Sunday 9 November 2008

Pro Patria Mori

The eleventh day of the eleventh month is better known as the Armistace, the day when the First World War was finally brought to an end. It is a public holiday in France, and will be especially poignant this year as 2008 marks the 90th anniversary of the agreement. Paris does not have a monument to commemorate this conflict, but there is one place in the city you can visit which is still imbued with memories – the Gare de l’Est.

The war ended famously in a train carriage in the forests of Compiegne just outside Paris, but for many it also began in trains, at the Gare de l’Est. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were sent out to the eastern front-lines from this station, and the Hall des Departs was a permanent buzz of comings and goings. Despite a recent renovation to welcome the TGV Est, this departure hall retains its original structure, and you can still imagine young recruits joking and laughing, couples saying tearful goodbyes and children waving to disappearing fathers. Most thought these separations would be simply an au revoir, but for more than 1 million French soldiers, it was an adieu.

The significance of this site is celebrated in a painting which still hangs today in the hall, although it now has to compete with the bright lights of retail outlets and flashing information screens. Most visitors to the station rush through, perhaps quickly grabbing a drink or a magazine before catching a train, but this immense, remarkable painting, entitled ‘Le Depart des Poilus, le 2 aout 1914’, deserves greater consideration.

The canvas, more than 60m2 in size, is the work of the American artist, Albert Herter. He presented it to the company running the station in 1926, but it was more than just a generous gift. Herter lost a son in the conflict, and the painting is a monumental tribute to his memory. Executed in soft, melancholic blues, greys and browns, it describes a scene which would have been a typical one in this railway location during the conflict.

When we investigate more closely however, we find that it contains not only universal themes but also intensely personal details. It is in fact a fantastic montage built around a triangular trinity of the father, the mother and the departing, soon to be dearly departed son. The artist/father is on the right-hand side, whilst his wife (the artist Adele McGinnis Herter) is facing him on the opposite side of the painting. Both seem to already be in mourning, with the father carrying a bouquet of flowers, hand upon heart, and the mother clasping her hands together. They seem elderly, certainly older than they would have been in 1914, and probably closer to their physical appearance in 1926.

It is the son, Everit, however who is the principal, central focus of the composition. At first glance he seems triumphant and unconcerned, with his arms held aloft whilst people at his feet weep and embrace. Look more closely though, and you’ll notice the flowers sticking out of the rifle in his hand and his head thrown back. With the knowledge of what became of Everit in mind, you may notice that his arms form a cross, and that he seems almost to be a Christ-like, sacrificial figure.

Everit Herter, like his father and mother before him, had chosen an artistic path, and had studied to be a painter. His privileged background offered him no protection, and indeed it was almost a rite of passage for the wealthy young men of his generation to sign up for this ‘just’ cause. His father had spent several years in France, and perhaps this explains why Everit signed up with the French army. Tragically, Everit was killed only months before the armistice. He was one of the wasted generation, but a spark of that youth is forever immortalised through the defiant figure depicted in this painting.


PeterParis said...

I made a post about Gare de L'Est a couple of months ago (, noted and photographed the painting, but I did not manage to find all this very intersting info. Thanks!!

Anonymous said...

" Paris does not have a monument to commemorate this conflict"

Would you agree that the memorial to WWI is usually considered to be the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, under the Arc de Triomphe ?

Of course it has now become a symbol for all fallen soldiers of all wars, but as you know, it was set up after WWI and contains the remains of a WWI victim.

Thank you for these wonderful insights into Invisible Paris.

Adam said...

Peter -> Is there anywhere in Paris left for you to chronicle? :-). I used to live in the Eastern suburbs of Paris and spent many long hours waiting for trains at the Gare de l'Est, but recently it has changed out of all recognition. I often observed the painting, but I only recently discovered the full story of the composition.

Adam said...

Alain -> Thank you for your comments. Yes, I don't know how I managed to forget that! Of course, this is where all commemorations take place on the 11th of November and the 8th of May.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful short art history lesson! I have been in that particular Gare more than any other, having a friend in that neighborhood. I miss it.

Anonymous said...

wow adam, this is just fascinating and extremely moving. THanks for telling us the full story behind this painting.

I've never been to gare de l'est. The one I use most is gare de lyon which is the one from which trains to/from avignon depart/arrive.

I clicked on your photos, unfortunately they don't open to a larger scale. I would have loved to be able to study the painting in detail following your comments.

Thanks for your visit in Avignon too. I feel very strongly about the 'first circle' of europe, I am not at all so confident yet about the recent introduction of eastern members with which I don't have the same sense of connection. I feel Europe has been moving a fraction too fast for comfort lately, a feeling probably share by most French people, hence their rejection of the latest constitution.

Adam said...

Hi Nathalie,

Thanks for your comments. I was aware of the size issue, but I'm not sure how to make the photos clickable and enlargeable. Anybody have any ideas? I'll see if I can send a larger picture to you somehow.

I thought a little more about this painting, and realised that what makes it even sadder is that the artist probably still thought he was commemorating the war to end all wars. He wasn't to know that 15 years later, the Gare de l'Est would be under German control.

Martina said...

Regarding the image size: usually "right click and open in new tab" works fine even with the new blogger templates. But it seems that you uploaded small sizes, so there isn't more to see ;-)

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