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The Artist Who Witnessed the Beauty and Horror of WWI Aerial Combat

Henri Farré left behind his comfortable life as a portraitist to join the French military, and depict firsthand the birth of combat aviation in WWI.

Henri Farré, “British Handley-Page Bomber” (1918), oil on canvas (Collection of the Military Aviation Museum, Virginia Beach, Virginia)

Henri Farré had a comfortable life as a portrait painter in Buenos Aires when World War I broke out. The French artist, then in his 40s, decided to return to his home country and join the fight, but he did not leave his artistic practice behind. “Belonging to one of the older contingents not as yet called to the colors, I enlisted so as to not remain a mere spectator of the great drama which had been thrust upon the world,” he later told Fine Arts Journal in August 1918. “My desire, aside from participating with all my might in the great effort of my country, was to consecrate every free moment to painting the history of the war.”

When promoted to the rank of observer-bombardier, he did what no artist had done before: capture a first-hand view of aerial combat. Participating in overnight raids, and daytime dogfights, he sketched and took notes, which he transformed into more than 170 oil paintings. These have a sense of motion and intense embrace of the present reminiscent of the Impressionism movement that had recently emerged in France. Over 20 of these paintings are on view in Henri Farré and the Birth of Combat Aviation at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. The exhibition, marking the centennial of World War I’s end, is a partnership with the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach. While best known for its vintage aircrafts, it has one of the largest collections of Farré’s paintings.

Henri Farré, “Caproni aeroplane, Italian” (1917), oil on canvas (Collection of the Military Aviation Museum, Virginia Beach, Virginia)
Henri Farré in 1918 (via Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

Farré attended the École des Beaux-Arts, studied with Gustave Moreau, and was a regular in the Paris Salons. Although he brought those techniques to the battlefields, it was quite a different challenge to paint while at war. He explained his process in March 1918 to the New York Times:

Sometimes we hover over the battle as long as half an hour. Shells burst around us. Other airmen plunge to the ground. But we escape. Then my pilot whirls around and we fly back to the rear. We land. I have no time to lose. I sit down immediately and sketch from memory the scene I have just witnessed.

One painting shows searchlights pulsing through the night sky, as the fiery colors of bombs explode in the darkness. Others have dizzying views of the landscapes thousands of feet below, framed by banks of clouds. Always the perspective is that of an aviator, not an observer, giving the paintings a feeling of immediacy. “There’s a distance and objectivity as well as directness inherent to the Impressionist technique, so we really sense the vertigo of being in the clouds and how small the planes are, and the color and atmosphere are also very fresh and direct,” Lloyd DeWitt, Irene Leache curator of European art and chief curator at the Chrysler Museum, told Hyperallergic.

Henri Farré, “Aerial Shooting Range at Cazeaux” (nd), oil on canvas (Collection of the Military Aviation Museum, Virginia Beach, Virginia)

DeWitt noted that the paintings of aviation training are especially interesting, “because so much improvisation was needed to train pilots in this new form of warfare.” (World War I was the first to involve the offensive use of airplanes.) “One painting shows target practice,” DeWitt said. “They’re flying children’s balloons from a long kite string being towed by a motorboat, as targets for the pilots to try to hit. The composition looks nearly abstract.”

Henri Farré and the Birth of Combat Aviation is organized into sections on training, combat, and a portrait of flying ace Georges Guynemer, who was celebrated as a national hero for his 54 victories (or enemy planes brought down) before his death in 1917. This arrangement is similar to how Farré presented the works when they toured the United States immediately following the armistice. The traveling exhibition, called Sky Fighters of France, was staged by the French government to raise funds for the widows and orphans of French fliers.

Henri Farré, “Captain Guynemer, Killed on the field of honor” (1917), etching (Collection of the Military Aviation Museum, Virginia Beach, Virginia)

This tour was met with breathless excitement, as Farré’s paintings didn’t just depict the courage of the victorious Allies — they also gave viewers a first-hand glimpse of a new technology. Lieutenant Farré himself often appeared at openings, dressed debonairly in his uniform adorned with the Croix de Guerre, charming visitors with his stately beard and tales of creating art in the air. “Quick sketches made in flight and a system of numbers to designate color effects or objects that pass too quickly to be brushed or drawn in until the artist has alighted. Can you beat it?” exclaimed Gustave Kobbe, the art critic of the New York HeraldThe American Magazine of Art affirmed that the paintings “are thrilling in the extreme, not only presenting to the observer the wonderful deeds of heroism which constantly occur in this branch of the service, but opening an entirely new world of vision — pictures of scenes above the clouds, wonderfully beautiful, marvelously dramatic.”

While there is a certain amount of romanticism in Farré’s work — he was an official delegate of the French Army Museum — he also visualized the horror of combat aviation. Men tumble from a burning plane into the depths of the clouds; a black trail of smoke from a downed plane disrupts luminous colors that suggest a sunset. Many of the casualties he portrayed are Germans; still, he painted plenty of French losses, such as the bloody body of a pilot being pulled from his cockpit.

Despite seeing many of his fellow fliers killed or wounded, Farré made it out of the war unscathed. After touring his aviation paintings, he returned to a more traditional art practice in Chicago, where died in 1934. Many artists interpreted the terrible mortality of World War I and its new technologies, from John Singer Sargent with his 1919 “Gassed” showing the horrifying effects of mustard gas, to Otto Dix, who responded to his harrowing experiences with trench warfare. Farré was the first eyewitness to transport the viewer up among the clouds, where the shadow of death met the ethereal light of the skies.

Henri Farré in a newspaper photograph in Le Miroir (via Wikimedia)
Henri Farré, “Caudron G3 2-seat Reconnaissance and Artillery Spotting Plan” (1914–18), oil on board (Collection of the Military Aviation Museum, Virginia Beach, Virginia)

Henri Farré and the Birth of Combat Aviation continues through January 27, 2019 at the Chrysler Museum of Art (One Memorial Place, Norfolk, Virginia). The exhibition is curated by Lloyd DeWitt.

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