Horace Vernet: French Painter of the 1800s

Horace Vernet was a French painter of battles, portraits, and Orientalist subjects. He came from three generations of Vernets who were associated prominently with art. For instance, his great-grand father had a reputation as an artist far beyond where he lived. His grandfather, Claude Joseph Vernet, went to Rome to study landscape designers and maritime painters and was well-known by English aristocrats on the Grand Tour. Horace’s father Antoine Charles, usually called Carle, painted horses and battle scenes and later scenes that glorified Napoleon Bonaparte.

Horace Vernet

Horace Vernet thought to be around 1826. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Émile Jean-Horace Vernet was born in his grandfather’s apartment in the Louvre on 30 June 1789 to a mother that also came from an artistic family being the daughter of a designer of vignettes, Jean Michale Moreau. Because Horace was born just as the French Revolution broke out, the revolution played a large part in his early childhood. For instance, when he was three he saw Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette face the mob of 10 August when they stormed the Tuileries Palace. As the Louvre was next to the palace, Horace and his family were involved:

“Carried by his father [Carle] across the courtyard of the Tuileries, little Horace had his first experience of war in the bullets that fell around him.”[1]

It was a trying time and Carle was shocked by the actions of his countrymen. If he could have fled Paris with his family he would have taken his beautiful and accomplished sister. He could not but his sister’s husband, who was the Duke of Provenance’s architect, did flee. She then got arrested for her husband’s fidelity to the monarchy and sentenced to death. Carle appealed to the famous artist Jacques-Louis David thinking that he might plead his sister’s case, but David refused to utter a word and unfortunately Carle’s sister was guillotined.

Despite the death of his aunt and the cruelties he saw, Horace Vernet was described as a happy boy who had many friends. Before he was eight years old, he also showed a “precocity of genius” and could often be found in the company of his father at the Café Foy. This was a spot where artists tended to rendezvous and share stories. One story about Horace during this time follows:

“Upon one occasion, when a number of his father’s acquaintances had been passing a merry evening, a champagne-cork hastily drawn struck against the newly-decorated ceiling. The proprietor of the café was sadly bemoaning the damage, when Horace, seizing a palette and brush which lay upon a table nearby, and mounting a pair of steps left by the workmen, exclaims that he would soon remedy it. In a very short time, he had sketched and painted in a flying swallow, which entirely concealed the stain.”[2]

Like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, Horace Vernet became an acknowledged artist after completing his schooling at Collége des Quatre Nations. In fact, by the age of thirteen he found people placing orders with him. Thus, he could support himself as his “drawings sold for six francs apiece, and his small paintings realized twenty.”[3]

Horace Vernet painted with lightning speed and was therefore a prolific painter. Some critics thought that showed he was unintelligent while others marveled at the speed of his painting and thought just the opposite. One French art critic, Jean Baptiste Gustave Planche, was amazed at his swiftness when painting and likened Horace’s “brush to a machine.”[4]

Besides being a prolific artist, Horace Vernet was also said to be able to paint someone from memory after getting a good look at them. This was a trait that the famous wax sculptor Madame Tussaud also developed and used to create some of her wax figures. Horace reputedly studied objects intensely but briefly and could easily master the detail and keep it in his memory. “For instance, wishing to paint the skin of an ox just slain, he studied it carefully for a few moments, then went back to his canvas and completed it in a short time, with all its peculiarities of local color.”[5]

Horace Vernet

Horace Vernet, self-portrait with pipe, 1835. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As Horace Vernet grew, he came to embrace a disdain for the high-minded seriousness of academic works that were taken mostly from contemporary life. Thus, during his early career, when Napoleon was in power, Horace began to depict the ordinary French soldier in a realistic manner rather than in David’s idealized fashion. Of Horace’s paintings it was reported:

“The soldier of the Empire was to be seen in every possible attitude, in every conceivable situation. He was pictured in the garrison, on the field, in the bivouac, or review, before or after the fray. Every rank had its representative; infantry, cavalry, artillery, in turn claimed attention, or passed in review before the sharp of the ‘Little Corporal,’ as, in grey paletot or green uniform, he bent his eagle eye upon his beloved troops.”[6]

Despite realistic settings and images of ordinary soldiers performing their duties, Horace Vernet’s critics abound. They condemned his works claiming he had no style and was not creative. Yet, that is not how the public felt. They could not be dissuaded them from liking Horace’s paintings and remarked how they were filled with interesting and meticulous details.

“But people in general, of simple enough taste in matter of folds of drapery or classic laws of composition or antique lines of beauty, saw before them with all the varied sentiments of admiration, terror, or dismay, the soldier mounting the breach at the cannon’s mouth, or the general, covered with orders, cut short in the midst of his fame. Little of the romantic, little of poetical idealization, little of far-fetch style was there on these canvasses, but the crowd recognized the soldier as they saw him daily, in the midst of the scenes which the bulleting of the army or the page of the historian had just narrated to them. They were content, they were full of admiration, they admired the pictures, they admired the artist.”[7]

Among some of Horace’s portraits that depicted the ordinary and everyday French soldier going about military life are the “The Last Grenadier of Waterloo,” “Death of Poniatowski,” and “The Trumpeter’s Horse.” There is also “Dog of the Regiment,” considered to be one of Horace’s most popular works. It shows two Empire period soldiers, a bugler of the voltigeurs and a drummer of the grenadiers de la ligne, aiding a wounded dog.

Horace Vernet - the Dog of the Regiment

The “Dog of the Regiment” by Horace Vernet. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although Horace Vernet may have painted battle scenes and war images there were plenty of stories about his “kindness of heart.” He was supposedly “extremely sensitive” and could not bear suffering of any kind. This was demonstrated when a sham fight was set up near Smyrna to help give him an idea for a painting and two artillerymen were wounded. He wrote to his wife stating:

“In spite of my warlike enthusiasm, my heart is heavy. Imagine that two of the artillerymen have had their arms carried away! They say such a thing happens at every maneuver of the kind! … All that I would fain have written to you has escaped me; I can think of nothing but these poor wretches!”[8]

During the Bourbon Restoration (from 6 April 1814 until the popular uprisings of the July Revolution of 1830) Horace gained recognition for a series of battle paintings that the Duke d’Orléans commissioned him to complete. When the Duke then became King Louis-Philippe I during the July Monarchy, Horace Vernet became linked to the bourgeois “citizen king” and was then viewed as an “industrial painter” because of Louis-Philippe’s “decision to construct two railroad lines between the historical museum and Paris.”[9] This was a problem for Horace because, according to Katie Hornstein, a specialist of nineteenth-century French art and visual culture:

“[C]ritics viewed the production of battle painting during the July Monarchy as an almost factory-based mode of production, devoid of artistic inspiration … [because] the production of battle paintings came to stand in from a nefarious form of material excess spurred by official patronage.”[10]

This painting, the Battle of Hanau, is the third in a group of four battle scenes commissioned by the Duke d’Orléans created by Horace Vernet. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Horace Vernet also apparently decided to take advantage of the economic opportunities afforded by Louis Philippe’s railroad. He became a shareholder in it. In fact, it was reported that he benefited quite nicely because “in 1837 and 1838 he made a tidy sum — 3,084.75 francs — from his investment in the railroad.”[11]

When Algeria was invaded and occupied by French troops in the 1830s, it afforded Horace Vernet an opportunity to exhibit his works. A whole gallery at the Palace of Versailles, called the Constantine Gallery, was set apart for him and because of his prolific painting style he filled it in the short space of three years. Among some of the works included in the gallery were “The Occupation of Ancona by the French Troops,” “Attack of the Citadel of Antwerp,” “The French Fleet Forces the Entry of the Tagus,” “Taking of Bone,” “Taking of Bougie,” and “Combat before Somah.”

Combat Before Somah. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was not just those paintings that were dazzling to the viewers. There was also the panoramic triptych that measured 68 feet x 17 feet titled “Siege of Constantine” and the even larger “Capture of the Smalah” that measured 70 feet x 16 feet. Art critics at the time praised these works even though the size of a painting was supposed to be proportionate to the importance of the event.

“Capture of the Smalah” by Horace Vernet. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After the fall of the July Monarchy during the Revolution of 1848, Horace Vernet discovered a new patron in Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III of France. Horace continued to paint the French Army and to depict them in realistic ways and in true-to-life settings. In fact, he had been noted for years to produce paintings of historical accuracy and according to Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-room Companion, he would not alter his paintings no matter who asked him:

“As a proof of his independence, it is on record that when Louis Napoleon desired him to alter a picture of a military review, leaving out a certain general who was obnoxious to the French emperor, Vernet refused to do it. ‘I am a painter of history, sire,’ was his noble reply, ‘and I will not violate the truth.’”[12]

Horace’s desire for historical accuracy is also associated with another interesting anecdote:

“Wishing to obtain, for an old brigadier of Gendarmerie, whose acquaintance he had made in Algeria, the cross of the Legion of Honour, he represented him in his painting of the Smalah with the decoration on his breast. When the King came to see the picture, Vernet said: ‘I have put the cross on that old soldier of the Empire, but it appears that he has not got it; I must, therefore, take it off.’ ‘Do nothing of the kind, Horace,’ said the King, ‘I’ll give it to him.’”[13]

In 1853, a new method of painting was said to have been discovered and employed by Horace. Of this new method the Fife Herald reported:

“It consists in mixing the colours with olive oil. When the picture is painted the back of the canvass is covered with a coating of fuller’s earth, which draws the oil through and absorbs it entirely. The painting is thus reduced to the nature of a paste. The fuller’s earth is then removed from the canvass, and a coat of linseed oil is applied, always at the back; the colours, in their turn, imbibe this oil, and all the mellowed tones of the old masters are obtained.”[14]

Horace Vernet

Drawing of Horace Vernet from a self-portrait. Author’s collection.

Another story about Horace Vernet has nothing to do with his artistic abilities. It happened when he was traveling in a carriage with two English spinsters that can only be described as very “prudish” and very “prim.” According to the Birmingham Journal:

“Vernet’s appearance was striking, and the ladies, after scanning him attentively whenever they thought he was looking the other way, began to communicate to one another their observations upon him in a rather loud whisper, thinking, apparently, that as they spoke … [English] they were at liberty to make what comments they pleased. The veteran painter was intensely amused but was too much of a man … to manifest the slightest consciousness of what was going on. It was not long before the train had to pass through a tunnel. Vernet seizing the opportunity, leaned forward, so as to be within hearing of his neighbours, and applied a smacking salute to the back of his hand. On emerging from the temporary obscurity, his face had assumed a mischievous expression, which, as he intended, was soon interpreted by each lady to the prejudice of the other, each charging each with having received from the moustachioed stranger the mysterious kiss in the dark. … At the terminus, as all were alighting, Vernet offered his hand to help his fellow-travellers out of the carriage, and then, with a graceful bow, took leave of them saying … in perfectly correct English, ‘Adieu ladies; I suppose I shall never have the satisfaction of knowing to which of you I am indebted for the unexpected but valued favour I received in the tunnel.’”[15]

Horace married a woman named Louise and together they had a daughter also named Louise. She married Paul Delaroche in 1835. They never had any children but Delaroche’s love for Horace’s daughter Louise was said to be an all-consuming passion. Thus, when she died at the age of 31 in 1845 after a lingering illness, he never recovered from the shock of her death. Her father Horace was also said to have suffered “gloom and depression” and was so overwhelmed with grief at the loss he developed a “distaste” for painting for a time.

Sketch of Horace Vernet’s daughter Louise created by her husband Paul Delaroche on her death bed. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

During Horace Vernet’s lifetime he received numerous accolades. He earned a first class medal when he was 22 and became a chevalier or Knight of the Legion of Honor at 25. He was made a member of the Institute when he was 36 and when he was 38, he became the director of the French Academy in Rome. In 1855, he received a medal of honor at the Exposition Universelle, an event held in Paris on the Champs-Élysées from 15 May to 15 November 1855.

At the time of his death, on 17 January 1863 at the age of 73 Horace Vernet was France’s most famous artist. He died after suffering a painful illness for several months. The Birmingham Daily Post reported on his death stating:

“[T]here have been many greater painters in the world; there have been few who more perfectly achieved the task which they set themselves to do. Gifted with rare natural genius, [Horace Vernet] did not shrink from the labour which was requisite to develop it.”[16]  

References:

  • [1] J. E. Ruutz-Rees, Horace Vernet and Paul Delaroche (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1880), p. 4.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 4–5.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 5.
  • [4] K. Hornstein, Picturing War in France, 1792-1856 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), p. 101.
  • [5] B. Champney, Sixty Years’ Memories of Art and Artists (Woburn: News Print. Wallace & Andrews, 1900), p. 175.
  • [6] J. E. Ruutz-Rees. 1880, p. 8.
  • [7] Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine v. 12 (Boston: Elliott, Thomes & Talbot, 1860), p. 18.
  • [8] J. E. Ruutz-Rees. p. 39.
  • [9] K. Hornstein. p. 100.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 101.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 100.
  • [12] Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-room Companion 12 (Boston, 1857), p. 125.
  • [13] J. E. Ruutz-Rees, p. 40.
  • [14] Fife Herald, “Discovery in Painting,” October 27, 1853, p. 4.
  • [15] Birmingham Journal, “Anecdotes of Horace Vernet,” October 17, 1868, p. 10.
  • [16] Birmingham Daily Post, “Death of Horace Vernet,” January 20, 1863, p. 3.

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