Emile-Jean-Horace Vernet, The Battle of Montmirail
Four Battle Scenes
Following the military defeat and abdication of Napoleon in 1815, the Bourbon monarchy was restored in France. These four large battle paintings were commissioned by the duc d'Orléans (1733–1850) who had returned to France after some 21 years in exile. In 1830 he became Louis-Philippe, King of the French.
Although painted during the period of the Bourbon Restoration, all four pictures – for which Vernet was paid 38,000 francs – show French victories during the previous era of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. The duke had fought with the armies of the newly established French Republic at Jemappes and at Valmy, and was keen to demonstrate his Republican sympathies. The pictures were hung in prominent positions in the Palais-Royal in Paris and functioned as propaganda celebrating French military glory and the Duke’s own career and leadership. Completed over five years, the paintings are The Battle of Jemappes (1821), The Battle of Montmirail (1822), The Battle of Hanau (1824), and The Battle of Valmy (1826). Damaged by fire in the revolution of 1848, they were restored by Vernet himself.
Following the final military defeat and abdication of the Emperor Napoleon in 1815, the Bourbon monarchy was restored in France. These four large battle paintings were commissioned from Vernet by the duc d‘Orléans (1733–1850), who had returned to France after some 21 years in exile. In 1830 he became Louis-Philippe, King of the French. Although painted during the period of the Bourbon Restoration, the four pictures – for which the artist was paid 38,000 francs – show French victories during the previous era of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.
Born in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, Vernet had helped defend Paris from enemy troops, for which he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur by Napoleon. He was highly regarded by Louis-Philippe, who called him by his first name, ’Monsieur Horace‘. The duke became his sponsor and, in addition to commissioning paintings, assisted Vernet’s election to the Academy in 1826 and his appointment as Director of the French Academy in Rome in 1828. This support for Vernet continued after Louis-Philippe was proclaimed king in 1830 after his cousin Charles X was forced to abdicate by the July Revolution.
During his early career, while Napoleon was still in power, Vernet had shown his skill in depicting soldiers and scenes of combat in a vivid and authentic manner that rejected the idealisation of classicism. In 1819 the duke commissioned him to paint several portraits commemorating his exile in Switzerland and two paintings that showed his military action as a young man. The duke had fought with the armies of the newly established French Republic at Jemappes (6 November 1792) and at Valmy (20 September 1792), two important battles of the French Revolutionary wars, and was also keen to demonstrate his Republican sympathies. Vernet himself proposed pictures of two additional battles, Hanau (30–31 October 1813) and Montmirail (11 February 1814), as he wished to celebrate the first military victories of the Revolution alongside the final victories of the Empire.
Vernet uses a similar format in all four paintings with each showing an almost aerial view of a panoramic landscape that allows him to fill the pictures with highly detailed individual scenes of dramatic action. This method of composition also introduced a new way of depicting combat. Rather than focus on the heroic actions of a single, almost superhuman, individual (such as Napoleon) or on high-ranking commanders, Vernet spreads the action across the painting as the entire army, acting as a collective group, becomes the principal agent. A victorious leader’s victory in battle is also dependent upon those he leads. Everyone’s uniforms, weapons, gestures and facial expressions, rather than those of just a select few, are painted in great detail, as are the landscapes and buildings.
When exhibited, the paintings proved extremely popular and helped Vernet acquire the status of ’national painter'. All four were hung in prominent positions in the Palais-Royal in Paris, where they functioned as propaganda celebrating French military glory and the duke’s career and leadership. When he was King, Louis-Philippe also had copies made for Versailles, where two still hang.
Vernet’s paintings were badly damaged by fire during the revolution of 1848, when the Palais-Royal was ransacked. Acquired by Lord Hertford in 1851 in a sale after Louis-Philippe’s death in 1850, they were restored by Vernet himself and are displayed in nineteenth-century frames.