Anthelme -François Lagrenée (Paris, 1774–1832)

Portrait of a Young Cuirassier Officer

Oil on canvas
115.5 x 89 cm. (45 ½ x 35 in.)
Signed lower right: Lagrenée

• Collection in Sologne.
• Sale, Rouillac Auctioneers, Artigny, 4 October 2020, lot 108, when acquired by the present owner.

The son of Louis-Jean François Lagrenée (Paris, 1724–1805), Anthelme-François Lagrenée was a celebrated portrait painter active at the turn of the nineteenth century. Born in Paris in 1774 and initially trained by his father, he became a pupil of François-André Vincent (Paris, 1746–1816) before serving in the French army during the Revolution. He returned to painting in about 1799, when he participated in the Salon for the first time and where he continued exhibiting periodically until 1831. After marrying a comedienne, Lagrenée portrayed numerous actors and actresses, as exemplified by his famous portrait of actor François-Joseph Talma (1763–1826) as Hamlet (1810, Paris, Comédie Française). With his fame as a portrait painter spreading across Europe, Lagrenée moved to Russia in 1817, where he remained for eight years. In Saint Petersburg, he received commissions from the most eminent aristocrats of the time, including Emperor Alexander I (1777– 1825). In Russia, Lagrenée specialized in miniatures and imitations of cameos, to which he dedicated himself assiduously after he returned to Paris in 1825.

This painting, an arresting example of Lagrenée’s excellence as a portraitist, depicts a resplendent officer posing nonchalantly in front of a landscape and gazing at the viewer. Attired in his ceremonial winter uniform with its glowing breastplate over a dark waistcoat and trousers highlighted with scarlet ruffles and trim, he places his bare left hand on the pommel of his sword while his white-gloved right hand holds the other glove. As he casually leans against a low earthen wall, his helmet can be glimpsed resting on its grassy surface behind his right arm.

This young man with sky grey eyes, the bright complexion of an outdoor life, short dark wavy hair, slight traces of nascent beard, and somewhat contemplative expression would seem more at place in a Salon than on a battle field in a society where the older sons inherited property and the younger ones had the choice between a military and clerical career. The ungloved hand, whose long fine fingers and well-kept nails seem more adapted to social graces than hard work, pulls our attention back to a carefully depicted town which remains to be identified. Its Vauban-style fortifications, distinctive monumental church, square tower, and other substantial buildings at the foot of a mountain indicates a place which was significant for this officer, such the site of an exploit, a victory, the base where he was stationed, or a family property.

In front of it, on an open plain beyond a river, a cavalry squadron two ranks deep is deployed for a typical drill or parade exercise. This formation was typical of the second of three main methods of attack by closed squadrons. Two lines of riders were staggered so that evenly spaced gaps in the front line would be covered by cavaliers in the second. In our painting, four riders stand out. Facing the troops, a commander gestures an order, while the squadron leader with his back to the battalion holds his steed at attention. Two mounted officers, also with their backs to the battalion, charge forward, one on each side of the squadron leader.

Our officer’s rank as lieutenant is indicated by silver trim shoulder pieces and the lion heads on the hinge straps, a symbol reserved during the Restoration exclusively for officers. Further confirmation of his status is signaled by his polished steel chenille helmet with brass-covered chin straps, his silver-stitched red leather belt and scarlet ruffles formed by the breastplate’s lining.

The cuirass itself is comprised of polished steel breast and padded silk-lined back plates connected by two long straps riveted on the back plate, hinged at the shoulder and coming down over the breastplate. Originally from 1812, this model is the modified version of 1816 which remained in use until 1825, when a new design was introduced. The winter garb trousers – summer uniforms had white pants and waistcoats – date to 1817. Thus we can date the painting to between 1817 and 1825. Lagrenée might have executed it either before leaving Paris in 1817, immediately after returning there in 1825, or during a possible sojourn in France while living in Russia.

During the Napoleonic Wars, cuirassiers achieved great prominence and became the heaviest, most splendid section of French cavalry. After the Restoration of Louis XVIII in 1815, the six Cuirassier regiments were renamed after the Queen, the Crown Prince, his sons, and the Orleans and Condé families.

It has been suggested that the officer may have belonged to either the Berry Regiment or the Sixth Regiment of Condé Cuirassiers created in 1815. The red hues of the uniform’s lining, ruffle, collar, trousers’ stripes and belt are characteristic of both. The sword’s hilt showcases a shield with three lilies surmounted by a crown and sided by flags. An almost identical blazon appears in the hilt of a sword and in a belt plaque from the Berry regiment. The border encircling the three lilies might visualise the “bordure engrêlée de gueules,”or red scalloped border, distinctive of the Berry coat of arms, which in more modern times was also depicted crenellated, as on this occasion.

The artist was inspired by Theodor Gericault’s work (Rouen, 1791 – Paris, 1824), such as the Wounded Cuirassier Leaving the Fire [of Battle], (1814, Paris, Louvre Museum), exhibited at the Salon in 1814, and one of its preparatory studies Wounded Cuirassier (Paris, Louvre Museum). While Géricault caught his subjects in action, struggling on the battlefield, Lagrenée portrayed his sitter in all his splendor, as did Antoine-Jean Gros (Paris, 1771- Meudon, 1835) in his Portrait of Lieutenant Charles Legrand (1810, Los Angeles County Museum.) Legrand’s father, the Comte Juste Alexandre Legrand, one of Napoleon’s most distinguished generals, commissioned the portrait from Gros after his son died in the Madrid rebellion of May 2, 1808. Whether posthumous or not, Lagrenée’s portrait similarly belongs to a type of portraiture which glorified young members of the French elite who proudly did military service and, in many instances, died for their country.

Although the conditions of the present commission are unknown, one can hypothesize Lagrenée obtained it through acquaintances or family connections. He had himself served in the army and his family was close to military circles, as attested by some portraits of military men executed by Lagrenée’s father and uncle Jean-Jacques (1739-1821). These include the Equestrian Portrait of General Jean Rapp (Colmar, Unterlinden Museum) by the former and the Portrait du Colonel Poudavigne (Bordeaux, Museum of Fine Arts) by the latter.

The extreme clarity and precision of the painting, the lack of visible brushstrokes and the modeling of volumes by half tones is reminiscent of Ingres’ Neoclassical style, rather than of the turbulence of Romantic painting. Lagrenée masterfully rendered the man’s cuirass, which simultaneously shines and reflects his hand and sword grip. The inclusion of such a detail suggests once again Lagrenée’s knowledge of Ingres, who often included reflections in his portraits.

Lagrenée would fully exploit his talents for pictorial precision when he turned to miniature painting, which constituted the majority of his oeuvres in the last decade of his life.


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