Degas’ Scene of War in the Middle Ages (c.1863-5)

Degas' most curious composition was exhibited at the 1865 Salon when he was 31 as a history painting, Scene of War in the Middle Ages, but it makes no sense historically. Years later, after Degas' death, it was shown once more as The Misfortunes of the City of Orléans but there is no historical event in that French town either to which it can be linked. Taking the latter title to be accurate though, Hélène Adhémar interpreted the scene as an allegory of how Union soldiers mistreated women in Orléans' American namesake, New Orleans, where a number of Degas' relatives resided.1 To me that sounds like a stretch and too clever by half.

In the painting nine female nudes are shot, or are being shot at, by 15th-century warriors on horseback who ride stirrupless horses with harnesses barely sketched in. Even the bows are historically inaccurate; they would have been longbows at that time, much larger and impossible to use on horseback.2  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Degas, Scene of War in the Middle Ages, erroneously called The Misfortunes of the City of Orléans (c.1863-5) Essence on pieces of paper joined and mounted on canvas. Musée d'Orsay, Paris

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Critics have long remarked on the quality of the preparatory drawings. After making a compositional study the young Degas worked on each figure separately and they are so well drawn that even today they "rank among Degas' finest." They also, according to a recent art historian, "seem to be posing, like studio models strewn about a desolate countryside, strike[ing] the same immodest attitudes as the women Degas would later depict in the act of bathing, drying themselves, combing their hair, or sleeping.."3  It is a telling remark.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Seminude Woman Lying on her back, study for Scene of War in the Middle Ages (c.1863-5) Pencil on paper. Musée D'Orsay, Paris.

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As regular users may have guessed, the figures on horseback are almost certainly part of the grand tradition in art history of "artists" shooting (thus drawing or painting) their victims. That is why the victims resemble nudes in a studio as well as the nudes in Degas' later paintings and pastels. The nudes are his "artworks." The "artists" are mounted because easels and horses have been long linked too: easel in French is chevalet, a mutant of horse.4 This also explains why the archer in the study (at left, below) is a nude, later transformed into an androgynous "artist" above. Degas suggests through this that the artist is the model. Besides, androgyny is a principal  and important feature of the pure, creative mind.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Above: Detail of Degas' Scene of War
Below: Nude Woman Holding a Bow, study for Scene of War (c.1863-5) Pencil on paper. Musée d'Orsay, Paris

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This new conception of the painting further supports why such a gruesome scene should look so calm; the victims are not real women being "killed", just women drawn in the artist's mind as part of his struggle to create. Michelangelo's equally mysterious drawing Archers Shooting at a Herm is of similar subject matter as artists have long known and as I will explain soon.

For other examples of artists shooting their artworks, by Dürer, Goya and Manet for instance, see articles under the theme Swords/Weapons as Brushes. Generally speaking, they are unknown elsewhere.

Captions for image(s) above:

Degas, Scene of War in the Middle Ages,

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Notes:

1. Degas (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art) 1988, pp. 105-6

2. ibid., p. 105

3. ibid. p. 107

4. The link holds in Italian too where easel is cavaletto.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 13 Dec 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.