War and “Place de la Concorde” by Degas

Edgar Degas, "Place de la Concorde," 1875. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Last night, I watched The Rape of Europa PBS documentary about Nazi looting during the World War II era. Near the end of the film, I was surprised to see Edgar Degas’s painting Place de la Concorde (1875, shown above) appear on the screen. This painting apparently resurfaced in 1995 after having been missing for four decades. Place de la Concorde was brought to Russia by Soviet “trophy bridgades” after World War II. These Russians had been sent to Germany to reclaim the stolen art which the Nazis had taken from Russian collections. In addition to reclaiming art which had been taken in the first place, some of these “trophy brigades” retaliated and decided to help themselves to works of art held in German collections. Such is the case with Place de la Concorde, which was taken from the collection of the German collector Otto Gerstenberg. It is likely this shady history contributed to the reason why this painting was held from public view for four decades. Today, the painting is a celebrated work in the Hermitage Collection and was featured in a six-month exhibition which ended at the beginning of this year.

The current context and location of this painting in the Hermitage Museum is interesting to me on several levels. On one hand, the subject matter and of this painting (especially what intentionally is not depicted in this scene) raises some interesting contrasts in relation to the current Russian ownership. Back when Degas painted this scene, only a few years had passed since the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and the bloody civil war in Paris, the Commune (1871). During that time, the French lost the territory of Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians. As a result, a statue by James Pradier that was located in Place de la Concorde, The City of Strasbourg (1836-38, shown below) came to be seen from 1871 onward as a symbol of the lost territory. The statue was draped in black on state occasions and occasionally decorated with wreaths until France regained the region in following World War I.

James Pradier, "The City of Strasbourg," 1836-38. Place de la Concorde, Paris. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Degas, however, chose to not depict The City of Strasbourg in his painting; the statue would have been draped in black to mourn the loss of the territory, therefore serving as a direct reference to the war and destruction which recently took place in France.1 Instead Degas intentionally removed this statue and reference to war with his strategic placement of the striding figure of Baron Lepic. Degas, along with other Impressionists, sought to escape from and ignore the death of the French and Parisians (and the figurative death of the territory of Alsace-Lorraine) by not referencing the recent wars in their Impressionist art.2 In contrast, with the placement of Place de la Concorde in the Hermitage Museum today, it seems as if the Russians are trying to compensate for the death of their people (1.6 to 2 million Soviets died in the Siege of Leningrad during 1941-1944) by keeping this trophy painting that once belonged to a German collector.

Although in the 19th century Degas tried to avoid a direct reference to war, this painting no longer can function in that way. The current context and placement of Place de la Concorde within the Hermitage Museum has created a new meaning for this painting which is intrinsically linked to war. The current museum label at the Hermitage proudly displays that this painting came “from the collection of Otto Gerstenberg.” This painting has changed in its function due to its current context, arguably and ironically opposite to what Degas intended in relation to its subject matter.

In 1997 the Russians created a law which claimed that this painting, along with other “displaced” trophy items that were part of the Russian post-war expedition, are inalienable property of the Russian Federation. The painting is now displayed in the Hermitage with a dark brown frame, which reminds me a little of the dark drapery which would have cloaked the statue that represented the lost territory of Alsace-Lorraine. Although Degas didn’t want to depict the draped Strasbourg statue within his painting, Place de la Concorde itself is now cloaked in a state of mourning, serving as a reminder of the past and the loss of Russian lives.

1 Paul Wood, “The Avant-Garde and the Paris Commune,” in The Challenge of the Avant-Garde (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 122.

2 Ibid. Paul Wood discusses how “The Commune and the Prussian war silently haunt Impressionist painting in small tics and changes in viewpoint,” which includes the striding figure of Baron Lepic.

  • Hels says:

    I don’t like Degas’ behaviour during the tragic Dreyfus Affair – he was nasty to Captain Dreyfus and even nastier to his brother Impressionists who had supported Degas in his struggling years. But Degas lived only till 1917 and could not possibly have known about WW2.

    So your analysis re the Russians after WW2 is both intriguing and ironic. Intriguing that this painting is part of the Russian post-war art property that serves as a reminder of the past and the loss of millions of brave Russian lives. Ironic in that Degas had tried so hard to avoid a direct reference to war.

  • heidenkind says:

    I actually wrote a paper on how the Franco-Prussian War affected the Impressionists a few years ago and it did have a much greater impact on their work than one would suspect, considering only Renoir served (although many artists the Impressionsits considered friends did, too, including Manet). There’s a great book all about art and the war that covers not just the Impressionists but artist like Rosa Bonheur and writers like Emile Zola if you’re interested. It’s called Art, War and Revolution in France by John Milner http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/507142.Art_War_and_Revolution_in_France_1870_1871?from_search=true

  • LeGrand Alley says:

    What I’ve written may come off as complete nonsense. I’ve just finished my weekly day-long marathon of grading poorly written essays.

    Anyway, I just really think the idea of Degas being an escapist is so interesting because of the way I teach Realism and Impressionism. One of the things I’ve always struggled with teaching Art History is trying to create really clearly defined boxes to place everything in so my students don’t get confused and so they can rattle off the characteristics of a period. So, when I think of Degas, I think, “I need to put him in this Realism/Impressionism box.” And that box relates to the ones around it.

    We summarize Romanticism as being escapist because life is crappy, so make it better when you represent it in art. Or just forget real life all together! I really find a lot of merit in Romanticism…even if the period doesn’t really interest me! :)

    And then our box for Realism/Impressionism is labelled as “The opposite of Romanticism!” So, things aren’t supposed to be idealized or perfected or an escape from reality. They are supposed to just give these nice glimpses into the mundane, boring lives of everyday people. It is supposed to be the artist saying: “This is what I saw today.”

    Not: “This is what I saw…minus the things that really bugged me out.”

    You’ve ruined my boxes!!! :) Ha! I’ve had some long conversations with Elliott about how frustrating it is giving students these clear cut characteristics and then just praying they don’t do some research and find all of the examples that disprove those…and bring them up in the middle of class!

    Anyway, so it was really fun to read about Degas here who does certainly give this boring glimpse into everyday life, but does alter things to escape the context. Maybe I could do some stretching and say that Degas’ work still ties in with my box for Realism/Impressionism because the reality at the time was that people wanted to escape this context. So, even though it isn’t true to what is actually in the scene in real life, it is true to real life in that it portrays the sentiments of society at the time. But then that would force a ton of Romanticism into my Realism box. I’ll never forgive you for this! :)

    Also, who does Degas think he is not painting ballerinas here?

  • Hels, given the context of this post and WWII, I think that the Dreyfus Affair (with its anti-semitism and anti-German sentiment) adds an extra level of intrigue to the current location of this Degas painting. What would Degas have thought of the history that his work of art accrued during the 20th century? I’m glad you brought that up! Thanks for your comment.

  • Hi Heidenkind! That looks like a great book! I’m excited look into it. Thanks for the recommendation.

    The case study by Paul Wood (cited at this end of this post) specifically discusses how the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune affected the Impressionists. You would probably would enjoy it, if you wrote a paper on that topic. This is a case study that I often use when I teach Impressionism to my students. I like how Wood draws some contrasts between Manet’s and Monet’s paintings, suggesting these artists’ experiences during the war and directly afterward (especially Manet’s involvement in the National Guard) informed their art. If you are interested, you can read some of the case study here:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=7iyNgXe0erwC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA113#v=onepage&q&f=false

  • Ha! Josh, your comment made me very happy. Not because I’ve ruined your boxes (oh, the horror!), but it was nice to hear from you. And to know that you and Elliott are having long conversations makes me want to pick up my things and move to the South. I want to get in on these long art history chats!

    I think we are all heirs of Martha’s “escapism” approach to Romanticism and Neoclassicism. I think that approach makes sense, but you are right that there are always exceptions to whatever category you make. But I think that your argument that Realists and Impressionists focus “real life” can still work, even with this whole Franco-Prussian War/Commune bit. After all, these artists are painting what they see in front of them, which is a big contrast to a lot of the Romantic painters. (I always wonder how much Bierstadt touched up the skies and cliffs of his landscapes.) But I think that both Realists and Impressionists are still being selective in what they want to paint, even if they do paint what they see around them. I’m sure that Courbet saw a lot of members of the bourgeoisie during his life, but he chose to paint the proletariat. The Impressionists saw a lot of destruction during their day, but they chose to focus on the pleasantries of French life. (Perhaps you can decide whether or not you want to stress the escapism of that selective behavior!)

    If only the world could be categorized into neat lists, categories, and binaries. It would make art history so much easier! :)

    One of the things that I really like in this Paul Wood case study is a contrast between a painting by Meissonier, “Ruins of the Tuileries” (1871) and Monet’s “The Tuileries” (1876). Both painted the same place, but Monet chose to paint the palace that was ruined in the war. But, one the other hand, his selected composition doesn’t invalidate what he saw or the light/color that he tried to scientifically observe, right?

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.