Described by the painter Jacques-Louis David as 'l'homme du siècle', Napoleon was without question the dominant political and military figure in Europe in the early 19th century, and for over a decade held the destiny of the continent in his grasp. This magnificent image of the Emperor is a fascinating reflection of that same period; not only because it is a potent statement of the aura of the great general by one of the supreme exponents of military painting of his day, but also because, due to its remarkable history, it provides an equally fascinating testament to the cult of the Emperor
that was to rise so quickly in England in the years immediately following his defeat at the hands of Wellington and the
Allied Armies at the battle of Waterloo in 1815.
Although Vernet painted a large number of scenes from the Emperor's life and in particular of his military exploits, he was not considered a portrait painter. Indeed in size and grandeur of conception the present painting would appear to be unique. Vernet's only biographer, Armand Dayot, lists no paintings in his early biography (Carle Vernet - Étude sur l'artiste, Paris 1925), but does record a large and highly finished drawing of reasonably similar design showing Napoleon on horseback as 'Protector of the Rhine Federation and King of Italy', which can be dated to 1807, when a
reproductive engraving of it was made (op. cit., no. 21). Despite this, it is difficult to date the present work exactly. Another version of the picture, which is widely believed to have been given by Napolean to General Anne Jean Marie René Savary, Duke of Rovigo (1774-1833), has a suggested dating between 1805 and 1810. That work, a signed example, is the probable prime composition, however a similar dating for this canvas would not seem unreasonable. The painting itself offers no clues: the background engagement is of a very generalised type, and although the heroic figure of the Emperor is much influenced by that in Vernet's great painting of the battle of Marengo of 1808, it would seem that no specific engagement can here be identified. Napoleon is shown wearing the badge and sash of the Légion d'Honneur, which he himself established on the 19 May 1802. The legend that the grey horse depicted in the painting is Napoeon's favourite mount 'Marengo' is apocryphal, as the Emperor habitually rode small grey arabians.
Carle Vernet was the third son of Claude Joseph Vernet (1714-1789), the famous marine painter, and was born in 1758 in Bordeaux, where his father was working on his celebrated series of the Ports of France for Louis XV. He was later trained in Italy, where he won the Prix de Rome in 1782. It was the momentous events of the Napoleonic years, however, that allowed him to indulge his passion for the depiction of the equine form and which led him to paint large
scenes of contemporary history. His most famous work in this regard is the enormous Battle of Marengo, which he exhibited at the Salon of 1808 and which won him the Légion d'Honneur. This hangs today at Versailles, alongside Vernet's other most accomplished work on this scale and also with Napoleonic subjects, the Matin d'Austerlitz of 1808 and the Napoleon devant Madrid of 1810. After the Restoration Vernet increasingly devoted himself to racing or hunting subjects.
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