Female values in male turmoil: women (’s roles) in the Bourbaki Panorama

Active and reactive
Compared to the men arriving en masse, women are only sparsely represented in Edouard Castre’s monumental work. Moreover, the few women correspond to the bourgeois ideal of their time: the patriotic, freedom-loving and gainfully employed man is assisted by them as a caring, supportive and compassionate “supplement”. This notion of complementarity was central to the 19th century. It is very specific about what woman and man are to do and not to do: Man alone is considered to have the capacity for intellect. While he actively acts and creates, the passive and weak woman is left only with reactive “restoration”. The man creates and destroys, the woman nurtures and repairs. Care and helpfulness towards fellow human beings are then naturally regarded as elementary female character traits.

“Help without asking whom!” was Henry Dunant’s guiding principle. It is considered the principle of humanitarian aid of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which he founded in 1863. In the bourgeois milieu of the 19th century, commitment in the name of charity was also organised and established. From the beginning, it was mainly women who participated. For women from the middle and upper classes, charitable commitment was even part of good manners. Henry Dunant, for his part, was strongly inspired by women. He was supported by them financially and ideally. Dunant was also an early advocate of equality.

Feminine Principle
What do the depictions of women in the Bourbaki Panorama tell us? Like Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, the Red Cross worker and painter Edouard Castres was convinced of the peace-promoting effect of “feminine” values: in the understanding of the time, the violent and destructive masculine principle complemented the life-sustaining and peace-promoting feminine principle – a central message of the Bourbaki Panorama. The women appear individually and – quite contrary to the official view – “active”. Of course, they help, feed and nurture, and thus at first glance correspond entirely to the role ideal specific to the time. However, they have another function: as “icons” of charity, as it were, they present to us how the world achieves more peace through mutual sympathy. They are mediators of Castre’s message. This message is universal and of course applies to all genders.

Woman serving drinks surrounded by soldiers (detail Bourbaki Panorama), oil on canvas, 1881
Woman serving drinks surrounded by soldiers (detail Bourbaki Panorama), oil on canvas, 1881
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