The Bruises of the Great War

The Bruises of the Great War

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  • Prisoners of war.

    STEINLEN Théophile Alexandre (1859 - 1923)

  • Aid to war disabled.

    STEINLEN Théophile Alexandre (1859 - 1923)

  • The orphans.

    STEINLEN Théophile Alexandre (1859 - 1923)

© Private collection - All rights reserved

Aid to war disabled.

© Private collection - All rights reserved

© Private collection - All rights reserved

Publication date: September 2006

Historical context

The Great War as a source of inspiration

Théophile Alexandre Steinlen (1859-1923) was fifty-five years old when the First World War broke out in the summer of 1914. Countless preparatory drawings gave him constantly renewed material for newspapers, magazines, books and more. other productions (fundraising cards, raffle tickets) that he composes in his printing press.

The three drawings presented here take up the favorite themes of an artist deeply affected by the war. Two of them date from 1915: it was the year of repeated failures of the Entente Cordiale in the Dardanelles (February), Champagne and Artois (September). The wounded in hospitals, prisoners and refugees in camps, combatants in muddy trenches, are all figures that show the great distress of the soldiers.

Image Analysis

Men, victims of war

Steinlen had many opportunities to draw prisoners of war, in France as well as in Germany. In 1915 he even went to the front twice, in May and July. The three prisoners depicted here are taken from life, as evidenced by the artist's rapid features. Standing in an undefined place (in front of the barracks?), They seem to be waiting, but without hope. The emaciated faces of these more or less elderly, neglected men (beards, slumped uniforms) hint at the privations endured, anguish and sadness.

The preparatory drawing for the poster "Aid to war disabled" (for a collection) dates from 1915, since the French soldier still wears a kepi (the helmet only replaced it from the summer of 1915). Amputated of his left leg, he symbolically finds support on a Mater Dolorosa. While the soldier is drawn in broken lines, reflecting his destiny, the woman supporting him is curvaceous. The invalid's two dead woods (crutch and prosthesis) contrast with the health of the female body, full, harmonious, hatched with vigorous lines. The soldier's sad smile finds its counterpart in the calm determination of his providential support.

It is a female figure of another type which serves as a pivot for the preparatory design for the campaign in favor of war orphans, which also dates from 1915. Steinlen concentrates the mother figure in this character, which compensates for the loss of the father. soldier, and the republican figure of Marianne, identifiable by her Phrygian cap. The Christian references also structure a group which makes one think by its disposition of a Holy Family. The bowed head of the mother of all orphans, the infant she carries, assimilates her to the Virgin. The three ages of childhood indicate that all families can be affected. Steinlen contrasts this generalized misfortune with the dynamism of his composition in which the cape and arms envelop the orphans, where the hands are clearly visible and play a unifying role.


Steinlen's humanist war effort

Steinlen, close to Toulouse-Lautrec, had joined forces before the war with the anarchists (he designed the cover of a book by Kropotkin) and the socialists. He regularly denounced the daily misery of the people in The Little Sou. It is the same spirit that inhabits him when he published his drawings in 1915 in the collection The Interns. Entry into German jails and in 1917 his Land of war in the newspaper I know everything. If he contributes to the mobilization of public opinion, it is less a patriot than a humanist that preoccupies the human condition. The French victims of the Great War - 2 million prisoners, 1.3 million dead, 300,000 mutilated and 760,000 orphans - are the subjects of a work produced for the most part in point or pencil - without research into effect other than raw reality.

Steinlen's drawings thus engrave in the collective imagination the dramatic situations experienced on a daily basis by populations. Without magnifying these multiple sufferings, the artist heroizes the endurance of an entire society plunged in spite of itself into total war. And plead for an end to unnecessary sacrifice.

  • allegory
  • childhood
  • War of 14-18
  • hairy
  • anarchism
  • socialism
  • war
  • hurry
  • jail
  • prisoners


Annette BECKER, Forgotten during the Great War. Humanitarian and war culture (1914-1918): occupied populations, civilian deportees, prisoners of war, Paris, Noêsis, 1998.Jacques CHRISTOPHE, Steinlen, the work of war (1914-1920), Lyon, Aléas, 1999. Pierre VALLAUD,14-18 World War I2 volumes, Paris, Fayard, 2004.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "The Bruises of the Great War"

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