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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Edouard Detaille

Vive Empereur, 1891, Edouard Detaille
Edouard Detaille, Self-portrait
Wars have been going on since the first Neanderthal heaved a rock at his neighbor for sneering at him funny. How do we know? Because those who make war also write about it afterwards--Julius Caesar, for instance. Artists also paint wars. At first, that was a rather slow, painful (and painfully inaccurate) process, often taking decades and with more than a little "artistic license" involved (not to mention political pressures). Artists slowly got better at what they did, as did the combatants. War and the history of war got more precise with details down to the embossed designs of uniform buttons. Armchair generals can now "re-fight" battles with amazingly authentic realism. Photography has had a lot to do with this reenactment craze (fetish?), but before there was "film at eleven," there were artists either actually in the armies involved, or traveling with them to record the daily lives of the high and mighty generals and the meek and lowly "cannon fodder." The French Academic artist, Edouard Detaille was one of the best of these during his time.
1814. Campagne de France , 1864, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier
Detaille's time was around 1866 to 1912 (he was born in 1848). Detaille didn't start out to be a military artist although he came from a military family, his grandfather having been an arms supplier for Napoleon. Using family connections, he looked up the famed military artist Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier in the hope of getting to meet and study under the inimitable Academicist, Alexander Cabanal. However, there's no record of his ever having accomplished his goal. Meissonier recognized talent when he saw it and "hijacked" the young, seventeen-year-old artist to become a student of his own. The portly, white-bearded (parted down the center), Meissonier had been Napoleon's P.R. man, perhaps as much, or more, responsible for our vainglorious image of Napoleon today as Napoleon himself (above).

Detaille's sketchbook journal from around 1870.
Grenadier of the Old Guard,
Edouard Detaille
Detaille learned two things from Meissonier--accuracy and precision. Along this same line however, Detaille had one great advantage over his mentor, that being photography. Detaille was one of the first artists in France to recognize and openly use photography as a valuable tool in producing his works. His photographer friend was Eugène Atget who, likewise, was among the best in his field at the time. The other great asset (if you can call it that), which Detaille had over Meissonier, was a nasty little dust-up between France and their Prussian neighbors just over the Rhine. Meissonier was forced, by the accident of his birth date, to paint the Napoleonic wars second hand. Detaille not only saw the Franco-Prussian war first-hand, he fought in it as an enlisted man in a cavalry unit--nothing like a little cannon fire to add authenticity to your work. His Vive Empereur (top) from 1891, painted from his own battlefield drawings (above) beats anything Meissonier might have imagined. Detaille's Grenadier of the Old Guard (left) is probably his best portrait painted during the war itself.

Battle of Mars la Tour, 1870, Edouard Detaille--the French won this one.
Detaille in his studio, 1910.
Battlefield art always seems to be
painted "life-size" or larger.
Funeral Service of General Damrémont,
1910, Edouard Detaille--a scene from
the Siege of Constantine in 1837.
Fortunately for Detaille, not to mention Napoleon III's ill-fated Second Empire, the war only lasted about a year (otherwise the French might be speaking German today). In any case, and unfortunately for the French, they lost, setting the stage for WW I some forty years later. In its aftermath, Detaille had enough raw material for a lifetime of extremely authentic battle scenes. The Battle of Mars La Tour (above) is bloodier than most, without the typical "glorification" of war seen in much of Detaille's works painted between 1870 and his death in 1912. The Funeral Service of General Damremont (above, left) dates from an earlier war in Algeria (1837). Toward the end of his life, Detaille was having to go further and further back in history to find French military victories to glorify. His 1888 La Reve (The Dream, below) is considered the best of his later works--a meeting of illusionary glory and hard reality.

La Reve, 1888, Edouard Detaille, the paradox of peace and beauty on a battlefield.



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