War and the Muses - The War of the Artists
In the Spring of 1859, with France and Piedmont plotting war against Austria over the status of Lombardy and the future of Italy, all three countries began mobilizing troops and laying plans.
Contemplating the coming war, Emperor Napoleon III of France decided that it would be a good idea to have an artist accompany his army, so that his glorious victories could be properly immortalized on canvas, both for the historical record and as a useful bit of propaganda. Adolphe Yvon (1817-1893) was noted for heroic military paintings, and had become famous during the Second Empire for his work on the battles of the Great Napoleon and the Crimean War. So the Lesser Napoleon commissioned Yvon to follow the armies and paint his victories.
Word that the Little Napoleon had hired Yvon to document the war soon reached the ears of Franz Joseph, the Austrian Emperor. Determined not to let his French opponent gain an advantage in telling his version of the story through art, Franz Joseph concluded that he too needed an artist at the front. He engaged the well known Bavarian painter Eugen Adam (1817-1880), who also had a reputation for painting military scenes, and had executed several battle pieces commemorating Austrian victories in the 1848 and 1849 campaigns against the Italian nationalists. The two artists were soon in the field in Italy in the entourages of their respective imperial patrons.
Of course, the war turned out very well for France and Piedmont, and not at all well for Austria. In fact, the Austrians came off second best in each of the eight principal actions of the war, which culminated in the twin Battles of Solferino-San Martino (June 24, 1859), when 138,000 French and Sardinian troops defeated some 129,000 Austrians. The largest battle in Europe since Leipzig (October 16-19, 1813), so great was the slaughter for the times that Jean Henri Dunant (1828-1910), a young Swiss man who happened to witness the aftermath, was inspired to start the movement that would culminate in the formation of the International Red Cross in 1864.
Of course Yvon won the “War of the Artists,” executing several notable works depicting particularly heroic moments in the war, including a heroic image of the Emperor directing his troops under shot and shell at Solferino. Adam, with so little heroic material to work with, didn’t do much on the campaign. Little more than a decade later, however, he did get even, when he was called upon to paint the victories of the German armies during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).
The Battle of Magenta (June 4, 1859), by Adolphe Yvon.
Colonel Benigne Prosper Michel Tixier (1813-1879) carries the Eagle of his 2e Zouaves as he leads the attack of Foreign Legionnaires and Zouaves that broke the Austrian lines, for which he was made a Commander of the Légion d’honneur.