Panorama de l'Yser
A Panoramic Painting by Alfred Bastien

a Belgian Artist on the Yser Front

Before the main work : 3 panoramic views of the Yser battlefield published in a 1915 British war news weekly



Alfred Bastien during the Great War / a British Magazine Cover with a Drawing by Bastien
Alfred Bastien was a well-known and successful Belgian artist prior to the Great War. He helped complete the succesful 'Panorama du Congo', exhibited at the 1913 Ghent World Fair which was a prequel of sorts to his grand post-war 'Panorama de l'Yser', undoubtedly his most famous and acclaimed work, if not the most artistically accomplished.

After serving in the 'Garde Civique' like many other Belgians Bastien fled to Great Britain after the fall of Antwerp in October 1914 and despite his age (43) volunteered for the Belgian Army. He was eventually transferred to the 'Section Artistique' in Nieuwpoort along with many of his pre-war artist friends and acquaintances. From 1915 onwards, he made many drawings and sketches of the situation on and behind the Belgian lines on the Yser river. The British war-time magazine 'the Illustrated War News', among others, regularly published his work, quite often in distinctive and semi-panoramic, multi-color two-page spreads, of which several are shown above. In 1917, on personal request by Lord Beaverbrook who owned several of Bastien's pre-war paintings, he was seconded to the Canadian Army until September 1918, during which time he produced many works of art specifically related to the Canadian war experience.

After the war, Alfred Bastien painted a grand Panorama of the Yser Front in 19th century tradition, a project which he had been planning since 1914 and which, according to his own telling, had been suggested to him by King Albert in 1914. During his war-time service in the Belgian Army Bastien made many sketches, drawings and photos which were later either incorporated into the Panorama itself or were useful studies in technique and effects. Several of such drawings are shown above. The 'Panorama de l'Yser' painting itself measured 115 meters in length and 14 meters in height and was initially exhibited in Brussels. In the mid 1920s, a permanent building was constructed in Ostend to house the Panorama along with a multitude of props and decor. The intention of moving the Panorama to Ostend was to capture a share of British 'war-tourism', since most British coming to visit relatives' war graves arrived by steamer in Ostend before proceeding to the area of the Ypres Salient. The Panorama opened at Ostend in 1926.

Financially the Panorama was great success, both for Bastien who received a tremendous fee for the painting, for the consortium of businessmen and banks which provided funds and capital and for the city of Ostend which provided real estate and a newly constructed building to house the Panorama. The initial investment was repaid many times over, from entrance fees and from (by modern standards) modest merchandising of postcards and prints. To give a relative idea of the finances involved, the actual cost of the painting materials (oil paint, linnen, brushes etc.) was estimated at around 40 000 BF, the cost to construct the new building at Ostend was 550 000 BF and Bastien's fee itself was set at 350 000 BF. Entrance fees for customers was 3 BF. While on exhibition in Brussels until 1925 it is estimated that more than 800 000 customers visited the Panorama, amongst them many of the crowned heads of Europe, presidents and foreign emperors alike, all to great acclaim by the newsmedia.

Of course in completing a work of such dimensions it is obvious that Bastien could not do all the painting himself. Several of his war-time friends and fellow artists from the 'Section Artistique' participated in this grand project. The intial sketching in of the broad outline in charcoal of the Panorama took about a week's time to complete, while the actual painting and varnishing took one year's time. The Panorama was set up in a circle, with paying spectators having a viewing place in the center. Careful attention was given to the lighting effects and the placement of objects in the forground, in order to create a more believable optical illusion. Many postcards and quality prints in all sizes and colors were made of this early 20th century artistic extravaganza. The scans in this section are from a series of large sized color postcards.

Aside from his most famous 'Panorama de l'Yser', exhibited in Brussels, Bastien also created a smaller sized 'Panorama de la Bataille de la Meuse' in 1937 which showed an amalgam of scenes from the fighting in Namur and the Citadel of Dinant during August 1914. Part of this panorama which depicted the massacre of Belgian civilians in Dinant in August 1914, was deliberately destroyed by German authorities during the 1940-44 occupation.

The 'Panorama de l'Yser' was heavily damaged in 1940 during a bombing raid by British aircraft. The museum was closed during the war years and the painting was exposed to all manner of adverse weather conditions. In 1951 the work was moved into the Royal Army Museum in Brussels where a preliminary restoration was undertaken. Afterwards it was exhibited in the Army Museum until 1980. Subsequently the painting has remained in storage, awaiting further restoration and a definitive destination. It is hoped that a careful restoration and a permenant place of exhibition for the sole remaining Great War Panorama will be a fitting part of centennial celebrations in 2014.

While the intent was to provide spectators with a sense of 'being there' on the Yser Front in person, the depiction of the landscape while extremely realistic in terms of style and detail, was not an actual view that could have been seen at any time during the war. The Panaorama not only depicted various battles and incidents from the Yser Front in Belgium in 1914 and 1915, but the central viewpoint from which spectators viewed the battlefield was also an imaginary place. For nowhere in all of Belgium could all the landscapes and towns and villages and rivers have been seen in real life. Just as cyber artists nowadays create 'virtual realities' that appear to be highly realistic, back in 1920 Belgian artist Alfred Bastien created a virtual reality scene in which he tried to portray all the drama and heroism of the Yser Front in Belgium.

Limited by early 20th century technology, Bastien's only tool was the paintbrush and his imagination, but the resulting work is nonetheless impressive.


*see also Drawings by Alfred Bastien Published in a British War-News Weekly
Comment On Fait un Panorama de Guerre


Exhibition of Bastien's Work

* A reproduction of the 'Panorama de l'Yser' at 1/10th scale is currently on special exhibit until November 11th, 2001 at the Belgian war-museum 'Domein Raversijde', Duinenstraat 147 in Ostend, Belgium. The museum is located on the main coastal road, just outside of Ostend heading southwards and is also easily accessible by the coastal tramway. Open every day from 14:00 til 17:00 hours and in July and August from 10:30 till 18:00. Tel : 059 70 22 85 for information. Other works by Alfred Bastien are exhibited as well.

downscaled montage in 2 parts of the panorama


Panorama of the Battle of the Yser

part 1



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