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The military law: how artists became enemies, fought, died and survived during the First World War.

On August 3, 1914, Germany declared war on France. From that day on, in the next four years the Parisian newspaper "Le Figaro" would lead a terrible account of the days. On November 11, 1918 the morning issue of the newspaper contained the message: "The 1561st day of War". Newsmen didn’t know that day would be the last one, and the Parisians were leery of enjoying the signs of the end of the war and early rumours. The war took the lives of a half million French people and more than two million lives of their enemies, Germans and Austrians. On either side of the front line, there fought young artists, only yesterday fighting against the academic artistic tradition. And the older generation sent their sons off to war. For each of them, those four years turned to be a tough time.
The military law: how artists became enemies, fought, died and survived during the First World War.


August 3rd: "Buses stopped running in the capital overnight, and taxis disappeared from streets suddenly full of men heading for the stations. Gun batteries assembled in the Tuileries Gardens, and soldiers with fixed bayonets guarded bridges across the Seine. Theatres closed, food prices rose and huge queues formed outside the banks. (…) Foreigners disappeared almost overnight from Paris. Newspapers were so heavily censored that it was impossible to be sure what was happening. There were wild rumours of German armies speeding through Belgium, but no real doubt at this stage about France’s ability to send them packing in a month or two at most" (Hilary Spurling, "Matisse the Master")

Henri Matisse was 45 years old, waiting for military conscription and living in a cramped little Parisian apartment with his wife and three children. From a strategic point of view, Matisse’s house at Issy-les-Moulineaux was located perfectly — and thus housed the general staff of the French army. Within 20 days after the declaration of war, the German army occupied the northern regions of France — including the city of Bohain, where Matisse’s mother and brother lived. For a long time the artist didn’t know whether they were still alive, and couldn’t see them until the end of the war. Matisse tried to join the army as a volunteer but was turned down three times by the medical commission.
When the German army was 50 kilometres from Paris, Matisses fled to Collioure, where Henri created his darkest and scariest painting French Window at Collioure. Behind that window there’s an impenetrable darkness and a frightening unknown.
August Macke created his painting Farewell, and on August 8 volunteered for the front. On September 11, he was appointed troop leader, and on September 20 received the Iron Cross. And in 6 days the young brilliant artist August Macke died at the front in Champagne — his body was never found or buried. He was 27 years old and had no illusions about the healing power of war.

"War is the nameless sorrow. You are gone before you know it. (…) The people in Germany, drunk with ideas of victory, don’t suspect how terrible war is. I’m fine as far as my health goes; I know that I won’t die in vain if we can win and rid our country of the devastation that France had to experience," August Macke wrote to his wife.
August Macke. Goodbye
130×101 cm
Franz Marc was drafted into the German Army as a cavalryman. The horses, which he loved and painted, became a mere military arsenal. But unlike Macke, who was doing his duty without expecting miraculous transformations from the war, Franz Marс was seeking spiritual justification for the brutal meat grinder he found himself in. He wrote to his wife from the front: "There is something impressive and mystical about the artillery battles… I dream of a new Europe, I … see in this war the healing, if also gruesome, path to our goals; it will purify Europe, and make it ready…"

Claude Monet was left without gardeners — all of them went to war. Several decades ago, in Giverny there was formed a whole colony of American artists, who came there to learn from Monet and were inspired by the beauty of the French province. With the onset of the war, they all quickly returned to America. There remained only one of them — the sculptor Frederick William MacMonnies. A kilometre from Monet’s house, the American set up a hospital for wounded French soldiers. Having taken courses in nursing, the famous singer Eugénie Buffet, performing in the fashionable cafés-concerts, bandaged the soldiers' wounds in that hospital and reassured their incessant pains as best she could — with quiet night songs. Claude Monet supplied vegetables from his garden for the wounded.

In his letters, Monet told his friends that under no circumstances he would leave Giverny, his house or paintings to the enemy. Moreover, after the death of the artist’s wife and son and a three-year break in his work, at last, Monet got a grandiose plan.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner volunteered to serve as a driver in the military in order to avoid being drafted into a more dangerous role. He was in horror of war, the suspense of danger made his arms and legs numb and nerves — overwrought. However, a year later, never having participated in any battle, Kirchner was demobilized, yet his mental health didn’t ever recover. In 20 years, when the threat of a new world war became obvious, he broke down under the strain and committed suicide.

André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque — a young generation of French avant-garde
Avant-garde is how modern art critics refer the general trend of new artistic directions that arose in world art at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. A very thin line separates it from the concept of “modernism”. Read more
artists found themselves at the front.

Oskar Kokoschka, having a hard time after breaking up with his beloved one, perceived war as a medicine. He left for the front in a grand manner: sold a huge painting, created for Alma Mahler, spent money made from it on military uniform and negotiated his enrolment to an elite subunit, where the aristocracy mainly served. Finally, he went to the photographer, so that he captured a brilliant dragoon, ready to prove love and suppress despair at the cost of his life.
The image of Oskar Kokoschka as an army volunteer in the uniform appeared on the German war-time pos
The image of Oskar Kokoschka as an army volunteer in the uniform appeared on the German war-time postcards. 1915. Photo:
Two and a half thousand paintings from the Louvre exhibition were removed from the museum’s walls and sent to be stored in Toulouse and Blois, away from Paris.


The artist, and now the artilleryman, Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola, came under heavy fire. Giving a closer look at his elegant military uniform, Scévola understood that it turned French soldiers into living targets. And then he decided to create a special pattern that would mask people and weapon. Scévola created camouflage! "In order to deform an object totally, I used the same methods that Cubists employ to represent objects. I was thus able to hire a number of talented painters, who, because of their very special vision, could disguise any object whatsoever," he said. During the First World War, 3 thousand artists served as camoufleurs in the French army. Including Georges Braque.

Braque was seriously wounded in the head, lost sight, fell into a coma and underwent a trepanation. In time, his eyesight recovered, but the artist took up his painting again only in two years. His closest friend Pablo Picasso wasn’t called up to fight in the war because of his Spanish citizenship. Their emotional connection, creative and personal tandem seemed inviolable. Before the war. Yet, when Braque recovered from his injury, could see again and returned to work, Picasso was nowhere near him. Before the end of the war, the Spaniard managed to participate in the most scandalous ballet of "Les Ballets Russes" - "Parade". He also managed to become famous, get married and return to the realistic style of painting. The relationship between Braque and Picasso would never be the way it used to be, since 4 war years drastically changed everything.
  • Georges Braque in the trenches, December 17, 1914. Photo:
  • Franz Marc in the dugout, 1915. Photo:
And while Braque invented camouflage pattern using Cubists' methods, his opponent, Franz Marc, was ordered to disguise German artillery. It was a series of grandiose immense canvas covers in broadly pointillist style, or as Marc said, in styles varying "from Manet to Kandinsky". The artist was sure that Kandinsky-style camouflage could be the most effective in hiding artillery from aircraft flying at high altitude.

Henri Matisse sent parcels of food to his friends at the front, and his wife knit socks and gloves for soldiers. Matisse gave his etchings to the Prisoners of war society, helped to compile lists of prisoners and negotiated with donators in France and America. And he was constantly trying to make some money: the Paris galleries weren’t ready for purchases, let alone advances; banking operations with Russia were disrupted, and one of Matisse’s main customers, Sergei Shchukin, lived there.

In April, Pierre-Auguste Renoir's son, Jean, was wounded in the thigh. The artist’s wife, Aline, was 56 years old, had diabetes, struggled to move, and yet decided by all means to visit her son at the hospital. She travelled 800 kilometres through the country engulfed by war — and managed to get to the wounded in time. Jean had gangrene and the surgeon was going to amputate his leg. Aline was against it — her son was only 20 years old! That trip laid Aline Renoir low, she returned home to the village of Cagnes-sur-Mer, and two months later died.

The future great film director Jean Renoir, using crutches, but still standing on both feet, moved to a hospital in Paris — and the widowed Renoir went in his empty Paris apartment to be closer to his son. The wheelchair-bound father and his son, hobbling on crutches, spent in that apartment the most priceless days of their lives. For the first time they would hold day-long conversations which many years later would allow Jean to write a book of memories of his father.
"He (Renoir) loved to listen to my stories about the war, at least those in which all its tragic absurdity manifested itself. He was particularly amused by this episode: during the retreat in the area of Arras, I was sent to reconnaissance with a mounted patrol of dragoons. From one of the hills we saw half a dozen German lancers, also sent to reconnaissance. We immediately got into battle formation, keeping the assigned intervals of twenty meters, firmly clasping our pike staffs, aimed at the enemy; the same thing was done by the Germans on their hill. We started at slow pace, strictly maintaining the formation, then broke into a trot, then into a gallop, and a hundred meters from the enemy let our horses run at full speed: each of us was full of determination to pierce the enemy. We seemed to return to the times of Francis I and felt part of the Battle of Marignano. The distance between us gradually decreased: we could already discern the strained faces of the Germans under their shakos, and they could probably see ours under helmets crammed on our heads. The battle lasted only a few seconds. Our horses, not particularly eager to collide, turned aside, despite the sharp edges and spurs. Both mounted patrols passed each other at a frenzied pace, showing the sheep, grazing nearby, a brilliant but quite harmless cavalry maneuver. We returned to our comrades-in-arms a little ashamed, while the Germans returned to their ones, " - from "Renoir, My Father" by Jean Renoir.
On June 17, Egon Schiele married the daughter of his neighbour — locksmith Harms. Judging by the artist’s letters, it wasn’t about great love and incandescent passions — after the marriage, he had no intention of breaking off relations with his former mistress Wally, since his decision to get married was based on common sense. Three days after the wedding, the artist was drafted into the army.

In Vienna, an unexpected message came like a thunderbolt: the artist Oskar Kokoschka died. Obituaries, tears, regrets. All but the artist’s former beloved Alma were upset. That year she was going to marry Walter Gropius and didn’t really expect any brave feats from her ex-lover. But Kokoschka did not die — he was wounded in the head, left on the battlefield, and some French soldier even tried to finish him off with a bayonet, piercing his lung. Oskar survived even after that, temporarily lost his memory, stayed in hospitals as the unnamed wounded and, a few months after his "death", came to see his mother who’d already turned grey with sorrow.


The German government issued a decree and attached a list of famous artists who had to be demobilized in order to ensure their safety. Franz Marc's name was also on that list. But he never knew about it. He was killed by a shell splinter on March 6 during one of the longest and cruellest battles of the First World War — the Battle of Verdun. Two days before his death, Franz Marc wrote to his wife:

"For days I have seen nothing but the most awful scenes that the human mind can imagine… Stay calm and don’t worry: I will come back to you — the war will end this year. I must stop; the transport of the wounded, which will take this letter along, is leaving. Stay well and calm as I do."
The military law: how artists became enemies, fought, died and survived during the First World War.
The military law: how artists became enemies, fought, died and survived during the First World War.
The military law: how artists became enemies, fought, died and survived during the First World War.
The military law: how artists became enemies, fought, died and survived during the First World War.
The military law: how artists became enemies, fought, died and survived during the First World War.
The military law: how artists became enemies, fought, died and survived during the First World War.
The military law: how artists became enemies, fought, died and survived during the First World War.
Military sketches of Franz Marc, which he put in the letters to his wife, were published in 1920, and digitized in a joint project of the Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Follow this link to see the reproductions.
Wassily Kandinsky unlikely knew that his pictural style helped Franz Marc hide some German artillery. With the outbreak of the war, he, being Russian, was forced to leave Germany and flee first to Switzerland, and then to Russia. When the news of Franz Marc’s death reached him, he said that "The Blue Rider" would no longer exist: "Der Blaue Reiter — that was two people: Franz Marc and I."

At first, Egon Schiele guarded and escorted the captured Russian officers, and later was made a clerk in a prisoner of war camp (due to his beautiful handwriting) and even given a room in which the artist set up his workshop. He painted there portraits of his colleagues, Russian officers and desert landscapes without people.
  • Egon Schiele. One-Year Volunteer Lance-Corporal. 1916
  • Egon Schiele. Russian Prisoner of War (Grigori Kladjishuli).1916
André Derain saw the worst. He went through all the bloodiest battles of the war: fought in Champagne, where Macke died, and at Verdun, where Marc died. Just like Oskar Kokoschka, he was "buried" in absentia and mourned; people even wrote poems in his memory. But he wouldn’t dare die — the battles of the Somme and of the Marne lay in wait for him. The cheerful experimenter Derain, one of the founders of Fauvism, didn’t have the opportunity to paint during the war. Not a single sketch
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
in four years. After the war, he no longer experimented: there was no more Cubism
Avant-garde is how modern art critics refer the general trend of new artistic directions that arose in world art at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. A very thin line separates it from the concept of “modernism”. Read more
The art movement developed in the first quarter of the 20th century, mainly in Italy and Russia. Some ironically called it scandalous cubism. The founding fathers urged to stop adoring the art of the past, and to exalt the industrial spirit of the future: to draw airplanes, cars, metal bridges, steamers and other achievements of the progress. Read more
Cubism (fr. cubisme) is a recognizable art movement that originated at the beginning of the 20th century, and many of its techniques are still in demand. Its distinctive features are the direct use of geometric shapes, a narrow circle of subjects (portraits, still lifes or buildings), deformation, angularity, complete lack of realism. In Cubism, shape is more important than colour. Read more
or Fauvism. For the rest of his life he created Neoclassical paintings.


On September 27, Edgar Degas died — and in Paris there were auctions where the artist’s works and the paintings from his private collection were sold. The impoverished French collectors and museums could not afford such purchases — prices of his paintings reached unprecedented levels. Most of the paintings were taken to America.
The Music Lesson was created on the eve of farewell. Matisse's oldest son turned 18 and was drafted

The Music Lesson was created on the eve of farewell. Matisse's oldest son turned 18 and was drafted into the army. It’s him, Jean, who’s smoking in the foreground before leaving for the training camp. In a few months Matisse managed to visit his son: hungry, frightened and frozen soldiers washed once a week in a stream and lived in a camp without toilets. Matisse gave Jean his shirt and managed to buy him an overcoat.


Otto Dix, Max Ernst and Fernand Leger went through the whole war, from its first to last days.

11 days before the end of the war and the signing of the peace treaty, the 28-year-old Egon Schiele, who was expected to become the main Viennese painter, died from a terrible epidemic of Spanish Flu. The spread of the epidemic was facilitated by the filth and hunger of war and the massive movement of military and refugees. The disease claimed at least 50 million lives around the world, including that of Egon Schiele’s pregnant wife.

In July, John Singer Sargent witnessed a terrible scene on the Arras-Doullens Road. Blinded French soldiers, injured during the attack by mustard gas, waited for help and slowly, by touch moved towards the hospital.
John Singer Sargent. Fumes
1919, 231×611 cm
Henri Matisse was the first civilian who entered the town of Bohain after its liberation. His mother stayed in her house throughout the war and was once arrested, while his brother worked 12 hours a day in a labour camp for prisoners of war. Matisse managed to see them only in 4 years.

On 12 November 1918, a day after the armistice, Claude Monet wrote to his friend Georges Clemenceau: "Dear and great friend, I am about to finish two decorative panels that I wish to sign on the day of Victory, and I approach you with the request to offer them to the State through your mediation… It’s not much, but it is the only manner that I can take part in the Victory. I wish these two panels to be placed in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and would be happy if they are chosen by you. I admire you and embrace you with all my heart." In celebration of victory in the Great War, Claude Monet presented the country with 8 huge panels with water lilies, chosen by the hero, the "Father of Victory" Clemenceau and which are now located in the oval halls of Le Musée de l’Orangerie.

Title illustration: Otto Dix. The War. Triptych.

Author: Anna Sidelnikova