Portraits of Guynemer

Portraits of Guynemer

  • Posthumous portrait of Guynemer.

    LAWRENCE J. Cousin

  • Aviator Captain Guynemer.

    ZO Henri Achille (1873 - 1933)

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Title: Posthumous portrait of Guynemer.

Author : LAWRENCE J. Cousin (-)

Creation date : 1918

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 100 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage place: Army Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Paris - Army Museum, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais

Picture reference: 552 C; Ea 2093 / 06-528431

Posthumous portrait of Guynemer.

© Paris - Army Museum, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais

To close

Title: Aviator Captain Guynemer.

Author : ZO Henri Achille (1873 - 1933)

Creation date : 1918

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 196 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.Hauror: 196 cm

Storage place: Army Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Paris - Army Museum, Dist. RMN-Grand Palaissite web

Picture reference: 34 T; Call number Ea 2095.1 / 06-528003

Aviator Captain Guynemer.

© Paris - Army Museum, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

Painting the war and the soldiers in 1914-1918

During the First World War, French artists were widely mobilized for the "defense of the fatherland". If they sometimes find in this unprecedented situation subjects and a context favorable to technical or aesthetic innovations, they can also opt for a certain classicism, put aside their particularities to concentrate on the translation of a reality quite extraordinary to achieve nothing. add to it, as well as on the message to be transmitted.

The most prominent are photographers, illustrators and cartoonists, who work with the press and the military, and whose practices lead to more work being produced, keeping pace with the daily pace of the conflict. A great commemorative movement seized the whole country after the end of the war, which, like the many war memorials, gave a tribute to these military portraits.

Image Analysis

Faces of Guynemer

Aviator Captain Guynemer is an oil painting signed Henri Achille Zo (1873-1933) and dating from 1918. The canvas, which respects the real proportions (it is nearly two meters high), is a posthumous portrait of Guynemer posing in front of another canvas. Seen up to mid-calves, the aviator stands upright in his dark blue uniform marked with the captain's attributes (the cap, the two side bands on the deep red pants and the triangular symbol visible on the sleeve) and that of the air force (winged badge on the sleeve at the top which is perhaps also that of the pilot's license). The exceptional decorations obtained by Guynemer are hung on his chest: the Military Medal (in the center, round with the gold ribbon), the officer's cross of the Legion of Honor (on the left, with the red ribbon) and the Croix de guerre (right). A very thin mustache barely ages the face of the young pilot (he died at 22). He wears here a dignified and martial air, the glance dark, determined and deep. Behind him appears an allegorical canvas of the classical type representing a winged Victory which occupies the entire background. Dressed in the antique and covered with armor, she wears the traditional laurel wreath (symbol of victory) and holds a sword (in her right hand) and laurel branches. Majestic, her face almost masculine and very severe, she seems to envelop the puny captain with all her winged wingspan.

Posthumous portrait of Guynemer is a canvas by J. Cousin Lawrence also dating from 1918. This is also an oil painting, but here the artist has used the technique very differently, opting for a lighter line, less pronounced and brighter colors. This bust portrait gains a certain modernity that brings it closer to illustration. The captain appears in a pilot's outfit (jacket with a fur collar, aviator's hat and glasses), leaning over the front part of his plane (whose proportions are not respected, since it is quite small). We recognize his rather youthful face and his mustache. He gazes into the horizon, determined and focused, ready for adventure and battle.


The hero Guynemer, between academism and modernity

Both canvases represent Georges Guynemer, the most famous and honored French pilot of the First War. Born in 1894, he was refused in 1914 by the army, which considered him too puny and too fragile. He then decided to enter aviation where he distinguished himself with fifty-three victories. Promoted captain and decorated with the highest distinctions, he died in combat on September 11, 1917 and found his place in October 1917 in the Pantheon, as "a symbol of the aspirations and enthusiasm of the nation's army".

It is therefore a symbol of the courage of French youth (he wants to fight despite everything), a very famous legend (his exploits have been widely reported by the press) and a myth (the “great man” who rests in the Pantheon at 22 years) that Zo and Lawrence are dealing with here. Paying homage to such a renowned hero, they actually reach a very wide audience. But these portraits being posthumous, their canvases already represent an idealized image fixed in the imaginations (the face, young, determined and beautiful, of the pilot) rather than a real character and posing for them.

If in 1918 the two artists exalt the heroism of Guynemer and thereby the victory (to come or just achieved) of the army and the nation, they do it differently.

Zo is fully in line with the solemn academicism specific to the genre of military portraiture, from which he takes up the codes (standing model, uniform, decorations, straight gaze), even abandoning his personal style (more colorful and more impressionistic) for a more conventional. He redoubles the reference to a certain classicism with the Victory, a very traditional theme, which he chooses as a background for his canvas. This mise en abyme makes it possible to multiply the symbols (Victory, Strength, the Republic draped in their ancient virtue are thus doubly associated with Guynemer), but it could also signal a slight deviation from the agreed exercise. From an aesthetic point of view, Zo inscribes his painting in the history of classical painting (Victory, the theme of the great French painters) the better, perhaps, to stand out from it. More fundamentally, the inscription (in abyss) of the modern legend in the classical legend would mark both an assimilation and its limit, emphasizing their distinction. Perhaps this is why the artist highlights the puny aspect and the rather gentle air (opposed to those of the goddess) of the pilot, who seems at the same time enveloped, charged and elevated by the duty of victory, the past, the tradition and the values ​​of the nation, of which he made himself worthy at the cost of his life.

If the modernity of the hero Guynemer appears hollow in the treatment of Zo, it is more evident in the portrait of Lawrence. Close to illustration, the technique here recalls the images that appeared in certain periodicals. Presented as a pilot rather than a soldier (no sign or element relating to the army), Guynemer is here as much a modern day adventurer as a soldier. This perspective fits with the way combat aviation is increasingly portrayed during and after conflict, where young heroes no longer pose exactly like the old ones.

  • aviation
  • heroic figure
  • War of 14-18


Henry BORDEAUX, Heroic Life of Guynemer, the Air Knight, Paris, Plon, 1918.Philippe CONTAMINE, “Mourir pour la patrie” in Pierre NORA (dir.) Memorial place, volume II, "The nation", Paris, Gallimard, 1988. Bernard MARK, Aviation history, Paris, Flammarion, 2001. Pierre VALLAUD, 14-18, the first world war, Paris, Fayard, 2004.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, “Portraits of Guynemer”

Video: Georges Guynemer presented with award 1917