Arthur Nantel’s war art captures life as a PoW during World War I. Christmas Eve in Geissen Camp.
Arthur Nantel began his career as a commercial artist in his home town of Montreal, and although he had no formal training he spent a lifetime earning a living in the arts. This talent helped him make it through the dark years of World War I.
In August 1914, at age 41, he enlisted with the 14th Royal Montreal Battalion. He first saw action at Ypres, Belgium, in April 1915, during the Battle of St. Julien. He was captured there and spent the remainder of the war at Giessen, a German prisoner of war camp.
For the first few years, Nantel’s captors saw him as a valuable commodity, exploiting him at every opportunity. He and a few other talented PoWs were given a small hut that they nicknamed Giessen Studio. “I sat at my easel, trying to earn the value of a piece of wurst (sausage) to assuage my voracious appetite…. Distinguished officers vied with each other in their efforts to have the monopoly of selling my works at a profit of 7,000 per cent.”
In 1917 he helped design a monument for the men who died in captivity at Giessen, but that same year there was a change in command at the camp and Giessen Studio was shut down. Nantel ground out the remainder of the war in hard labour. His last seven months of internment were spent slaving in a mine.
The art from his days at the studio reflects his French Canadian roots. In spite of the misery of his position many of his works are filled with colour and joie de vivre. Those lively paintings have a folk art quality to them. The artist describes one delightful painting of Christmas Eve, 1916. “The evening jollification, which began with fairly orthodox dancing, gradually became a wild farandole (a communal dance) in and around the chimneys of the hut.”
The years in a PoW camp sharpened his artistic skills and after the war Nantel moved to New York where he worked as an illustrator for United Artists Studios, the motion picture company. In the 1930s he worked as a freelance illustrator. Nantel died in 1948, but he left behind a rare glimpse into the life of a WW I PoW.
Today, 31 of his works reside at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
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On the Way to Roulers and Captivity.
Every Day in the Week, 6 A.M. Geissen.