Senegalese riflemen in the 1914-1918 war

Senegalese riflemen in the 1914-1918 war

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Title: Senegalese soldiers at Mailly camp.

Author : VALLOTTON Félix (1865 - 1925)

School : Nabis

Creation date : 1917

Date shown: June 1917

Dimensions: Height 46 - Width 55

Technique and other indications: Oil painting on canvas

Storage place: Departmental Museum of Oise website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Picture reference: 91CE1801

Senegalese soldiers at Mailly camp.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Publication date: October 2013

Historical context

This painting by Félix Vallotton is dated June 1917, just a few weeks after the April-May offensives on the Aisne and Champagne fronts. It was also the most intense period of mutinies within the French army.

Image Analysis

The painted soldiers - Senegalese soldiers from Mailly camp - are at rest. Sitting between wooden huts, they sit amidst a peaceful setting accentuated by the blue sky. The harmony of colors reveals the nabi style, very colorful, with in particular the blue and red chechias characteristic of Senegalese troops. We still find it in the very marked contrast of the soldiers with black skin "posed" in a way on a very light background. The canvas reveals a certain desolation, as evidenced by the lines, the absent - or perhaps sad - looking faces and the distance of the shot.

Vallotton seeks here to push the contrasts to the extreme, to provoke a shock in order to make the whole more expressive. "War is a strictly internal phenomenon, sensitive on the inside, and of which all the apparent manifestations, no matter how grand or horrifying, are and remain picturesque episodes or document," writes the painter in his diary.


In November 1916, the Undersecretariat of Fine Arts, the Ministry of War and the main headquarters agreed to authorize a few painters to go to the front in order to undertake paintings of the history of war. Vallotton belongs to the mission. His age exempts him from mobilization. His reputation, like that of former nabis such as Bonnard, Denis, Vuillard who accompany him, is already established. This helps reassure the authorities.

Vallotton accomplished his artistic mission in June 1917 on the Champagne and Argonne front. He returns three weeks later, with his journal and a sketchbook from which he draws a dozen canvases. These paintings were brought together for the exhibition "Painters in the Armies" held at the Musée du Luxembourg in October 1917. The very discreet reception given to them by the press revealed to be uneasy.

Upon returning from his mission, Vallotton was in fact convinced that it was impossible to represent war. Modern combat has become invisible, the artist has nothing to see or paint. All that remains is to make way for the photographer or the cinema operator, whose means are better suited to the new methods of warfare. "Is art without object representation possible? Vallotton wrote. He fails to capture the action, the combat, the battle, the destruction and the horror.

The painting ultimately testifies to the painter's inability to represent what has become of war. Indeed, he does not show any action scenes, but rather "the places where things happened", as he writes to his brother. By serving as a pretext here, the war provides a framework for works whose artistic interest ultimately lies elsewhere.

  • army
  • colonial history
  • War of 14-18
  • Senegalese tirailleurs
  • colonial troops
  • Nabis


Pierre VALLAUD, 14-18, World War I, volumes I and II, Paris, Fayard, 2004.

Marina DUCREY, Félix Vallotton, story of a work, Paris, Editions De Conti, 1990.

To cite this article

Sophie DELAPORTE, "Senegalese riflemen in the war of 1914-1918"

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