Painting on canvas ‑ 8 metres x 72 metres ‑ 1937 ‑ Alfred Bastien
A long‑forgotten work, the Diorama of the Battles of the Meuse offers a bird’s eye view of the Meuse valley, seen from the left bank of the river (West).
The painting is divided into separate scenes, each depicting a particular moment in those tragic weeks of the German attack on neutral Belgium in August and September 1914.
From the summer harvests on the left and the destruction of Namur and Dinant, through to the dead tree, symbol of the victims of war, on the right, History unfolds throughout this Diorama.
It is also a warning cry.
Unveiled in 1937, the Diorama of the Battles of the Meuse is designed to alert the viewer.
Once again war is not far away…
Discover the main scenes of the work of Alfred Bastien while clicking on the interactive zones.
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Understand the meaning of the main scenes of the Diorama, put in perspective, explained and illustrated
Liège, early August 1914: Belgium’s army mobilises
The Germans trample the ground of Liège
German atrocities are triggered in the Province of Liège
An anything‑but‑peaceful dove in the skies over Liège
Namur prepares to enter the war
The enemy occupies the city from the end of the month
Namur suffers heavy damage
The Fortified Position of Namur (P.F.N.) surrenders
The role of the Belgian Red Cross in battle
Belgian sappers destroy the bridge at Jambes
It’s the turn of the Province of Namur to suffer German reprisals
The Germans mark the road to Dinant with other atrocities
The Germans reach the Meuse valley
15th August in Dinant: the story of a long day
Dinant counts its dead
Dinant collegiate church sees its umpteenth restoration
The Germans make their presence felt in the Meuse Valley
German savagery does not spare small neighbourhoods
Trees: wounded witnesses, symbols of the war
Alfred BASTIEN (1873 ‑ 1955) is one of the great Belgian masters of dioramas and panoramas. He is also known for his abundant production of easel paintings.
Born in 1873 in Ixelles, Alfred BASTIEN was the eighth child of a modest family. Affected at a very young age by the premature deaths of his sister, brother and mother, Alfred left the family home to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, then at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels.
In October 1914, a few weeks after the start of the war, Bastien takes himself off to England, later joining up as a war volunteer in 1915.
In 1916 he is assigned to the arts section of the Belgian army and is seconded, in 1918, to the Canadian army. During those long months he paints numerous war scenes, both in Belgium and in France. Beginning at this time, the artist establishes close contacts with the Royal family, whom he meets on several occasions.
Throughout his life, Alfred BASTIEN sought to share his passion for art and painting, both as a teacher, then as Director of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels.
A committed pacifist, he was also known for his political commitment, in particular with the Belgian Communist Party. Alfred BASTIEN died on 7th June 1955.
ALFRED BASTIEN - June 1918
major Georges P.Vanier
Library and Archives Canada pencil sketch / Creative Commons
Immense paintings illustrating landscapes often depicting scenes from history, panoramas and dioramas are a spectacular and immersive form of art whose golden age was the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. Technically, panoramas differ from dioramas in that the former offer viewers a 360° view while the latter are flat or slightly curved paintings.
Invented in 1787 by the Scottish painter Robert BARKER, the panorama is a vast circular painting displayed in a rotunda so that the visitor, viewing it from a platform in the centre of the panorama can survey the painting on all sides from every angle.
The feeling of trompe‑l’œil is heightened further by overhead lighting concealed by a canopy.
Robert BARKER, 1787, the first panorama / Creative Commons
Picture : Ferditje / Creative Commons
Often enhanced by elements positioned in the foreground of the painting (figures, objects, plants, painted sets, etc.), the panorama (and hence also the diorama) is designed to create the illusion of being in the very centre of the action or scene depicted.
As forerunners of the cinema, both in terms of dimensions and the care taken by the artist to immerse the viewer in a story or scene that is completely different, the panorama and the diorama very quickly enjoyed significant success in Europe and North America. Early examples usually depicted panoramic urban scenes, enabling viewers to discover foreign or idealised cities.
Then, from the 19th century onwards, the subjects began to diversify. The theme of war was taken up by a number of artists, often as part of propaganda exercises for European nations. The exotic also gains the public’s interest. It was the golden age of colonialism and European viewers were keen to discover landscapes from Africa and far‑off America. The rise of the cinema between the wars saw the gradual decline in this form of art. It had remained popular for a long period of time and is seeing interest rekindled today among numerous creative artists around the world.
Franz ROUBAUD - Panorama of the battle of Borodino in 1812
Photo: Dennis Jarvis / Creative Commons
Monumental in size, the painting by Alfred BASTIEN depicts a bird’s eye view of the banks of the Meuse. To the extreme left is the area of Liège, with its hills and strongholds. Then comes the tragic defence of Namur and environs: the city, on fire in several places, is shown in flames in the background, while in the foreground we see Belgian and French troops leaving Namur and beginning the retreat ordered by General Michel.
The painting tells a story, depicting the early days of the German invasion, from the carefree atmosphere of the harvest to the sad spectacle of the dead tree, foretelling the terrible carnage to come.
Close up, the brushstrokes appear relatively coarse, but the work needs to be viewed from a certain distance, as do all dioramas and panoramas.
Stepping back a few paces enables the viewer to appreciate how well Alfred BASTIEN masters his painting technique.
The depth of field, between the curve of the Meuse, the hills in the distance and the dead tree, which alone dominates this side of the river, gives viewers the impression of approaching the picture as if to contemplate the scene of desolation on the far bank.
Looking at the painting more closely, the artist’s technical mastery becomes clear, especially in the method he adopts for painting water, earth and sky. The smoke rising from the hills gives the impression of becoming lost in the tormented sky, while at the foot of the Dinant Citadel, the flames ravaging the collegiate church are reflected in the waters of the Meuse.
By placing the grandiose spectacle of the natural surroundings opposite the catastrophe caused by men and war, Alfred BASTIEN prompts us to think, to consider the consequences of our destructive impulses.
Clearly, this work has a message.
After his years of studying, spent in Ghent, Brussels and Paris, where he copied the old masters, became caught up in romanticism of Delacroix and the realism of Courbet, as well as coming under the influence of the impressionists, Alfred BASTIEN undertook long journeys in Europe, North Africa, the Belgian Congo, India, Japan, China and the south Pacific islands.
Ghent University Library - Creative Commons
In 1911, at the request of King Albert, the Belgian government commissioned Bastien and Paul Mathieu to paint the Congo Panorama to be displayed at the 1913 Universal International Exposition in Ghent. Illustrating the colony in its most wide and varied aspects, the colourful work was enormously successful.
Ghent University Library - Creative Commons
During the war, as official artist of the Belgian army and for a number of months as artist assigned to the Canadian army, Alfred Bastien produced some of his finest works – testimony to the reality of the fighting on the fronts in Belgium and France.
In addition to his war production, Bastien was also a prolific painter who produced an incalculable number of easel paintings depicting landscapes, still life studies, figurative scenes and portraits.
ALFRED BASTIEN - Canadian Cavalry Ready in a Wood
Canadian War Museum / Public domain
In 1919 and 1920, he worked with Charly Léonard and Charles Swyncop to paint the Panorama of the Battle of the Yser in 1914, depicting one of the key battles in the early war, with its procession of victims and destruction.
THE PANORMA of the YSER - 1920
sequence of news on the visit of the Belgian Minister of defence at the exhibition of the painter Bastien (1873-1955)
Cinémathèque Royale of Belgium - EFG - The European Film Gateway / Public domain
Panorama of the battle of the Yser
excerpt - fires of the halles of Ypres
The painter was also a tireless reader and prolific writer.
Throughout his life, in his personal diaries, he recorded his thoughts about the political, everyday and artistic life of his times.
He also maintained an abundant correspondence with numerous personalities of the time. His writings reveal the importance that the diorama of the Battles of the Meuse represents in his eyes.
15th November 1935
“I have begun the first sketches of the Meuse in 1914.”
“The rocks at Freyr… by Courbet, with the fluidity of the Meuse that will always pursue me. Ah, good big brother!”
14 February 1936
“The contract for the Panorama of the Battles of the Meuse in 1914 is to be signed. It will be placed in Namur and will very probably mean a major change in our life: the dream of that little house in the Ardennes, close to the Meuse, in the woods… may well come to pass… it would be so good! Insha’allah!”
22 April 1936
“Good day. I have begun the sky, the blue horizons, very fine, very distant… groups of horses. I’m getting my hand in. Forty metres are already done. Each panel ‑ and there are four of them ‑ is 144 metres long.
16 July 1936
“Should I paint the horrors of war or not? Putting decency before horror, it would be no! Because it’s awful. But then you’d have to burn all the Rubens, the Torture scenes ‑ and the Goyas and the Manets. It would be a lie to History and my painting is accurate, a warning”.
The early days of the war in pictures.
Understand the historical context but also the artistic and pictorial approach.
While it recalls the German attack on Belgium in 1914, the diorama is also designed as an alarm call from the artist to denounce the new threat represented by Nazi Germany as the Second World War approached.
The diorama by Alfred Bastien depicts some of the key moments of the German invasion in August and September 1914.
The important dates in this period are shown to facilitate understanding of how events unfolded.
The assassination of Archduke François‑Ferdinand, heir to the Austria‑Hungary empire on 28th June 1914 by a Serbian nationalist student sets the powder keg alight.
In a matter of weeks, the various alliances, stirred up by nationalist fever all over Europe, ends in a series of declarations of war.
One by one, the countries of the "Triple Alliance" (the central empires of Germany and Austria‑Hungary; Italy opts to remain neutral, but changes camp in 1915) face the countries of the "Triple Entente" (France, Russia and Great Britain) and their allies (Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro).
On 4th August, to avoid the French defensive lines, German troops enter Belgium.
Protected in theory by its neutrality, Belgium is one of the first victims of what will develop into the Great War.
Heir to the Austria‑Hungary empire, Archduke François‑Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist student. This event is the trigger and, five days later, Austria‑Hungary, Germany’s ally, declares war on Serbia, protected by Russia and itself an ally of la France.
Two days after declaring war on Russia, Germany declares war on France. Belgium, realising that it will not escape the war, decides to defend itself against any attack. If its territory is violated, it will call on the powers guaranteeing its neutrality.
The ultimatum issued by the Kaiser to Belgium, demanding that German troops be allowed to pass through Belgian territory to attack France, is rejected by the government and the King. It’s war: the German army crosses the border and invades Belgium. The same day, in response to this aggression, Great Britain declares war on Germany.
The Belgian army organises its defence and its resistance surprises the enemy. Liège and its belt of defensive forts stand in the way of the German advance.
In Visé, German soldiers, infuriated by the tenacity of the Belgian army, turn on the civilians. Almost 585 houses are destroyed, 42 local residents are killed and nearly 600 are rounded up and taken by force to Germany.
The Germans enter the capital, declared an “open city”. Adolphe Max, the mayor, encourages peaceful resistance and organises support for refugees.
In Dinant and the surrounding villages, the Germans let fly against the civilian population: 674 men, women and children are killed and more than 1100 buildings ravaged.
After the fall of Antwerp, the National Union Government leaves Belgium aboard two boats and sets up government at Sainte‑Adresse, close to Le Havre, with the permission of the French authorities.
The Ottoman empire takes sides with the empires of Germany and Austria‑Hungary against France and Britain. The theatre of operations spreads across the world.
British and German soldiers at the front spontaneously fraternise for a brief time on Christmas Day 1914.
Faced with the French and British forces, the Germans resort to chemical weapons. Asphyxiating chlorine gas is released over the allied troops, claiming many victims and causing panic in the ranks of the soldiers fighting on the front at Ypres.
Lawrence of Arabia, a British officer, stirs up revolt among the Arab peoples living under the Ottoman empire against their powerful occupier.
Attacks by German submarines in the Atlantic Ocean target American ships and others. Infuriated and deciding to support France and Britain, the US Congress and President Woodrow Wilson declare that the United States will enter the war against the countries of the Triple Alliance.
After the fall of the Tsar in February, Lenin’s Bolsheviks launch the October Revolution and seize control of Russia. In December, the armistice is signed and a peace treaty is signed in March 1918 by Russia, which loses many of its territories to Germany.
Blockades, inflation, strikes, shortages… the German population is exhausted by the years of war. In October, Kaiser Wilhelm II is forced to accept the end of the absolute monarchy, but challenges to his power do not weaken and on 9th November, he announces his abdication from his headquarters in Spa, in Belgium.
Two days after the Kaiser’s abdication, the German generals sign the armistice, acknowledging the defeat of the central empires. The Great War is over. More than 18 million people have perished in the conflict, half of them civilians.
In August 1914, the German army decides to invade France by passing through Belgium.
In the front line, the people of Namur still remember this brutal invasion.
The aim of the Battles of the Meuse Webdocumentary is to record in the best possible way this dreadful period of history that witnessed the invasion and occupation of Belgium by the German Army during the First World War and in particular the events of August and September 1914 depicted in the painting by Alfred BASTIEN.
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