At the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Ernest Meissonier sketched out an initial idea for a painting that would symbolise the Siege of Paris. He would only take this up much later, finishing the work in 1884. His vision combines reality and allegory. The figure of Paris - represented by Madame Meissonier, draped in a black veil and a lion skin, in front of a tattered French flag – rises above the ruins of a barricade. Above her, in a sky of billowing clouds of ash and unfolding tragedy, the spectre of famine hovers over a Paris destroyed by fire.
All around, in a scene of confusion, dead and dying soldiers lie stretched out on the palm leaves of martyrdom. With his characteristic, highly detailed realism, Meissonier describes each face, each detail of clothing. Collapsed against the personification of Paris, the painter Henri Regnault, lies dying. He was killed at the age of 27 during the second battle of Buzenval in January 1871. He symbolises a young generation full of promise, decimated by the conflict.
Although defeated, the uninjured soldiers continue to fight. They can be seen on the left of the painting loading a cannon and sounding the charge. Finally Meissonier evokes the suffering of civilians through a few scenes observed with compassion: an old man looks for his son amongst the bodies, a woman shows her husband their dead child, another woman cries over the body of her husband.
The defeat had a profound and long-lasting effect on France at the end of the 19th century. This trauma explains why, for many years, the 1870 war was a common theme in art, and remained popular with the public. Like other painters, sculptors and writers, Meissonier glorifies the spirit of sacrifice and heroism of his compatriots, in a conscious desire to increase national feeling and prepare for revenge.