaves to the port of Algiers. In the rear of the scene, the ladies’ husbands are seen as prisoners, still dressed in their costumes of the eighteenth century.
The painting was sold in 1890 with the following description: "Around 1750, noble families of Venice undertook a trip to the Aegean. Their ship was captured by Algerian pirates. Women and girls were sold as slaves. They are grouped on the quay of the port. A rich Mohammedan, wearing gold embroidered red velvet, arm in arm with a eunuch, examines them." [Sotheby’s]
Alphonse Legros has a picture at the Tate Gallery, Women in Prayer, in which he subtly suggests how widely different an exercise prayer might be at different times and under different conditions. Here in this grey and subdued picture he shows how the inner character displays itself. In the faces of the women praying we see ecstasy, awe, anguish, doubt, weariness, formality. In any ordinary congregation during prayer these may be seen with equal vividness. [Illustrations from Art for Pulpit and Platform, James Burns. Boston: The Pilgrim Press, 1912, p. 98]
In November, 1870, Gambetta and his entourage decided to conduct a diversionary offensive in eastern France, to threaten the communications of Germans on their back and trying to loosen the grip blocking Paris. The action was centered on the fortress of Belfort, still held by Colonel Denfert. They sent him a portion of the Army of the Loire which along with Lyon troops took the name Army of the East and brought together 120,000 men under the command of General Bourbaki (1816-1897). But the operation had to be quick and secret was fanned by an article Monitor. It definitely failed at the Battle of Héricourt from 15 to 17 January 1871 and cost the lives of several thousand soldiers. Encircled by the German army led by Manteuffel (1809-1885), the troops of Bourbaki still lost 15,000 men in a series of battles around Pontarlier, while the armistice was already signed. The 92,000 survivors took refuge in Switzerland, by the passage of Verrieres, and they were disarmed on 1 February.
On this huge canvas, a synthetic composition with a limited color range, snow-covered land occupies most of the surface, hiding any topographical landmark. Chigot isolates two characters who support each other. Eugene Montrosier in the 1888 Salon discussed the content of this painting and its reception: "As soon as you touch the military genre, one almost falls into sentimentality. This is what Mr. Chigot prevents, recalling a painful memory of the Eastern Army, which after glorious exploits took refuge in Switzerland. The scene is dismal. In a plain covered with snow, the sun is eerily yellow, at right. A decorated Dominican supports the march of a wounded Turkish [Algerian] sharpshooter, and carries the soldier’s gun, ready to use it to save the black child of Muhammad." [L’Histoire par L’Image]
Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand (1817-1891) was a French engineer of the Corps of Bridges and Roads. Under Napoléon III, Alphand participated in the renovation of Paris directed by Baron Haussmann between 1852 and 1870, in the company of another engineer Eugène Belgrand and the landscape architect Jean-Pierre Barillet-Deschamps. After the retirement of Baron Haussmann, his successor, Léon Say,
entrusted to Alphand the position of Director of Public Works of Paris.
Under this title, Alphand continued Haussmann's works. [Wikipedia]