An army in search of ideals

An army in search of ideals

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The stragglers, snow effect.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

The Second Empire has always maintained, in France and in its colonies, a large army in order to support, with varying degrees of success, both national security and the defense of interests and possessions abroad. Despite the frequent military walks, the great maneuvers and the Mexican expedition from 1861, of which the newspapers gave regular reports, after the heroic victories of the 1850s, in Sebastopol, Magenta or Solferino, the French army seemed to be doze off in a dream of glory that will come to an abrupt end in Sedan.

Image Analysis

Virtuoso in the treatment of atmospheric phenomena linked to snow, rain and fog in almost monochrome compositions enhanced only by a few touches of color, Chenu-Fleury received the praise of critics for his contributions to the Salon of 1867 and that of 1868, after which he obtained a medal. When at the Salon of 1870 he again presented a vast, meticulously crafted snow landscape, his simple and effective composition earned him the acquisition of his painting by the State, at the high price of 8,000 F.

The landscape is flat and sinks towards the horizon, stumbling against an almost indistinct village in the background. Occupying barely a third of the height, the snow-covered landscape dominated by whites and browns is topped with a yellowish gray sky, heavy with threats, where an orange veiled moon can hardly be distinguished and ominous crows swirl. The only colorful animation between these two frozen universes is in the center of the lower part, on the road which traces a grayish furrow where "grenadiers escort a cart where a sick soldier lies and which a peasant drives" (Théophile Gautier). Despite the excitement introduced by the group of soldiers with varied attitudes and the anecdotal and sentimental presence of a dog, the snow that has covered everything makes the whole composition a blanket of silence.


Illustration recomposed in the workshop by a landscaper, this military scene takes part in many anecdotal productions inspired by an army in search of ideals, from the mid-1860s. Despite the many armed interventions abroad (Algeria, Russia, Mexico, etc. ), French political leaders after the Restoration are opposed to the warlike heritage of the revolutionary years and no longer uphold the doctrine of war that had underpinned the period 1789-1815. The military regulations of 1831 and 1862 provide only a few references to the various bodies of the military hierarchy and advocate defensive action (trenches-shelters, long-range fire, etc.) contrary to French tradition. Marshal Niel's great military reform project was postponed in 1868, and the army maintained the system of drawing lots, which did not mobilize much. Despite his desire to play the role of commander-in-chief of the armies like his uncle Napoleon Ier, the emperor will not be able to lead his troops. From then on, France will be confronted with a double problem: the absence of a war doctrine and the failure of a leader to apply it.

  • army
  • Second Empire
  • campaign
  • soldiers
  • Mexico
  • Sedan (battle of)
  • snow
  • Art fair
  • Moon
  • military
  • Algeria
  • Russia
  • Bonaparte (Napoleon)
  • Sevastopol
  • Solferino (battle of)
  • Magenta (battle of)


Collective Lyonnais landscapers 1800-1900 Lyon, Museum of Fine Arts, 1894, p. 99-102.François ROBICHON The French Army as seen by painters - 1870-1914 Paris, Herscher-Ministry of Defense, 1998 François ROBICHON French military painting from 1871 to 1914 Paris, B. Giovanangeli, 1998.

To cite this article

Dominique LOBSTEIN, "An army in search of ideals"

Video: The military way to search a person


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