11 x 16 cm. (4 5⁄16 x 6 5⁄16 in.)
Pen and brown ink, brown wash, and white gouache highlights
As he was from a family of artists, Horace Vernet became familiar at a young age with a variety of techniques, including drawing, engraving and painting. He was the grandson of the famous Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-1789), seascape painting par excellence, and son of Antoine-Charles-Horace, called Carle Vernet (1758-1836), who stood out for his military paintings. He learned technique from his father and developed a particular attraction for equine depictions. In the paternal studio, Horace Vernet had the fortune to encounter the Romantic master, Theodore Gericault, with who he developed a friendship. Horace Vernet, by the way, did a portrait of Gericault in 1824, the year of his premature death.
A few years later, Vernet entered François-André Vincent’s studio, and crowned his training by winning the Prix de Rome in 1810. Very appreciated by the Bonaparte clan, he was to be chosen to do several portraits of Napoleon before the latter’s eviction, even as he became close to Jerome, King of Westphalia who also commissioned an equestrian portrait.
Horace Vernet remained faithful to the Empire, even after its collapse. During the first years of the Restoration, his prolific studio was frequented by many artists and other illustrious people who were hostile to Louis XVIII’s reign. Paradoxically,Vernet received valuable support from Louis-Philippe which enabled him to exhibit certain works in his studio which were considered antiroyalist and refused for the Salon. Nonetheless, because of the artist’s incontrovertible talent, he stood out in the Salons of 1826 and 1827, and was appointed Director of the Academy of France in Rome in 1829, a position which he occupied until his death in 1835.
The career of a military painter entailed rigorous study of the cavalry through observation of horse anatomy. Like his predecessor Gericault, Vernet displayed brilliant ease in execution of it. Our drawing shows the influence of the stay in Italy on the artist. The subject is familiar and was handled by Gericault in 1817: it consists of one of many sketches which were to serve in the execution of a work measuring about ten meters wide which in the end was never realized.
The picture depicts the departure of a race of wild horses in Rome, also called the Race of the Barbary Horses. Like his predecessor, Vernet depicts a few horses who have just exited their enclosure and struggle violently to escape the hands of the grooms who have a hard time holding them back. The work expresses the extreme fiery nervousness and excitement of these two rearing horses. To do so, Vernet sketched the forms close up in a very limited format with rapid pen strokes which communicate omnipresent tension.
The almost oppressive sense of animal energy and power is transmitted through the use of brown wash with accentuates the shadows, on the one hand and on the other, by clever use of white gouache which brings out the musculature of the horse on the right as a dominant compositional element. In this Romantic trend inspired by Gericault, Vernet thus illustrates the domination of the animal, and beyond that, of wild Nature over man, by exacerbating this uncontrollable power.
On can easily think that Vernet, like Gericault, realized this work in Italy after having attended this popular festival known as the Carnaval of Rome during which parades took place in the streets between Piazza del Popolo and Piazza Venezia, and horse races were held on the famous Corso.
With this sketch, Vernet demonstrates his undeniable gift for equestrian depictions. The work is imbued with a verve and fiery spirit characteristic of the Romantic trend which makes it possible to evoke the artist’s emotional sensitivity.
This sketch probably served as a première pensée for the realization of the oil on canvas painting by the artist in 1820 now conserved in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and which probably inspired the artist’s father to produce a canvas depicting the same subject on an even more ambitious scale. The wider composition made it possible to bring attention to the large crowd present in the bleachers in the background who are waiting impatiently for the show to begin.
• Paris, Galerie de Bayser
• France, private collection.