19th century military portraits
The Royal Military Museum possesses an almost encyclopaedic collection of 19th century military portraits. Although they follow tradition and are based on military and artistic conventions the portraits often display surprising versatility.
The young Belgian army observed neighbouring countries for inspiration: uniforms were copied and the first Belgian service men – at least the higher ranks – had more often than not earned their spurs in the French Grande Armée. Painters also drew on French examples. A lot of famous 19th century artists, such as Wiertz, Wappers or Navez pursued the genre of military portraits.
Newspapers often described the 1830 Belgian army as a “parade army”. Many older – and high-ranking – officers had nevertheless participated in numerous famous battles. The soldier not only uses his sabre, rifle or gun to fight, his body can also become a weapon. The solemn poses often hide rigid bodies, as painters skilfully hid the incurred wounds.
Some elements, such as medals, highlight the image the military cultivate in their portraits; they also document changes or adaptations.The stoic facial expressions don’t give anything away about the ruthless competition amongst officers. Revealing and/or concealing? Military portraits are not to be taken at face value only.
The miniature portrait collection, which includes crowned heads, statesmen and service men, comes on various supports; its iconography and origins are also quite diverse. These small objects are first of all fascinating because of their historic and documentary value. For art historians, miniature portraits are of very special interest. This is even more true for the military miniature, as it leads to debates on the (re)construction of military identity and the representation of national history. In this framework, tradition and convention are of the utmost importance and influence the intriguing military iconography.
Through their style, miniatures often acquired an international character. Portrait painters, mostly at work in different countries and trained internationally, of course played a key part in this respect. Most miniatures are not signed, although some famous names, such as Gasparoli, Guérin, Ducaju or Buck, do appear in our collection.
Last but not least, miniature portraits sometimes offer an unexpected but penetrating view of the personal life of the person represented, of his character, of his expectations. They make historic figures human.
Art at the front in 1914-1918
The Royal Military Museum manages an exceptional iconographic collection about 1914-1918, consisting of some 1,500 items (paintings, drawings, water colours, etchings) by some 100 artists. Step into the first world conflict, allow for an artistic point of view and brace yourself for an explosion of colours and emotions!
The Great War does away with 19th century pictorial traditions. Up till then, the army asked famous artists to depict glorious battles in large canvases. Portraits were limited to officers who sat in artists’ studios. With the mobilisation of August 1914 artists not only observe the conflict, they also participate in it, a real first in the history of military art!
All men born after 1880, without any distinction whatsoever, are drafted. Amongst them are young artists. Numerous painters, exempted for medical reasons or because of their age, volunteer. Some are not able to reach the front established behind the River Yser. In the first months of the war of movement several artists are taken prisoner. Others flee to the Netherlands after the fall of Antwerp in October 1914, where they are interned according to international conventions. Not all Belgian artists wear the uniform: when the country is invaded some go abroad and spend the entire conflict in exile.
The artists who do fight enrol with various units. Military authorities quickly understand that these men could very well play an important strategic part: they can draw the enemy lines in order for the artillery to aim more precisely or they can apply camouflage techniques in order to mislead the enemy. Regardless of their regiments, the men keep creating, for instance during breaks. In the summer of 1916 Belgium constitutes a military artistic section. Its twenty-six members are released from military duties in order to fully devote themselves to art. Production certainly encourages the artistic scene, but is first and foremost to serve Belgian propaganda!
A new vision of war
Modern warfare profoundly modifies the representation of war. Military iconography is rejuvenated. Heroic depiction of battles makes way for the most varied illustrations: the ever-changing landscape around the front, daily life in the trenches or in the rear lines and portraits of brothers-in-arms are favoured subjects. The artists observe a self-imposed censorship and hardly evoke death although that definitely is an inherent part of war. Artists in POW and internment camps depict another aspect of war. Their representation of life as a prisoner mainly reflects homesickness and the desire for liberty. When life in Belgium is represented, one mainly witnesses the enemy’s cruelty rather than the hardships of existence in an occupied country.
All artistic genres are applied. In keeping with their generation or their training, some artists hold on to academic realism or the styles of the end of the 19th century (Symbolism, Impressionism), while others opt for more modern forms of expression (Fauvism, Expressionism).
An active acquisition policy
In order to extend the collections and to bridge gaps the Museum follows an active acquisition policy. The generation that actually witnessed the events is disappearing; the heirs understand it is necessary to preserve memory and present the Museum with family heirlooms, in view of safeguarding them for future generations. The acquisition committee evaluates all proposals, because the entries have to significantly add to the collections. When the gift or donation is accepted, the item is registered and becomes part of Museum heritage.