The widow of a soldier who has fallen in the Franco-Prussian war is absorbed in painful recollections before an altar in Dinan Cathedral, at the foot of which she has deposited a wreath of immortelles as a sign of eternal remembrance. Her little child turns smilingly towards an old wounded soldier, a comrade, perhaps, of the father. It has been suggested that Ward could have been alluding to the venerable veterans in the equally famous works by David Wilkie (Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo, 1822) and Hubert von Herkomer (The Last Muster, 1875).
Victorian audiences would have been familiar with the stages of mourning, both private and public, which were practised by the majority of families, led by Queen Victoria herself who wore black for the rest of her life after Albert's death in 1861. Mourning, for the Victorian widow, would usually last two and a half years. Within this mourning were four distinct stages though in the later part of the Victorian era, three stages were more common. The first and deepest period of mourning lasted on average of a year and a day. Dresses were to be two pieces consisting of a bodice and a skirt. The poor made a dress out of cotton, or even dyed an existing dress black. A middle-class woman would have chosen a black wool, cotton or even silk dress. An upper-class woman would have had the latest fashion made up plainly in silk or wool. A woman in the deepest stage of mourning was also required to wear a long crepe veil that came down to her waist or knees as well as a crepe covered bonnet, and crepe trimmings on the dress. In this stage of mourning women were even required to wear some form of a widow's cap (asseen in our picture). The caps were usually made of white crepe.
The Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) occurred as a result of French aspirations for prestige and Bismarck's desire to unify Germany under Prussian leadership. The immediate cause for hostilities was an effort by Bismarck to secure the Spanish throne for his candidate. Surround on both sides by hostile neighbours, this naturally threatened France. Bismarck further infuriated France with a provocative message known as 'The Ems Telegram'. Upon receipt of which Napoleon III, the French emperor, declared war. Within four weeks the Germans under the leadership of General Helmuth von Moltke encircled the French army in Metz. After Napoleon III was taken prisoner, a republican army continued to fight until January 1871 when Paris capitulated. As a result of the war King William I of Prussia was proclaimed German emperor, French prestige declined, and a period of forty years of unstable peace between the major powers of Europe ensued.
Ward is best known for his scenes of the life of Marie-Antoinette and the French Revolution with which he was preoccupied during the 1850s until the 1870s. He also painted many popular historical genre scenes such as the present work. Born in Pimlico, the son of a banker, Ward was encouraged in his artistic studies by Chantrey and Wilkie, who sponsored his admission to the R.A. schools in 1835. From 1836 to 1839 he studied in Rome, where he gained the silver medal of the Academy of St Luke for historical composition; he visited Paris on the way out, and on the way back he stopped for some months in Munich to learn the art of fresco painting from Cornelius. This stood him in good stead when he returned to London (where he was associated with Richard Dadd and other members of 'The Clique') and entered the Westminster Hall competitions. His cartoon of Boadicea was commended in 1843, and in 1852 he was commissioned to paint eight subjects from English eighteenth-century history in the corridor of the House of Commons. His easel paintings, which he exhibited regularly and to great acclaim at the Royal Academy, the British Institution and Suffolk Street, were also concerned almost exclusively with English seventeenth and eighteenth-century history, the French Revolution and Napoleon, or such authors of the period as Goldsmith and Molière. His interest in French history is in keeping with his style. Although he was far from unique among English artists in his taste for historical genre, he is closer to a painter like Delaroche in France, and it is significant that he enjoyed an international training, including some weeks in Paris. An attractive and much loved character, Ward committed suicide in a fit of depression caused by the illness which clouded his last years. His studio sale was held at Christie's on 29 March 1879, and he is well represented in the Tate and Victoria and Albert Museums, London.