Hailed by Napoleon to have transformed the art of war through his ‘audacity, wisdom and genius’1 Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, Vicomte de Turenne, is one of the most prominent and revered figures in French military history.
Turenne’s military career began in the service of his uncle, Frederick Henry, the sovereign Prince of Orange. Later gaining the patronage of Cardinal Richelieu, Turenne commenced his rapid ascent up the ranks of the French army. At only 37 years of age, under the service of Louis XIV, his tactical prowess secured in 1648 the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia, marking the end of the 30 Years war. Leading the defeat of the Spanish in the legendary Battle of the Dunes, 1658, Turenne paved the way for the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees, and thus the end of the Franco-Spanish war. His final two campaigns against the German allies of the Dutch from 1673-75 cemented his posthumous fame. This included one of the most famous marches in military history, saving Alsace and forcing the German retreat across the Rhine in December, 1674. Struck by a cannon ball on 27th July, 1675, the Marshall was laid to rest with the Kings of France at Saint-Denis. Testament to his enduring glory, in 1800, Napoleon instructed the transfer of his body to Les Invalides.
Turenne’s prominence within French military history, and within the court of Louis XIV, indicates it is highly likely that the sovereign’s favoured painters would have been commissioned for his portrait. Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), the premier peintre du roi, and director of the Manufactures des Gobelins, employed numerous talented artists and craftsmen in his quest to create visual manifestations of the sovereign’s divine status and power. Amongst these artists and artisans were René Antoine Houasse (1645-1710), Pierre Rabon (1619-1684) and Joseph Parrocel (1646-1704).
Tradition within the family of the present owner is that that the head of Turenne’s portrait was temporarily removed by his descendants around the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, 1685, amidst concerns over the painting being destroyed due to Turenne’s status as a renowned Hugenot leader. It seems more likely that the portrait, having been executed by a different hand (possibly at an earlier date), was later stitched into the larger canvas and the Marshall’s body, the figure of his horse, and the battle scene and landscape beyond were executed by different artists altogether. The depiction of Turenne’s head bears much in common with Charles Le Brun’s Portrait of Turenne (fig. 1), which served as a study for the L’histoire du Roi tapestry series (1662-1664), and now hangs at Versailles. This study is an indicator of Le Brun’s workshop process within the Manufactures des Gobelins, where his conceptions would be delegated to other artists for completion. The high degree of realism invested in the study suggests that it was sketched from life during a sitting with Turenne, providing a model for both the tapestry and future large-scale portraits such as this2. It is possible that the head of the Marshall was painted by Pierre Rabon (1619-1684), whose commissions included a number of prominent figures in Louis XIV’s court.
The skilfully executed skirmish in the background of the equestrian portrait was painted by the renowned French battle painter Joseph Parrocel. The detail and dynamism portrayed in these scenes parallels the chaos of war depicted in the distance behind Turenne. In correlation with equestrian portraits of the same period, the skirmish is a representation of the Marshal’s general military prowess, acting as an attribute as opposed to the representation of a specific historical event3.
The depiction of Turenne’s horse might be ascribed to René Antoine Houasse, a student of Le Brun who later ascended the ranks to the role of Keeper of the King’s pictures4. The depiction of Turenne’s horse bears relation to that in the Equestrian Portrait of Louis XIV (fig. 2) dated similarly to the latter half of the 1670's.
This portrait of Turenne is a prime example of the tradition of equestrian portraiture that was developed and refined during the reign of Louis XIV, creating the foundation for later equestrian monuments. Le Brun’s lost equestrian portrait of Louis XIV set the standard for those that followed5. Pierre Rabon’s copy after the Le Brun portrait (fig. 3) depicts the king on his charger in complete armour, commanding a battle with the baton in his right hand with his left hand holding the reigns. Le Brun’s composition is effective in portraying the monarch as an embodiment of absolute power over nature and his kingdom, notions that feature in the portrait of Turenne. As the tradition of equestrian portraiture developed, the boundaries between genres of history painting and portraiture were dissolved in the works of Van der Meulen and Houasse6. Both artists sought to historicise the qualities of the king, departing from narrative and allegory, instead creating a timeless image of generalised military prowess that are also embodied in this portrait of Turenne7.
Three miniature versions of this present composition are known, all likely derivations after this portrait. A miniature by Pierre Sevin, c. 1670, is held within the John Jones Bequest collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum and bears the closest resemblance to this portrait. The Pushkin State Museum own a further miniature, attributed to Van der Meulen. The third miniature is held in a private collection, following its sale by Sotheby’s (3 May 2012) and bears the inscription ‘Copie dapres (sic) Vandermeal (Sic)/peinter de battaille.’
We kindly thank M. Jerome Delaplanche for having confirmed the attribution of the battle scene to Joseph Parrocel on the basis of photographs.
1. Napoléon, Précis des guerres du maréchal de Turenne, 7e observation, t. VI, Paris, 1869, p. 209.
2. Th. Bajou, Paintings at Versailles XVII Century, Paris, 1998, p. 84.
3. D. Brill, « A la croisée des genres. Louis XIV et le portrait équestre », Artibus et Historiae, vol. 35, 2014, no. 69, p. 225.
4. Th. Bajou, op. cit., p. 170.
5. D. Brill, op. cit., p. 214.
6. Ibidem, p. 225.
7. Ibidem, p. 223.