Pierre Comba was born in Nice on the 1st September 1859 and died on the 29th July 1934. He came from a well-known family of painters and was the nephew of Joseph Fricero (1807-1870). Joseph was an excellent artist who went to Spain and North Africa and was an official portrait painter to the Russian court.
Pierre owed his beginnings to his father, Pierre-Paul Comba (1834-1872) who became one of the artists working for the court of Piémont-Sardaigne. Pierre-Paul also fought with the French army in Northern Italy and witnessed the battles of Palestro, Magenta and Solférino in 1859. Pierre attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and studied with Leon Gerome (1824-1904) who nurtured many talented artists. He was called to serve his country and took part in the Tunisian campaign where he won the Médaille Militaire and his name appeared in several dispatches. The influence of his father and Pierre’s own military career, certainly influenced his decision to specialise in military paintings. He was sent as a painter to the Geographic Service, map section of the War Ministry and was appointed on the 11th September 1883 as an auxiliary. On the 30th June 1885, Pierre became a reservist in the active army and was appointed to the 20th Section, Staff Headquarters, as a Corporal. His CV is full of compliments, “a talented watercolourist, draws well and works fast and is excellent at landscape paintings. His colours are remarkable and he can also use oils and produces lithographs.” It was noted that he could speak and write Italian. It was reported that he painted some eighty-six different military types, of which only twelve have been found. They all carried an identification mark and a stamp, for instance “soldier of the Service Corps. in combat gear.”
Pierre’s health forced him to resign from the army and he went back to live in Nice where he produced landscapes and local scenes which were very popular with visitors to the area. But he kept a deep interest in anything military, in particular, he was able to describe the life of Alpine infantrymen and ordinary infantry troops. He followed them in the mountains around Nice and his watercolours were so vivid that he was nicknamed “the Blue Devils’ painter” - (Les Diables Bleus). These fine and precise drawings showed detailed locations with positions perfectly observed and superb colours used to portray the Mediterranean landscape. He became famous in a region where the majority of the recruits in the Alpine regiments were local people and where Nice was the main garrison for Alpine infantry. He was a symbol of the region. Indeed, at the time of the Great War, his watercolours were being reproduced as postcards to the glory of the Blue Devils. Pierre received commissions to produce patriotic scenes - a well-known example was reproduced on a postcard representing the soldier’s day in Nice (dated 27th February 1916) showing a young woman from Nice wearing the local costume and kissing a soldier ! He added local touches to cards showing photographic mountains to the glory of the Blue Devils and produced the cover for a song book entitled “The Song of the Alpine Infantrymen.” He contributed to the “Military Yearbook” of Roger de Beauvois and to several other works showing the heroic story of the Alpine infantrymen. As a painter for the War Ministry, Pierre witnessed the fights on the Eastern Front and brought back scenes either moving or patriotic such as “The Capture of Reichakerfopf” in Alsace. However, Alpine infantrymen were not his only speciality - he showed great interest in the infantry troops painted in watercolours on manoeuvres or in the field. The precision of his drawing of uniforms and arms is such that they are an invaluable document for studying the period. A poster was produced around 1912 which showed a landscape of Nice with the addition of a girl from Nice wearing the local costume. It was bought by the Tourist Office and became a tremendous success. Many infantrymen from Nice carried copies of it in their packs during the Great War and it could be found in numerous barracks, not only in the region but also as far North as the “cagna” (stone shelters) of the Verdun Front. This poster stayed famous even after the Armistice and the death of Pierre Comba in 1934.
Pierre was a member of the Society of Military Painters and of the French Alpine Club and he was a recipient of the Palmes Académiques (an honour from the French government for outstanding achievements in the Arts or Literature). He was also deeply involved in charities dealing with soldiers in Nice and in the region (Alpes-Maritimes).
I am indebted to Luc Thévenon of the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Nice, for facts concerning Pierre Comba and Frédéric Lacaille of the Musée de l’Armee, Paris, for his notes on French war artists. Some of this information was obtained from their lectures given to the Association Internationale des Musées d’Armes et d’Histoire Militaire at the Musée de l’Armée in Paris (16th-18th November 1998).