1860 - 1908
Portrait of a Cantinière

Oil on canvas, signed and dated Paris ’92 upper left
Image size: 12 3/4 x 16 inches (32 x 41 cm)

Paris Salon 1892

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This is a head and shoulders portrait of a Cantinière from the Franco-Russian War, wearing a chequered headscarf and medals. This elderly woman undoubtedly had an considerable career as a Cantinière, as shown by her extensive collection of medals that have been clearly depicted by the artist. The series of medals include the Louis-Napoleon Medal of Valour (first on the left), the First Empire of France Legion of Honour (second on the left), the Crimean medal (third from the left with yellow trimmed blue ribbon) and the Geneva Red Cross medal from the Franco-Prussian War (furthest right).

A Cantinière, or Vivandière, was the French title for women attached to military units. An often overlooked part of women’s and military history, while they were not sanctioned to do any fighting, there are countless reports of many women who did. The Cantinière tradition began in the French Army regiments during the early 18th century. The French army was almost unique in Europe in continuing to employ in the 19th century such women to provide food and drink, and sometimes more, to the troops of campaign.

During the Second Empire the Cantinière achieved a popular, if romanticised, image as a virtual icon of the French military. Napoleon III doubled their numbers in 1854, and they served alongside their units in every campaign of the Second Empire.

In the Frano-Prussian war the Cantinières served in the Fédérés troops, each battalion containing four Cantinières. Their primary role was food supply and nursing, often providing medical care by risking their own life. But it was also a way for some women to get into the army and take part in the fighting. It is hard to quantify how many women enrolled and took part in combat; what we know is that women’s names were often present in the list of soldiers killed in action.

The Artist
Valborg Dubois-Olsen was a Norwegian artist who was born on the 16th February 1860 in Christiania (modern day Oslo), but grew up in Fredrikshald. Olsen first trained at Christiania at Knud Bergslein’s private school, then going on to continue her education in the late 1880s in France. Olsen studied under important artists of the day such as Jules Lefebvre, Gustave Boulanger and Tony Robert-Fleury at the Académie Julian. We have to remember this was at a time, when female artists had to fight to be recognised and taking seriously. 

She received her education in Paris at this time. In 1887 she exhibited at the Autumn Exhibition in Christiania and at the Salon in Paris. Olsen participated in the World Exhibition in Paris in 1889 with a self-portrait in pastel. The last time she exhibited at the Autumn Exhibition was in 1890. She married a Mr Dubois in France in 1889. In 1892 she exhibited for the last time at the Salon, under the name Dubois-Olsen, where our painting was more than likely exhibited.

She painted portraits, landscapes and genre pictures in oil and pastel. Presumably she returned to Fredrikshald, where she died in 1908.