Tuesday, April 13, 2010


These exotically dressed soldiers fought in the French conquest of Algeria (1836), the Crimean War (1853-1856), the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Franco-Prussian War (1870), the Sino-French War (1881-1882), World War I (1914-1918), and the Algerian War (1954-1962). They are Zouaves, infantrymen in the French Army originally composed of Algerian troops (5th image), after whom other troops - including members of the Union Army (1st and 3rd images) - were patterned). Zouaves were distinguished by their uniforms, which featured baggy pantaloons, a sash, and a tasseled fez. But they also distinguished themselves in battle, with a reputation as fierce fighters. Soldiers in the elite Zouave regiments became the subjects of paintings by Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) in 1888 (4th image), American artist Winslow Homer (1836-1910) in 1864 (2nd image), and Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) in 1918 (6th image). The striking colors - absent in the black and white photographs of the time - were a challenge to reproduce on canvas, as Van Gogh described in a letter to his brother: "...the half-length I did of him was horribly harsh, in a blue uniform, the blue of enamel saucepans, with braids of a faded reddish-orange, and two yellow stars on his breast, an ordinary blue, and very hard to do. That bronzed, feline head of his with a red cap, I placed it against a green door and the orange bricks of a wall. So it's a savage combination of incongruous tones, not easy to manage." It was the natty dress that spelled the end of the Zouaves: they were too expensive to replace, they were supplanted by mass-produced uniforms, and they were superseded by green uniforms that would more easily camouflage the troops.

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