Horace Vernet Biography
Of all the military French painters of the 19th century, Horace Vernet was probably the most admired. Lucky from the cradle (he was born near the Louvre Palace) he quickly acquired fame and fortune. Horace Vernet was the last of the "Vernet dynasty": his father, Carle Vernet, painter of horses and battles, was the son of Joseph Vernet, marine painter of the 18th century. As a consequence, all doors were open to him. Horace Vernet was awarded a first class medal at the age of 22, was a Knight of the Legion of Honour at 25, Member of the Institute at 36, and the director of the French Academy in Rome at 38.
Even though the Vernets were traditionally royalists, Horace became allied to Napoléon and the Empire. Then, during the Restoration, Horace Vernet was connected with the liberals (which did not stop him obtaining an official commission from Charles X). The 1830 revolution carried his personal friend Louis-Philipe to the throne, a fact which greatly helped Horace in his career. Later, after the events of 1848, Horace Vernet was for a short while a supporter of the Republic, then finding himself named as official painter of the Second Empire. Opportunism? Switching sides? Vernet definitely had an extraordinary talent to adapt himself to different political regimes and to remain in the limelight.
When Vernet was young, Vernet threw himself with full force into the Romantic movement. He painted with energy and exuberance, in hot and vibrant colours, medieval and modern battles, allegories, the frantic antics of wild horses and subjects inspired by authors such as Byron and Victor Hugo (Mazeppa 1825, Giaour 1827). But this painter of war and tragedy, who was so admired by Stendhal in the Salon of 1825, changed his style after his nomination as head of the French Academy in 1828.
Having obtained the king’s permission to leave Rome, in 1833 Vernet made the first of many voyages to Algeria, in the company of the English artist William Wyld.Vernet felt that Africa was the continent of the future, "a gold mine for France", and he acquired a vast area at Ben-Koula. Convinced that the gestures and behaviour of the Arabs had not changed for hundreds of years and that he was watching live representations of Biblical scenes, Vernet set out to paint religious scene paintings after the lives of the nomads he saw. Starting with the Conteur Arabe (‘Arab Storyteller’) executed towards the end of 1833 for the Count of Pembroke, Horace Vernet pushed aside the romantic, violent and supple technique in favour of the precision and fidelity of ethnographic detail with which he imbued his oriental and biblical scene paintings. This practice of dressing biblical personages in modern Arab clothes displeased the public and he had to defend his ideas in front of the Academy with the help of documents collected during his journeys. In 1848 Vernet published an article in the Illustration journal: "The connections which exist between the costumes of the ancient Hebrews and the modern Arabs".
In 1835 Vernet was replaced in Rome by Ingres and he returned to France just after Louis-Phillippe had created a museum of millitary history at Versailles and he was commissioned to decorate the principal galleries. For this Vernet painted episodes from the conquest of Algieria : Le Siège de Constantine, Combat de l’Habrah and the famous Taking of the Smalah d’Abd-el-Kader, with an overall length of 21.9 m (almost 72 ft)!
Originality in those big oil paintings was due mainly to the suppression of the main hero - as was the tradition - so that even the last of the foot-soldiers played their role in these immense compositions saturated with little scenes of equal interest. Exhibited in the Salon in 1845, the painting Smalah attracted enormous crowds, although some severe criticisms: "It’s all a novel, but composed of many episodes", "the painters of battles have been transformed into reporters writing bulletins" were amonst the nicest ones.
After depicting so many battles Vernet seemed himself to develop a millitary air: brusque intonations, brushed hair, chopped words, straight bearing, enormous moustache. His numerous journeys to Algieria, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Palestine and the Crimea were not always too comfortable. In fact, Vernet took any means of transport available: ships, coaches, sleighs, horses, camels or mules. Vernet slept under a tent or even under the stars. He was a mixture of an adventure seeker and an official artist and he produced an enormous amount of paintings (about 500 oil paintings and, according to Lagrange, 200 lithographs). As a proffessor at the École des Beaux-Arts, Horace Vernet had an enormous influence on the artistic bodies of the time - juries, salons and competitions - and he received numerous commissions from the State, from the upper bourgeoisie and from high ranking officers. The lithographs after Vernet's sketches and paintings, widely distributed, brought him enormous fame.
Vernet was however subject to numerous ferrocious attacts, both personally as well as professionally, while living and after his death. At the end of the 19th century his name seemed to be universally disliked by the official critics and encyclopaedia authors. But the retrospecive exhibitions of 1980 in Paris and Rome did a lot to rehabilitate Horace Vernet who was so strongly integrated into the political and millitary life of his time.