- Émile-Jean-Horace Vernet
- The Siege of Saragossa
- signed H Vernet and dated 1819 lower right
- oil on canvas
- 58 by 45 1/2 in.
- 147.3 by 115.6 cm
W. William Hope (possibly acquired at the above sale and sold, his sale, Paris, June 4-16, 1855, lot 24)
James Lenox, New York (acquired at the above sale)
Gifted from the above to The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations (and sold, Sotheby's, New York, April 18, 2008, lot 61, illustrated)
"The Lenox Library," Literary World, A Review of Current Literature, vol. IX, June 21, 1879, p. 201
Ernest Ingersoll, A Week in New York, New York, 1891, p. 251
Gustav Kobbé, New York and Its Environs, New York, 1891, p. 226
Appleton's Dictionary of New York and its Vicinity, New York, 1892, p. 147
Scribner's Magazine, v. 50, June-July 1911, p. 628
John Dennison Champlain, Jr., ed., Cyclopedia of Painters and Paintings, New York, 1913, p. 357 (dating the work between 1820-1822)
Fremont Rider, ed., Rider's New York City and Vicinity including New York, Yonkers and Jersey City, New York, 1916, p. 193 (dating the work to 1808)
Horace Vernet (1789-1863), exh. cat., Rome, 1980, p. 21
The Siege of Saragossa, a work of rugged visual strength and compositional complexity, follows the example of Vernet's innovative early works, yet the exact date of its execution was long in question. A recent clean revealed the date as 1819. According to the chronology established for the 1980 Horace Vernet exhibition at the Académie de France in Rome, and based in part on Madame Vernet's records published in 1898, the Siege of Saragossa was assumed to be painted in 1808.
1808 most probably refers instead to the date in which this heroic scene took place. The first siege of Saragossa was fought between June 15 and August 13, 1808, a critical chapter in the bloody events of the Peninsular War, followed in the next year by the second siege. The Spanish Captain-General José de Palafox y Melzi declared war on the French and led the people of Aragon into revolt, prompting Napoleon's General Lefebvre to lead a French battalion to storm the Spanish city of Saragossa. Despite the power of the French army and the perceived weaknesses of the city's defense fortress, angry crowds of Saragossa's civilians engaged in guerilla fighting through the city streets. A notable portion of the Spanish defenders was made up of monks from local monasteries. The memoirs of the French general Baron Lejeun described the amazing defensive power of one holy man named "San Yago Saas who had distinguished himself in the... siege as a brilliant leader and ardent preacher... he had himself butchered seventeen Frenchmen. Sword in hand, sleeves flung back over the shoulders, leaving the arms bare, robe tucked up, and splashed with blood from head to foot, the furious monk ran to and fro in the ranks saying to each soldier, 'Follow my example, and there won't be one of them left'" (Memoirs of Baron Lejeune, volume I, New York, 1897, p. 140). Such heroics are recorded in Vernet's dramatic painting, as a soldier stands with a group of monks on blasted masonry ruins, one holding a powerful blunderbuss (muzzle loading firearm) while others hold a cross to the heavens, a spiritual defense against the entreating French. Vernet's Romantic sensibilities are particularly effective in such a composition, in which he experiments with the academic construction of a battle scene. The narrative is difficult to untangle: the action is confused, the space unclear, the colors darkly nuanced, the figures, so closely overlapped, seem to blur into one another. With its contrasts of highly finished elements of costume, weaponry, and facial expression, and unfinished swatches of swirling smoke and destroyed landscape, Vernet's work creates an almost otherworldly scene which does more than record history — provoking an emotional, visceral response in viewers (for further discussion of Vernet's Romanticism see: MacClintock, p. 89).
This incredible visual power helped earn The Siege of Saragossa a place in the galleries of W. William Hope, an important collector of Old Master and early nineteenth century painting living in Paris. Over the course of several sales in the 1850s, Hope's inventory was sold and its "impeccable provenance" was a key element in related marketing efforts (see Charles Blanc's introduction in the May 11, 1858 Hôtel Drouot sale catalogue). Fittingly, American bibliophile, art connoisseur, and philanthropist James Lenox (1800-1880) would purchase works from Hope's sales for his own esteemed collection which was the foundation of the Lenox Library before becoming part of the New York Public Library in 1895. Throughout the late nineteenth century a visit to the Lenox Library was an important cultural stop in New York City. A 1891 city guidebook encouraged travelers visit the Library to see the "picture gallery of the second floor" in which Vernet's "powerful canvas" hung among renowned portraits of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, James Peale, and Rembrandt Peale, along with works by Sir Joshua Reynolds (Kobbé, p. 201).