The French defeats in the war of 1870, the debacle for the troops after the capitulation at Sedan and the siege of Paris were the subject of many works exhibited at the Salon from 1872 on. The “annus terribilis” of 1870 left France deeply traumatised, and the painters were to play on the theme of this ‘national wound’ for many years to come. Indeed, one of these was Edouard Detaille, a military painter par excellence. Involved in the War of 1870, he began his career with paintings of dramatic episodes from the Franco-German conflict.
Detaille presented Le Rêve (The Dream) at the Salon of 1888. It was a work which met with immediate public success. The painter shows an army campaign bivouac and the collective dream of the young soldiers there, a dream of glory represented by the heroes of the Revolution and the armies of Napoleon I. In order to express externally this inner experience, Detaille divided the painting in two: an earthly part, in which the sleeping troops are stretched out on the ground in the shade of their guns, and a celestial part in which their brave ancestors burst out of the clouds. Whilst the lower part is an example of the documentary realism for which Detaille is famous, the upper part is entirely symbolist.
And the work goes a great deal further than the illustration of a identifiable military event. Indeed, it is very nearly allegorical. By establishing itself in direct descendance to the epic of the First Empire, it is a “transfiguration of the defeat”, to use the words of François Roth. In it we can see the beginnings of the idea of ‘revanche’ or revenge, the watchcry of France in the decade before the First World War. Indeed, the work feels like a patriotic hymn, and it contributes directly to the development of nationalism. Widely seen in engravings and chromatic prints, Le Rêve was to mark the imagination of generations of school children, and as a result, was to prolong the history of France as propagated by the Third Republic.
Karine Huguenaud (tr. P.H. with addition in 2018 by I.D.)