German troops are billeted in a French chateau during the Franco-Prussian war in this scene by Anton von Werner (1843-1915).
Rather than looting and desecrating the occupied mansion, the soldiers have paused to enjoy a song by Schubert.
We can see from his spurs that the singer is a cavalry officer. He has “Bildung”—education and breeding. He might be the younger brother of an estate whose eldest son inherited the title and the land, leaving him little choice but to become an officer in the military.
Another soldier lights the lamps as the evening approaches. Valuables such as the clock remain on the mantle remain undisturbed. In the background, a soldier chats with the concierge of the house as the daughter watches with wide eyes.
The men have spent the day slogging through deep mud. Their ruddy complexions show they’ve become accustomed to outdoor living.
Rather than burning the furniture, as billeted soldiers often do, one of them was sent on a detail to gather sticks and pine cones to start a fire in the hearth. His pants and boot soles have been inexpertly patched, indicating that he has been away from his home town for a long time.
Paintings that tell stories, such as this one, are often called “narrative” or “illustrative.” But neither term adequately describes the kind of storytelling that a picture can do. A painting like this does not illustrate a text—it stands entirely on its own, just as a play or a movie would do.
The word “narrative” is also inadequate, because unlike literature or drama, events are not presented or narrated sequentially. All the events of the story are telescoped into a single moment, and previous moments are implied by clues. We might better describe this kind of art as a “detective storytelling.”
It demands effort from the viewer to find all the clues, and care from the artist to make sure not to clutter the scene with extraneous detail.
Anton von Werner, A Billet outside Paris [Im Etappenquartier vor Paris], 1894. Scene set October 24, 1870. Original: Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
More about this image, with thoughts on the changing sense of chauvinism in Prussian culture at German History Docs.
Wikipedia on Anton von Werner
Related GJ post: “Stillness, Action, and the Supreme Moment”
Thanks, Tim Callister!