I find this a beautiful and fascinating picture. A classroom, obviously in the late 19th century, a teacher who looks middle-class is eagerly pointing out something to one of his students that seems to be of obvious importance. The students, all boys, all well-dressed–one is wearing a medal of some kind–are watching intently, and the artist has portrayed a compelling mixture of wonder and concern on their faces. The kid in front of the map is almost reticent, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, as if he’s uncomfortable at the intensity of whatever the teacher is telling him. The map is of France and the teacher is pointing out something on the far northeast corner, a province that has been colored black. It’s Le Tache Noire–the Black Spot–and if you know something about French geography or 19th century French history, you can easily recognize the black-colored province as Alsace-Lorraine.
For all its obvious artistic beauty, especially in the rendering of the facial expressions, this is an overtly political picture and it was not intended to be subtle in the slightest. In 1871, 16 years before this painting was created in 1887, as a settlement of the Franco-Prussian War, the newly-created nation of Germany got control of the province of Alsace-Lorraine, which was culturally mostly (though not totally) French. The loss of this province, rich in industry, agriculture and wine as well as human and cultural capital, was a deep humiliation to 19th century French people. They regarded it as a terrible injustice. This long-festering political wound was part of the backdrop of hostility between France and Germany that ultimately broke into open conflict in 1914 when the First World War started. And when Germany lost that war, what was the first demand France made of the defeated enemy? The return of Alsace-Lorraine.
Le Tache Noire was painted by Albert Bettannier, a minor French artist who was born in Metz–which was in Alsace-Lorraine. He was 19 when the province became German, but he kept his French identity and moved to Paris rather than become a subject of the new German Emperor. Bettannier seems to have been obsessed with the Alsace-Lorraine issue. He painted several pictures like this one, somehow emphasizing the issue in various contexts. Here it seems he’s imploring the French nation to teach its children about the injustice he thought had been done.
Bettannier couldn’t have known it at the time, but this picture strikes me as having a sad coda. This classroom may be in some kind of military academy; there’s a map of Paris on the wall and the boy in the front of the room is in a cadet’s uniform. If he was a real boy, aged perhaps 10 at the time of this picture, he would have been born about 1877, which would make him 37 at the time of the outbreak of World War I. That would have been the prime age to be an officer in the trenches in France, fighting to get Alsace-Lorraine back. Millions of French (and Germans, and Russians, and smaller numbers of British, Americans, and other nationalities) died in that war. Might this boy be thought to represent them?
Bettannier lived to see Alsace-Lorraine returned to France after World War I. He died between the world wars, in 1932. The original of the painting, ironically, is now in Germany, exhibited at the Deutsches Historiches Museum in Berlin.