Painter of battles and fantasy myths…

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Gros as a young man

On the 26th of June 1835 a body washed up on the banks of the Seine at Meudon, near Sèvres. The artist Antoine-Jean Gros’ longstanding sense of personal failure compounded by his abiding melancholic nature had finally become too much for him to bear and he had committed suicide.

But his career had always been one of emotional conflict, his naturally romantic flair often at odds with the coolly cerebral neo-classical style in favour with his closest contemporaries. In the end he could not arrive at a balance between the styles that satisfied himself and his critics and ultimately that exacerbated his own sense of failure. In hindsight though, it can be seen that Gros’ style was a major influence on the likes of Gericault and Delacroix who followed him. It is a tragedy that he could not see that for himself.

Perhaps though it is as Napoleon’s official “painter of battles” that Gros is best remembered and in a few short years after Napoleon’s coronation he became famous for his grand representations of Napoleon at his most dashing and heroic all of which were aimed at enhancing the myth of the Emperor; in the end, closer to fantasy than fact.

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Napoleon on the Bridge at Arcole

It was on a visit to Genoa that Gros met Josephine de Beauharnais who, in turn, introduced him to Napoleon.  In 1796 Gros was with the French army at the Battle of Arcole and saw Napoleon famously lead the attack on the bridge. This incident he immortalized in his first major work, Napoleon on the Bridge at Arcole.

A succession of grand tableaux followed:– Napoleon Visiting the Pesthouse at Jaffa, the Battle of Aboukir, Napoleon on the Battlefield at Eylau.

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But after the fall of Napoleon, the principal subject of his grand, mythologizing propaganda paintings, Gros’ star rapidly waned. None of his later works were received with the same enthusiasm as his earlier pictures and his melancholy, stoked by constant sniping from the exiled Jacques Louis David, gradually became all consuming.

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The devil is in the Detaille…

Apologies for the awful pun, but what first sparked my interest in Napoleonic history was visual. I have always been attracted to visual imagery, perhaps that’s why I am such a keen photographer, but specifically with regard to Napoleonic history it was the work in the second half of the 19th century of two French artists, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (below left) and Jean-Baptiste Édouard Detaille (below right).

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I remember still, when as a teenager I visited the Musée d’Orsay in Paris for the first time and saw Meissonier’s wonderful painting, below, “1814. Campagne de France (Napoleon and his staff returning from Soissons after the Battle of Laon)”.

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It is full of drama; Napoleon proud and erect (a bit of poetic license there perhaps as Bonaparte was a notoriously poor horseman) despite the defeat his army had just suffered against the Prussians. Behind him his staff ride silently, most so tired they can barely stay upright in their saddles. And all enveloped in a dark and gloomy melancholy (maybe that was the bit that appealed to the teenager).

I knew of the painting before I saw it first hand and I remember that I was surprised how small it is – about 76cm by 50cm. But it is filled with realistic detail that is characteristic of Meissonier’s pictures. Indeed, in his own lifetime, Meissonier was acclaimed for his mastery of fine detail and assiduous craftsmanship. The English art critic John Ruskin examined his work at length under a magnifying glass, “marvelling at Meissonier’s manual dexterity and eye for fascinating minutiae”.

When a seventeen year old aspiring artist, Édouard Detaille, came to him in 1865 to ask for an introduction to Alexandre Cabanel, another renowned artist with whom Meissonier was acquainted, the master looked at the boy’s work and offered to teach him himself. And Detaille turned out to be an eager disciple in the school of obsessive authenticity.

chasseur imp guardHe first exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1867 and from that point didn’t look back. Like his teacher Detaille too was a master of the small canvas, as in this painstakingly detailed picture of a Chasseur of the Imperial Guard. The canvas is just 31cm by 24cm.

But occasionally both men splashed out to make big, bold statements on big canvasses. Here are two of my favourites, Meissonier’s “1807, Friedland” and Detaille’s “Vive L’Empereur”. I hope they thrill you as much as they do me.

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1807, Friedand

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Vive L’Empereur

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun… an independent woman in a man’s world

When I was doing some research on the life of Catherine Talleyrand I inevitably came across the portrait of her during the time when she was perhaps the most famous courtesan in Paris; her 1783 portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun.

I was surprised that the painter was a woman and I couldn’t think of any other women artists of the period. But it turns out that was hardly a surprise. In many European countries the national “academies” were all powerful in the artistic sphere. They were responsible for artistic training, exhibitions, and inevitably artistic promotion through being the arbiters of style. Membership of the academies was closely controlled and most were not open to women. For example, in France, the Academy in Paris had 450 members between the end of the 17th century and the French Revolution; only fifteen were women and, of those, most were daughters or wives of existing members.

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Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun self-portrait

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was born in Paris on April 16, 1755. Her father was a successful artist who encouraged her interest in art. She had a natural talent and, when still a teenager, began to attract wealthy clients to have their portraits painted. When, still only 19 years of age, she was accepted into the painters’ guild of the Académie de Saint-Luc, this increased her professional exposure significantly. In 1776 she married Jean-Baptiste Le Brun, an artist and art dealer, with whom she had one daughter, Jeanne-Julie-Louise.

Vigée Le Brun soon became a popular portraitist among the French aristocracy and, in 1779, went to Versailles to paint her first portrait of Marie Antoinette. She became the queen’s favorite portraitist and painted her a total of 30 times over the next decade. It was through the queen’s influence that, in 1783, Vigée Le Brun was accepted into the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, France’s most prestigious professional association for artists, which admitted very few female artists.

In 1789, with Revolution breaking out, Vigée Le Brun fled France with her daughter though her husband remained behind. For the next sixteen years she travelled widely, firstly in central Europe, then spent six years in Russia and finally two years in London before ultimately returning to France in 1805.

She had continued to work throughout this time, it being her only means of independent support, and her paintings were prolific; in her time in Russia alone she produced 44 portraits, her subjects including Tzar Alexander and his wife.

Back in France she suffered no apparent effects from being an emigre in exile and, within months, Napoleon had commissioned a portrait from her of his sister, Caroline, the wife of Marshal Murat. Though Vigée Le Brun describes the sittings as being nothing but a trial due to her sitter’s capricious temperament. In her memoirs she makes no bones about her annoyance. One day when she had been made to wait interminably for the lady to appear she commented to one of her attendants:

…loudly enough for her [Caroline] to hear, “I have painted real princesses who never worried me, and never made me wait.” The fact is, Mme. Murat was unaware that punctuality is the politeness of kings, as Louis XIV so well said.

Vigée Le Brun continued to paint until the late 1820s. She died at her Paris residence on March 30, 1842.