Skip to main content

Mathurin Méheut: an artist at war

The opening of a new exhibition is as good a reason as any to mention a favourite artist, Mathurin Méheut.

Méheut was born in Lamballe (Côtes d'Armor) in 1882. His early career was spent as an illustrator, first for the magazine Art et Décoration, and then for the marine research establishment at Roscoff, illustrating marine flora and fauna. In 1913, he won a travelling scholarship from the Albert Kahn Foundation, to paint in Japan. The trip was interrupted by the outbreak of war.

He was recalled into the 136th Infantry, and served with them as a sergeant and sous-lieutenant in Artois and the Argonne. Between 1916 and 1917, promoted to lieutenant, he served with the Army's Topographical Section, responsible for the Army's mapping, firstly at Sainte-Ménéhould with 10th Corps, and then with 1st Army at Bergues, in Flanders. He continued to draw and paint whilst in the trenches. But his work would not consist of heroic battle scenes, like those made famous by the likes of Edouard Detaille or Alphonse de Neuville, rather it concentrated on intimate scenes of soldiers and daily life in the trenches. He wrote as many as five letters a day to his wife throughout the war, all full of marginal sketches and illustrations, in addition to more formal studies. 'I have to justify myself as an artist as much as a soldier', he wrote. For him, art was 'the best way I can show friendship and admiration for my brave men', and he would be so happy 'if these poor scraps, which I've drawn as and when I could, could survive.'

 Mark Levitch, in his Panthéon de la Guerre: reconfiguring a panorama of the Great War (Columbia, University of Missouri, 2006) has suggested that an absence of individual portraiture amongst the work of Méheut (and other soldier-artists like Jean-Louis Lefort) served to stress the dehumanization of the war, by depriving soldiers of their individual identity. Yet Méheut himself did not appear to feel dehumanized by any means. 'While the battle was raging off to our left,' he wrote to his wife in May 1915, 'I found a beautiful beetle in the trench, and picked it up. But in sheltering from the shells, I crushed it in my pocket. I was heart-broken.'

A news item from French regional television on his wartime paintings is here.

After demobilisation, he devoted much of his time to illustration, taking much of his inspiration from his native Brittany. He was made an Official Painter to the French Navy in 1921, and also assisted with the internal decoration of nine ocean liners, including the Normandie

His output was prolific throughout his life, working largely in watercolour, but also including pottery and book illustration, houses and public buildings (the Villa Miramar in Cap-Martin for Albert Kahn, and the hall of Heinz Building in Pittsburgh). He died in 1958.

His home town of Lamballe includes a museum devoted to Méheut. A major retrospective of his work opened on 27th February 2013 at the Musée de la Marine in Paris, and will run until 30th June. Denis-Michel Boëll, the curator of the exhibition, gives a video presentation here. The last major retrospective on the artist was in 1982; a video presentation is here. There is also another presentation of some of his works, concentrating on his Breton material, here.

Pictures (top to bottom): A sentry, Bois de la Gruerie, September 1915; Letter in the trenches, November 1914; Grande Place, Arras; An execution; the artist as a young man; the exhibition poster from current exhibition at the Musée de la Marine; one of his Breton pictures - Le pardon de Penhors.

Popular posts from this blog

Kings of the Air: A Matter of Reputation

When dealing with the history of the development of the French Air Force before and during the Great War, you cannot go far without coming across the name of Charles Tricornet de Rose. A dragoons officer, he was the first man to get his military wings. He was immediately snapped up to work at Estienne's research establishment at Vincennes, where he worked on aircraft armament (even though the Minister of War thought it a waste of time), coming to the conclusion that the gun had to placed in the nose, firing forwards. The problem was the firing through the arc of the propellor, and, with Roland Garros, he was working on a synchronizer system when war broke out. 
Garros went his own way, towards the dead end that were his deflector plates. Meanwhile, de Rose, the commander of Fifth Army's aviation, created the first all-fighter squadron, MS12, and filled it with the best pilots he could lay his hands on, including Jean Navarre. Until a viable synchronizer system was worked out,…

Sources for French military history

In something of a mood for reviews after last week's post, I dipped my pen (? or should that be keyboard?) in critic's vitriol once again, and took a look at Milindex, a searchable bibliography newly mounted on the website of the French Ministry of Defence's Centre de Doctrine d’Emploi des Forces (CDEF).
The bibliography is the work of the CDEF's Research Centre, the Ecole Militaire's Documentation Centre and an un-named university. The database includes the following older titles:
Journal des Sciences militaires (1825-1914) (available on Gallica), Revue d’artillerie (1872-1939) (available on Gallica), Revue de cavalerie (available on Gallica 1905-25),  Revue d’infanterie (1887-1939) (available on Gallica), Revue des Sciences Politiques (1911-1936) (available on Gallica),
Revue des troupes coloniales (1902-1939) Revue du géniemilitaire (1887-1959) (available on Gallica), Revue du service de l’intendance militaire(1888-1959)
Revue militaire générale (1907-1973) (available…

Ceux de 14 - the critics speak!

With the first episodes of Ceux de 14 having been broadcast on France 3 earlier this week, the critics have now had their say.
Télé-Loisirs: 'a good reconstruction of war', but overall the cast 'was rather wooden'; on the other hand Théo Frilet, as Genevoix was 'convincing'. Overall: Very Good
Télé 2 Semaines: 'convincing casting', but also thought they were 'rather wooden'. Overall: Quite Good
Télé Z: 'we lived, suffered and wept with these soldiers serving during the Great War'. Overall: Excellent
Télé Poche: 'faithful to the original book'. Overall: Good
TV Grandes Chaines: 'a bold production' with 'convincing actors'. Overall: Very Good.
Télé 7 Jours: 'the series is a noteworthy tribute to a generation that was sacrificed', played by 'outstanding actors'. Overall: Good
Télé Star: Overall: Good
So ... 'could be better' by the sound of things; but likewise, could be a lot worse (and we've s…