Courage & Cowardice: The Impressionists at War, 1870 (Part 2 of 2)

To cite this article: Paquette, Lucy.” Courage & Cowardice: The Impressionists at War, 1870 (Part 2 of 2).” The Hammock. <Date viewed.>



French National Guard soldier with Tabatière rifle (

From September 1870 on, every able-bodied Frenchman enlisted in the National Guard, a hastily-organized, inexperienced militia protecting Paris.  The volunteers were mostly assigned tasks such as standing guard at the city walls or public buildings.  The illustrious Parisian painter of well-dressed women, Alfred Stevens (1823 – 1906) joined the National Guard.  Stevens was a Belgian citizen but had resided in Paris since he was 20; now 47, he was assigned to a unit which did not see much action.  Even Ferdinand Heilbuth (1826 – 1889), a German painter who, like Stevens, had settled in Paris around 1843, served in the National Guard.  [Édouard Manet and Heilbuth had become good friends over the past summer, and James Tissot and Heilbuth would become close within the next few years.  Tissot had long been friends with Alfred Stevens.]

In September, 1870, Edgar Degas, now 36, was working on the coast.  He returned to Paris and enlisted in an infantry unit with the National Guard.  When he could not see the target clearly at rifle practice, he realized he was losing vision in his right eye.  He told another friend that it had been confirmed that his eye was almost useless, and he blamed this on the fact that he had been sleeping in a damp attic.

Édouard Manet closed his Paris studio and sent his family (his mother, his wife, Suzanne, and Suzanne’s 18-year-old “brother,” Léon Leenhoff), to stay with friends tucked away safely in Oloron-Sainte-Marie near the Pyrenees mountains, north of the Spanish border.  He transported a dozen of his most important paintings, including Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1862-63) and Olympia (1863) to the cellar of a friend’s house, and took the remainder to the cellar of the family home in Paris, where he stayed with his brothers Gustave and Eugène.  On September 10, Manet wrote to Suzanne, “I’m surprised we have not had to lodge any militiamen, everyone in the neighborhood has them….  I hope this won’t last long.”

Berthe Morisot, 29, remained in Paris with her mother and father at their house in Passy.  Her father, Chief Clerk of the Audit Office, was required to stay in Paris.  He wanted his wife and daughter to leave, and Édouard Manet tried his best to scare the Morisot women into leaving, but they stood firm.  “I am not worried,” Madame Morisot wrote, “I think we will survive.”  By September 12, National Guard soldiers were quartered in their studio, and Berthe could not paint.

On September 19, 200,000 Prussian troops encircled Paris in attempt to starve the French into submission.  No one could enter or leave the city; all communication between the French capital and the outside world was cut off.  The Siege of Paris had begun.

Later that month, Berthe wrote to her married sister, Edma, “I have heard so much about the perils ahead that I have had nightmares for several nights.”  She added, “Would you believe that I am being accustomed to the sound of the cannon?  It seems to me that I am now absolutely inured to war and capable of enduring anything.”

Édouard Manet - Le repos

Repose, by Édouard Manet, c. 1871, depicting Berthe Morisot in Manet’s Paris studio (Photo: Wikipedia)

Manet wrote to Suzanne, “Paris is now a huge camp — from 5 a.m. until evening, the militia and the National Guards not on duty do drill and are turning into real soldiers.”  By the end of September, the National Guard comprised nearly 200,000 men.  When not on duty, they could live at home – or in tents pitched along the boulevards and avenues, or at the fortifications.  The government provided their uniforms and food and paid them 30 sous a day.  Many militiamen, undisciplined and bored, spent their salary getting drunk.  As the war continued, the National Guardsmen were predominately from the poor sections of Paris.  Frédéric Bazille (who would die in battle on November 28, 1870) wrote that they were “a filthy, greasy lot,” adding, “I can’t imagine where they’ve all crawled from.”

Self-portrait. Oil on canvas, 925 x 665mm (36 ...

Edgar Degas, self-portrait, c. 1863. Oil on canvas, 925 x 665mm (36 3/8 x 26 1/8″). Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon. London only. (Photo: Wikipedia)

In early October, Degas was transferred to the artillery and was posted to the Bastion 12 fortifications, just north of the Bois de Vincennes, a large public park on the eastern edge of Paris created by order of Napoléon III between 1855 and 1866.  He served under the command of his old school friend, the engineer and entrepreneur Henri Rouart.

On October 16, Berthe Morisot’s mother wrote to her daughter Yves, “Monsieur Degas has joined the artillery, and by his own account has not yet heard a cannon go off.  He is looking for an opportunity to hear that sound because he wants to know whether he can endure the detonation of his guns.”

Well east of the action, Degas had the leisure to read and draw.


Ernest Meissonnier, self-portrait c. 1865 (

Manet’s brothers both were conscripted into the Garde Mobile, a unit of the National Guard.  In November 1870, Édouard Manet was conscripted as a gunner in an artillery unit of the National Guard protecting Paris, along with Degas.  He was commissioned a lieutenant.  Soon he was on maneuvers with Degas for two hours a day in ankle-deep mud.  By December 7, he had left the artillery, which he said was “too demanding” on a soldier of 39, to be transferred to the general staff headquarters in company with the acclaimed painter and sculptor Ernest Meissonier (now 55, and a grandfather) and other painters.  Meissonier’s assignment was to inspect the protective walls and fortresses encircling Paris.  At the headquarters, Manet said, he could “be safe while being able to see everything.”

As for Édouard Manet’s protégée, Eva Gonzalès, she had fled with her family to Dieppe, a French port on the English Channel, where the twenty-one-year-old received many letters from Manet describing conditions in Paris as well as sentiments such as, “Of all the privations the siege is inflicting upon us, that of not seeing you any more is certainly one of the hardest to bear.”  But he told her that he had no excuse for wasting his time, as he carried his paintbox and portable easel in his military kitbag.  He sketched scenes of the people and activities around him (such as his National Guard comrades, and Parisians in line at the butcher shop), writing his wife that these pictures would become valuable souvenirs of the war.

Édouard Manet (

In a November 19 letter to Gonzalès, Manet wrote, “A lot of cowards have left here, including Zola, Fantin, etc. I don’t think they’ll be very well received when they return.”  In early September, 1870 the writer Émile Zola, 30, had fled to Marseilles in southeastern France with his mother and his new wife, Alexandrine, joining Cézanne (his childhood friend) and his mistress.  Around Christmas, Zola and his wife went to Bordeaux, in southwestern France.  Thirty-four-year-old painter Henri Fantin-Latour holed up in the cellar of his Paris studio.  Manet later called Gustave Courbet a coward as well – and not only because Courbet, a socialist and pacifist who did not join the National Guard, sewed a red stripe up his trouser legs in imitation of a military uniform.

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Exhibition Notes:

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