On April 13, 1927, the Thomas Jefferson Association sponsored a reception aboard the SS Paris before the departure of a massive painting from Le Havre to New York’s Pier 57 with the crate containing the art work resting on its deck.
The panoramic “Panthéon de la Guerre” (Temple of War) was heading for Madison Square Garden where it was to be exhibited in aid of the Association (the day of leaving coincided with Jefferson’s birth date).
A spectacular opening night in New York on May 19 was attended by 25,000 people and the show attracted a million visitors in eight weeks. The “Temple” created enormous curiosity.
Official war artists have been appointed by governments for information or propaganda purposes and to record events on the battlefield. During the First World War, two main streams of activity produced war art. London’s Imperial War Museum was established by Act of Parliament in 1917 with the task of collecting materials documenting the war and commissioning artists to produce a record of events.
When the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917, the government established a Committee on Public Information to coordinate propaganda for the war effort and began planning to provide the American Expeditionary Force with official artists. Those selected were commissioned as captains and given the task to record the operations of the AEF for posterity and shape popular support for the war effort at home.
This unprecedented move was inspired by similar programs in Britain and France. By the mid-1800s newspapers and magazines sent out illustrators to provide reports and images of armed conflict, but not until World War One had any government sponsored painters to “officially” record images of a war in progress. By the spring of 1918 eight American artists were at work in France with unlimited access to the war zone and the unrestricted freedom to produce drawings and paintings.
Immediately after the end of hostilities, the War Department transferred some five hundred works to the Smithsonian Institution. They were on continuous display throughout the 1920s, along with other war relics. With the darkening skies of the 1930s, the public lost interest. The memory of the First World War went into storage.
Less than a month before the end of World War I, on October 19, 1918, a huge painting commemorating the war effort was unveiled in Paris. Its creators wanted to honor those who had taken part in the most devastating war the world had ever seen with the greatest painting ever made.
Work on “Panthéon de la Guerre” began in September 1914 after the Battle of the Marne and took four years to complete. A private commercial undertaking with political and financial state support (paint was expensive in war time), the work was conceived and coordinated by the painters Pierre Carrier-Belleuse and Auguste Gorguet. Its completion involved the assistance of some 130 artists.
The result was the world’s largest painting at the time, set on a circular panoramic canvas measuring 122 meters around and nearly fourteen meters high. It contained some 5,500 life-size portraits of soldiers, politicians and Allied officials. The centerpiece was a “Temple to Glory,” with French warriors crowding on a staircase topped by a gold statue of the winged Goddess of Victory on a plinth bearing the motto “Aux héros.” At the base of the staircase, French political and military leaders gathered around a giant canon.
National groups of figures from the allied nations were lined up to either side, Britain, Belgium, Italy, and Portugal on one side, and nineteen others (including the United States and Tsarist Russia) on the other. The figures were mostly men, but some female nurses and spies were added to the spectacle. Background scenes represented the battlefields of northern France and Flanders.
The completed painting was displayed in a specially designed octagonal building in the Rue de l’Université, close to the Hôtel des Invalides, a complex of buildings and monuments dedicated to French military history. It was inaugurated to great fanfare by President Raymond Poincaré (who himself appears in the painting) and his entourage. Visitors approached the circular memorial along dark corridors to a central viewing platform. Between 1918 and 1927, the memorial attracted three million visitors including many tourists and American soldiers.
Although the motivation for creating the Pantheon may have been patriotic, commercialism certainly played a part. Panoramic paintings had been wildly popular during the nineteenth century, a form of visual entertainment that attracted large numbers of paying visitors. Once the real toll of war became more evident and the nation mourned the appalling loss of young lives, the French public ignored the painting. The myth of war was no more. There were no temples in the trenches of hell.
In 1927 the painting was sold for a considerable amount of money to three American businessmen who proposed to take it on a U.S. tour. Having arrived in New York after a grand send-off from Paris in the presence of politicians and ambassadors (to cement Franco-American relations), the “Pantheon” was made ready for display at Madison Square Garden. Some minor changes were made to please American eyes, most notably the inclusion of an African-American soldier.
Although the painting was introduced at a grand opening night with many dignitaries and 25,000 invited guests, the show closed two months ahead of schedule as the proprietors decided that not enough cash was being raised to justify an extension of the exhibition. Instead, they decided to take the work on tour. It was displayed at the Washington Bicentennial Fair in 1932, at the Chicago World Fair in 1933, and at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Exposition in 1940.
The painting was presented to American audiences as a celebratory memory of the war. Stunned by its size and grandiosity, visitors treated the occasion more like a carnival attraction than a serious reflection on war and politics. San Francisco was the “Pantheon’s” last stop on tour. By 1940 the world was plunged into another calamitous conflict. The glorification of a previous war no longer make sense. Public attention moved on.
The painting was kept at a warehouse in Baltimore where it was ditched (outdoors for part of the time) for twelve years in its original Paris-made crate until it was finally auctioned off in July 1952. At the sale there was barely any interest in what the catalogue described as an “art object of unusual value.” The “Panthéon de la Guerre” was picked up cheaply by a local collector who, ironically, turned out to be a German-born First World War veteran.
Restaurateur William Henry Haussner began his career as a chef working in the Museum Restaurant in Nuremberg that occupied a former art gallery. He moved to the United States in 1926 and opened a restaurant on Baltimore’s Eastern Avenue. The venture was a success and his venue soon attracted a select clientele that included the writer and scholar H.L. Mencken (himself of German descent). For over seven decades it remained one of the city’s landmarks.
His wife Frances Wilke Haussner gave the place a distinct character by collecting works of art (mainly European) to exhibit on the premises. William soon joined in and together they acquired numerous paintings at auction from the J. P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Henry Walters estates.
When the restaurant closed in 1999 (the last meal was served on Wednesday, October 6th), the collection of 134 lots was auctioned for £10 million on November 2nd at Sotheby’s, New York. Included in the sale were paintings by Jean-Léon Gérome, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Louis Ricardo Faléro, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Jules Dupré, Adolf Schreyer, and others.
It was Haussner who purchased the “Pantheon” at auction. The opening of the crate and the delicate unrolling of the canvas was a huge operation involving twenty-two assistants. It drew wide attention and Life magazine sent a journalist and photographer to report on the event. It was then that the new owner realized that it may have been a foolish acquisition.
Willing to donate the painting, Haussner tried to find a suitable museum for it. The Smithsonian was not interested. Nobody was prepared to repair the damaged canvas, let alone create a purpose-built structure for it. The French Consulate discarded the offer to have it sent back to France. The painting seemed to await a bleak future.
Painter and muralist Daniel MacMorris had served in France in the United States Army Signal Corps. Following his assignment, he returned to Paris to spend five years as an artist with his own studio on the Right Bank. Having studied with Auguste Gorguet, he was very familiar with the “Pantheon” panorama which, on numerous occasions, he had observed from close by.
Before leaving Paris he held an exhibition at the famous Durand-Ruel Gallery. Back in the States, he set up a studio in New York above the Carnegie Hall. After 1945 he resettled in Kansas City where he was put in charge of decorating the Liberty Memorial. Renamed the National World War I Museum and Memorial in 2004, it was the nation’s only museum solely dedicated to the Great War.
In 1953 Daniel read the Life magazine article on Haussner’s undertaking. He was keen to install the “Panthéon de la Guerre” on the walls of the museum’s Memory Hall and started lobbying Haussner to donate the painting to the Liberty Memorial. When its owner eventually agreed, MacMorris decided that the panorama needed to be adapted for its new home. He photographed all its details, cut out the figures, and used these to work out how to reconfigure the composition from its circular design to a regular painting to be placed against a flat wall. He described his effort as “whittling down a novel to Reader’s Digest condensation.”
It was much more than that. The painting’s narrative was completely re-written in order to highlight America’s contribution to the war effort. MacMorris cut out some unrecognizable figures in the US delegations and replaced them with later figures, including Presidents Roosevelt and Truman (a First World War veteran, and Missouri native). He put Woodrow Wilson and the American military leaders in the center with the Allies on either side. French soldiers were cast out of the temple. In the end, only seven percent of the original work was retained. The Americanized version of the painting was unveiled at the Liberty Memorial on November 11, 1959, at a dedication ceremony that included President Harry Truman.
Mac Morris showed little respect for the unused segments of the original. He either disposed of them or handed parts to art students who assisted him in re-configuring the painting. Larger pieces were returned to the Haussner family who displayed some of those in their restaurant. Portions of the original French section were retained by the museum.
The “Pantheon” was created in Paris as a state-sponsored commercial propaganda project at a time of carnage on killing fields of mustard gas and barbed wire. After the war the impressive panorama was briefly celebrated as a memorial of the nation’s suffering and sacrifice, before it was finally rejected as a hollow and meaningless statement. Once acquired by American businessmen, the painting was taken on a tour that had all the hallmarks of a circus spectacle. In its final stage the panorama was cut to size and its content modified to suit an American account of the Great War.
The phrase “theatre of war” (theatrum belli) refers to the arena of armed conflict. There is an additional connotation at play. In Greek tragedy, dramatists were keenly aware of the vital role of catharsis during and after military conflict. They understood the stress of war on those who were sent into battle and used tragedy as therapy for combat trauma. Festivals were organized to perform plays of war and bloodshed in front of troops and officers.
The creation and subsequent history of the “Temple of War” lowered the tone of communication from tragedy to farce.
Illustrations, from above: “Pantheon de la Guerre” mural detail (National World War I Museum); Pierre Carrier-Belleuse, “Self-portrait,” 1898; Booklet of the Pantheon de la Guerre first showing at Madison Square Garden, New York, 1927; Brochure of the 1933 World Fair in Chicago featuring the Pantheon; Haussner’s Restaurant interior circa 1992; a detail of the original painting showing a British nursing sister (National WWI Museum and Memorial); The “Americanized” central section of the Pantheon today.