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Horace Vernet and the Thresholds of Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture

Horace Vernet and the Thresholds of Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture

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Horace Vernet and the Thresholds of Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture

498 pages
6 heures
Mar 7, 2017


This collection reconsiders the life and work of Emile Jean-Horace Vernet (1789–1863), presenting him as a crucial figure for understanding the visual culture of modernity. The book includes work by senior and emerging scholars, showing that Vernet was a multifaceted artist who moved with ease across the thresholds of genre and media to cultivate an image of himself as the embodiment of modern France. In tune with his times, skilled at using modern technologies of visual reproduction to advance his reputation, Vernet appealed to patrons from across the political spectrum and made works that nineteenth-century audiences adored. Even Baudelaire, who reviled Vernet and his art and whose judgment has played a significant role in consigning Vernet to art-historical obscurity, acknowledged that the artist was the most complete representative of his age. For those with an interest in the intersection of art and modern media, politics, imperialism, and fashion, the essays in this volume offer a rich reward.
Mar 7, 2017

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Horace Vernet and the Thresholds of Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture - Dartmouth College Press




In his essay Salon of 1846, Charles Baudelaire scathingly characterized Horace Vernet’s paintings as a sort of agile and frequent masturbation, an irritation on the French epidermis.¹ Ironically, given Baudelaire’s general contention that Vernet’s works were cold and passionless, the language the writer used in the Salon of 1846 and elsewhere to express his disdain is characterized by excess: Baudelaire hates Vernet and describes the experience of looking at one of his pictures as painful.² Vernet’s use of color is detestable; he is the absolute antithesis of an artist; and the accumulation of incidents in his pictures is parasitic.³ Obsessive masturbation, epidermal irritation, pain, parasites: Baudelaire deploys the imagery of sexual dysfunction and venereal disease, as if Vernet’s work were not only bad, but also a threat to the viewer’s physical integrity, an assault on the body’s boundaries, a sign of its potential undoing.

This kind of visceral response to Vernet’s painting was by no means confined to Baudelaire: it can be encountered again and again in commentary on the artist in the nineteenth century and afterward. In a review of the most substantial exhibition of Vernet’s work to have taken place since the nineteenth century—the 1980 exhibition organized by the French Academy in Rome and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris—Neil MacGregor recoiled in disgust: Horace Vernet, he wrote, encapsulates everything one dislikes about the French nineteenth century and has lingered in the European consciousness like the memory of rancid butter at the back of the mouth.⁴ This negative assessment of Vernet helps to explain the dearth of monographs and museum exhibitions devoted to him. Beyond the lack of publications, his important large-scale works are generally kept in storage or are inaccessible. Vernet’s most ambitious paintings, including the monumental Capture of the Smalah of Abd-el-Kader (1845) (plates 11 and 12), the Siege of Constantine (1839) (plate 10), and the Battle of Isly (1846), remain hidden behind temporary walls within the galleries of the Château de Versailles, so that temporary exhibitions can be installed in the spacious interiors designed in the nineteenth century as part of King Louis-Philippe’s Musée de l’histoire de France. Unsuspecting visitors to the exhibition of the Napoleonic battle painter Louis-François Lejeune in 2012 had no way of knowing that the work of the nineteenth century’s most prolific battle painter lay hidden from view (fig. I.1), materially repressed, we might say, only a few feet away. Judging from this state of affairs, it would seem that Baudelaire’s and others’ critical assessments of Vernet have, for the most part, been accepted as conventional wisdom. However, the contemporary unavailability of Vernet’s seminal battle paintings stands in stark contrast to their importance in postrevolutionary France, when they participated in a movement among a new generation of French painters to challenge the Davidian model of classicism through the embrace of subjects taken from contemporary life. In his review of the Salon of 1824, Stendhal singled out one of Vernet’s early battle paintings, the Battle of Montmirail (1822) (fig. I.2, plate 6), as the emblem of a new Romantic tendency in painting: What is romantic in painting, he stated, "is the Battle of Montmirail, this masterpiece of Horace Vernet . . . The romantic in all the arts, is who represents the men of today, and not those of heroic times so far removed from us, and who probably never existed."⁵

The present volume opens Vernet’s rich practice to new forms of scholarly inquiry. More than a reassessment of his art or a naïve attempt to rehabilitate his reputation, this collection of essays places his works back at the center of some of the larger artistic and cultural debates of the nineteenth century. We contend that Vernet’s value to the study of art’s histories lies in part in his status as a threshold figure through which the very idea of modern art could be parsed and defined. Instead of viewing the critical attacks on Vernet’s works from Baudelaire onward as evidence of a bad artist, we understand them as rich discursive ground for interrogating the value systems upon which the study of painterly modernism has been founded. Horace Vernet is more than an irritating contagion within Baudelaire’s idea of modernity: he stands at the very threshold of what, according to Baudelaire, modern art should not dare to be.

Baudelaire’s discussion of the artist in the Salon of 1846 is his most substantial; and among the criticisms, we find a curious—and curiously displaced—moment of affirmation of Vernet’s significance. Baudelaire recounted how he was making fun of some Germans for their taste for the vaudevillist Eugène Scribe and Horace Vernet. They answered: We have a deep admiration for Horace Vernet as being the most complete representative of his age.Well said, Baudelaire responded, sarcastically we assume. Nevertheless, this thought seems to have stayed with him, for it emerged again in The Painter of Modern Life, an essay published in a newspaper in 1863, the year of Vernet’s death. In the section The Annals of War, which links Constantin Guys’s war images to the modernity of his eye, Baudelaire included a parenthetical comment on Vernet. Having stated that most renowned painters would have stupidly overlooked the details of military campaigns that Guys (and the writer) find compelling, Baudelaire says: "I would, however, make an exception for M. Horace Vernet, a veritable journalist [gazetier] rather than the essence of a painter, with whom Monsieur G., a more delicate artist, has visible similarities, but only if you consider him as an archivist of life.⁷ Vernet—the object of Baudelaire’s contempt—has visible similarities" with Constantin Guys, the heroic seeker and maker of modernity, the artist-flâneur, whose mythic image continues to permeate narratives of nineteenth-century French art. Baudelaire saved himself from mental implosion by separating Vernet from the category of artist: he’s a journalist rather than the essence of a painter. The separation is, however, extremely tenuous: Vernet is a painter but not essentially a painter; perhaps he is an artist, but just not as subtle as Guys. With the mention of Vernet, Baudelaire’s defenses are in danger of being breached. The affinities between Guys and Vernet must have been palpable enough to Baudelaire that he found it necessary to erect a boundary between them and to defend the higher realm of art against visual practices that he understood to be beyond its limits.

I.1. Installation shot of the Galerie de la Smalah. Horace Vernet, Capture of the Smalah of Abd-el-Kader by the duc d’Aumale at Taguin, 16 May 1843, 1845, Versailles. Photo: Katie Hornstein.

I.2. Horace Vernet, The Battle of Montmirail, 1822. Oil on canvas, 178 × 290 cm, National Gallery, London. Photo: © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY.

Baudelaire separated the artist (Guys) from the archivist (Vernet) on the basis that the former selects and transforms while the latter merely reproduces. It’s no surprise, then, that in the same section of The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire implicitly and somewhat ironically linked his separation of Guys and Vernet to what he perceived to be their different relationships to modern technologies of visual reproduction. Although Guys explicitly created images for reproduction in illustrated newspapers, such as the Illustrated London News, Baudelaire reportedly looked at the originals that were then owned by Nadar.⁸ His viewing of the sketches therefore constituted and performed a privileged mode of access that rendered their mode of mass diffusion hors de question. Baudelaire, it turns out, claimed to dislike newspapers almost as much as he disliked Horace Vernet and used similar rhetoric to condemn them. As he wrote in Mon coeur mis à nu, It is this disgusting aperitif that civilized man takes with breakfast every morning. I do not understand how a pure hand could touch a newspaper without a convulsion of disgust.⁹ Baudelaire effectively isolated his painter of modern life from what he understood as a debased form of modern visual reproduction that was more suited to other lowly visual forms such as the works of Horace Vernet. When Baudelaire derisively called Vernet a "gazetier," it was not merely to criticize him for a perceived lack of imaginative elevation or even for the perception that his battle paintings were nothing more than journalistic accounts of events taken from military bulletins; on a broader level, Baudelaire used Vernet to stage an attack on what he perceived to be an insipid and denatured bourgeois culture. This conflation between Vernet and the visual form of the newspaper suggests how the artist functioned within nineteenth-century critical vocabularies as a sign of a more generalized cultural order from which avant-garde writers and artists were seeking to separate themselves.

The critique that Vernet paints like a journalist is just one instance of how, over the course of his career, emerging markers of the modern—including economic paradigms, new technologies, and new modes of reproduction—were associated with his work. Perhaps more than any other nineteenth-century artist, Vernet brought together modern categories otherwise believed to be incompatible, challenging distinctions between high and low, avant-garde and academic, public and private, emergent and established media. Exploring how Vernet crossed thresholds in this manner offers us opportunities to see how the world was being remade in the nineteenth century, in Europe and elsewhere. With Vernet we can sense the possibilities of new technologies, new patterns of media consumption, and new ways of imagining the self. At the same time, by paying attention to the problems Vernet encountered, as well as the complex reactions of his contemporaries to his work, we can see the tensions that developed in the midst of these transformations. The contributors to this volume ask many questions about Vernet’s modernity in essays that cover relationships between his work and the press, urban change, theater, fashion, empire, politics, and other topics. The essays are grouped in sections that highlight the general issues we consider to be particularly important: Vernet’s self-fashioning in the context of a modern media environment, Vernet’s complicated negotiation of genre categories that continued to structure the French art world in the early nineteenth century, and the intersection between Vernet’s work and the new media of his time. We begin, however, with an overview of the artist’s life and work, the first to be published in English since 1880.¹⁰

Horace Vernet: An Overview

Born on June 30, 1789, with the storming of the Bastille just days away, Horace Vernet began life at a threshold moment for France, one that was to profoundly shape his identity and his practice as an artist.¹¹ Critics’ later claims that he was France’s national painter drew support from this auspicious timing. Vernet’s birthplace would be equally helpful to makers of myth and narrative: he was born in the Louvre, the symbolic center of the art world, in the accommodation provided by the state to his family. Despite his occasional attempts to claim the status of an outsider—a soldier or a peasant who happened to paint—Vernet was the consummate art world insider, the heir of a dynasty of artists and artisans. His father, Carle, was a successful painter in a variety of genres and a printmaker. His paternal grandfather was Joseph Vernet, the renowned eighteenth-century painter of marines and landscapes, who died when Horace was six months old. Joseph’s father, Antoine Vernet, had been a painter too, making decorative work in late seventeenth-century Provence. On the other side of the family, Vernet’s maternal grandfather was the engraver Jean-Michel Moreau.

As he grew up, Vernet took advantage of the artistic networks to which his family gave him access. After he showed some early interest in art, he was sent to the teaching studio of François Vincent, a friend of his father.¹² There Vernet developed the skills he needed to enter the prize competitions at the École des Beaux-Arts, though his attempt to win the Prix de Rome ended in failure in 1809.¹³ In 1810, however, he benefited from his artistic contacts in a different way when he married Louise Pujol, whom he had met at the salon of the artist Jean-Baptiste Isabey.¹⁴ Despite coming up short in the Prix de Rome competition, Vernet’s career continued to develop during the Empire, with the support of friends. In 1811 François Gérard helped him obtain his first commission, an equestrian portrait of Jérôme Bonaparte, king of Westphalia.¹⁵ So pleased was the king with the picture that he commissioned a pendant, The Taking of a Fortified Encampment near Glatz, also to be executed under Gérard’s supervision.¹⁶ The new work, whose subject anticipated Vernet’s fascination with military scenes, was among the artist’s entries for his debut Salon, the Salon of 1812, where he won a medal. At the same time that Vernet stepped down the path toward official success, he pursued opportunities in the marketplace, as a designer of prints. Following in the footsteps of his father, who had published caricatures of fashionable Parisians during the Directory, Horace drew fashion plates for the Journal des dames et des modes and other publications.¹⁷

As the Empire reached its disastrous conclusion, Vernet joined the National Guard and participated, along with his friend Nicolas-Toussaint Charlet, in the defense of Paris. This very brief experience was an important one for Vernet, as it supplied the basis for him to identify as an authentic chronicler of the soldier’s life, an image he was to embrace frequently over the remainder of his career. Already in The Clichy Gate: The Defense of Paris, March 30, 1814 (1820) (fig. I.3, plate 3), a picture that draws directly from Vernet’s military service, Vernet saw his role as one of giving his viewers a look behind the scenes of a battle. The fighting happens elsewhere, in the background or beyond the frame of the picture, while what we see is the giving and receiving of orders, and the suffering and solidarity of the wounded. Our sense of having acquired privileged access to the realities of soldiering is anchored by the care Vernet takes to communicate the specificity of the locale and the details of the uniforms and military equipment. Following his brush with danger in 1814, Vernet sought further excitement and novelty in the early Restoration by traveling abroad, to England, Belgium, and perhaps most significantly, Italy. Making the trip to Italy in 1820, in the company of his father, Vernet was particularly engaged by the life of the streets, especially the Roman Carnival, which he represented in a picture of the race of the riderless horses (Salon of 1824; lost). Like his friend and frequent travel companion Théodore Géricault, as well as other romantics, Vernet saw vivid experience or what he called the shock of the passions as an opportunity to expand his sense of self, a process that he imagined to be entwined with his development as an artist.¹⁸

I.3. Horace Vernet, The Clichy Gate: The Defense of Paris, March 30, 1814, 1820. Oil on canvas, 95.5 × 130.5 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY.

When back in Paris, Vernet cultivated the forms of sociability that were familiar to him from his youthful experiences in the studios and artistic salons of the Directory and Empire. His atelier, memorably depicted in his picture of 1820–21, became a meeting place for students, artists, soldiers, and other friends. Many were liberals, Bonapartists, and/or sympathetic to the duc d’Orléans, a rallying figure for those unhappy with the restored monarchy and a key patron for Vernet.¹⁹ The association between Vernet’s studio and the political opposition was strengthened by the events of 1822, when two of Vernet’s battle paintings were excluded from the Salon because they depicted signs and symbols from the revolutionary era.²⁰ Vernet, in an act of defiance, then exhibited the two paintings, along with over fifty other works, in a show that took place in his studio and that attracted enormous amounts of press attention. It is important to remember, however, that Vernet remained on good terms with the comte de Forbin, the director of the royal museums and one of the administrators responsible for the exclusion of Vernet’s battle paintings from the Salon of 1822.²¹ Moreover, Vernet received numerous official commissions during the Restoration and was showered with honors. In 1825 Vernet was made an officer of the Legion of Honor, and in 1826 he was elected to the Academy. Rather than identifying entirely with the opposition, Vernet cultivated a broad appeal as a national artist. He created, said the critic Kératry, a public with his brush.²² It is indicative of the widespread fascination with Vernet, as well as the prevalence of the tactics of cultural appropriation among political groups in the 1820s, that in 1825 a play made to celebrate the name day of the king, Charles X, concluded with a tableau vivant of Vernet’s Atelier (plate 1) and verses featuring the words Long Live the King!²³

Vernet’s claim to be a national artist was largely based on the diversity of his output. In the Restoration he painted portraits; pictures representing historical and contemporary events, including many battle scenes; religious pictures; pictures based on literary themes; landscapes; marines; odalisques; and more besides. The breadth of Vernet’s interests was matched by the speed with which he executed his numerous works, which made the artist appear supremely responsive to the events and cultural preoccupations of the day. Vernet, it seemed, was doing everything and was present everywhere.²⁴ No-one will deny him omnipresence and omnipotence, said one newspaper, discussing his submissions to the Salon of 1824.²⁵ Critics—who tended to see contemporary art through the lens of the hierarchy of genres, which continued to structure Salon reviews in the press—were by turns bewildered, excited, and scandalized by Vernet’s refusal to work within traditional genre boundaries. Some sought to ascertain his proper category; others worried about being seduced by Vernet’s work, prefiguring Baudelaire’s association of the artist with sexual danger.²⁶ All, though, were fascinated by what Vernet was doing, making him by far the most talked-about artist of the Restoration, despite what art historians’ focus on Géricault, Ingres, and Delacroix might lead us to believe. Vernet’s exhibition strategies nevertheless helped bring order to the situation: his studio show organized the variety of his output under a single sign, that of Vernet himself, and catalyzed critics’ suggestions that the artist, containing multitudes, embodied the nation. At the Salon of 1824, Vernet’s many submissions were spread out across the exhibition, but were anchored again to the image of the artist, in the form of his self-portrait in L’Atelier, which was among the works on display.²⁷ Standing on the thresholds of genre, Vernet gave form to his project by cultivating a persona, an image of self as an expansive repository of national memory and

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