54 x 45.5 cm. (21 ¼ x 17 15/16 in.)
Oil on canvas
• France, Private Collection
• Henri Regnault (1843-1871), Municipal Museum of Saint-Cloud, exh. cat. Oct. 16th, 1991 – Jan. 5th, 1992, Saint-Cloud, 1991.
• Manet Velázquez: la manière espagnole au XIXe siècle, exh.cat. Orsay Museum (2002-2003), The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2003), RMN, Paris, 2003.
“In the middle of so many vulgar types, he was an incomparable diamond whose sparkle I loved (…) He rose as do the most talented.”
The son of the influential Director of the Sèvres Manufactory, Alexandre-Georges-Henri Regnault grew up at the Park of Saint-Cloud under an imposing paternal figure. Victor Regnault was a brilliant Polytechnician at the origin of fundamental discoveries in the areas of Physics and Chemistry, and a member of the Academy of Science. In addition to his functions at the Sevres Manufactory, he was president of the French Society of Photography, thus demonstrating his particular artistic interest which he was cultivating when he discovered his son’s precocious gifts for drawing which he started practicing at the age of four years old. Henri Regnault gradually asserted a taste for painting while fascinated with his colorist predecessors whom he admired during his visits to the Louvre.
Caught in a tormented artist period, witness to the birth of the Salon des Refusés, young Regnault nonetheless joined the official route at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He followed the teaching of Antoine-Alphonse Montfort (1802-1884), a student of Gros and Horace Vernet, and Gericault’s friend, and of Louis Lamothe (1822-1869), a student of Ingres and Flandrin who brought him quite a contrasting vision of contemporary painting. At Beaux-Arts, he was also pushed towards academism by Alexander Cabanel’s advice (1823-1889), before he chose to disengage himself from it, and thus avoided succumbing to the success of a painting so ardently “licked” or over polished.
In a burst of nationalism, Henri Regnault died prematurely at the age of 27 during the last battle of the War of 1870, called the Battle of Montretout-Buzenval. Notwithstanding his short career, he left a large production of drawings, watercolors, and paintings behind which show that despite a totally academic education, the young artist easily deployed his own style inspired by his travels between Morocco, Italy and Spain.
19th century Art History has retained the powerful aura of Spanish painting for the Golden Century in French painting. By 1838, critics evoked “a Franco-Spanish school:”
“(…) Courbet, Manet and Ribot came to learn in the dark harsh galleries where Zurbaran, Ribera, Velasquez, and Goya proclaimed their exalted convictions and their intense feelings about life.”
Regnault did not escape this influence. Fascinated during his Italian sojourn by the Spanish brushwork of Mariano Fortuny (1838-1874), Regnault decided to gain the country on the other side of the Pyrenees in 1868. In Madrid, he sketched daily life in the capital’s streets directly from life. They served as models for his painted works. He also covered the Prado Museum galleries where he admired Velazquez’ virtuosity in its monumentality. His large majestic equestrian portraits in particular led him to conceive his portrait of Juan Prim, considered as one of the masterpieces of his career. (ill. 1)
Upon arriving in Madrid in August, Regnault witnessed a revolution a month later led by Juan Prim (1814-1870) which brought Isabelle de Bourbon’s reign to an end. A politician and military general, Prim was famous for having led a campaign against Morocco in 1859, as well as the expedition to Mexico with the French and English troops in 1862. Through his many letters, Regnault described the tumultuous Spanish political situation to his father, and drew close to the instigators, including General Prim himself who entrusted him with the task of his triumphant portrait. In November of the same year, Regnault thus presented his ambitious project:
“On my canvas, Prim arrives from the right (…); he has just climbed a slope; having arrived at the summit, he stops his horse short (…) and salutes both liberty and his fatherland which he is allowed to see again, no longer as an outlaw, but almost as a master. Behind him, further back in space, armed Catalans and peasants carrying flags are rising up.”
For his final painted works, Regnault multiplied drawings and sketches in pencil, watercolor and oil (ill. 2 et 3). Our work constitutes terrific evidence of the artist’s creative thoughts: a completed thought-out sketch in an easel format on a canvas support. Exempt of superfluous details, the work becomes a work of reflection making it possible to realize the organization of the composition, the rendering of forms, as well as the color harmonies. This sketch already brings the powerful heroic figure of the general into focus as he dominates the center of the composition which is rendered with more attention than are the figures of the revolutionary soldiers and Catalan peasants in the background with their bodies and faces suggested by colored masses.
It is interesting to compare our sketch with a second, from a private collection, in which the details are gradually affirmed (ill. 4), and bring out a few slight compositional variations in relation to our work, such as the height of the red standards in the middle ground on the right.
Quite immersed in the works of his predecessors Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) and Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), Regnault is an inventive colorist. His fiery palette is composed of intense deep hues going from red to English green via blues. Black is used skillfully here to give a preponderant place to the figure of the horse and rider which form a dark dense blob filling the viewer’s field of vision. With the opposition created by their head movements, the group instantly creates a powerful dynamic line which assures compositional stability. The rest of the canvas is worked in warm and sometimes brilliant colors such as the red of the standards, as well as the ochre and yellow of the clouds which unravel in the light as synonyms for hope and renewal. The ensemble blends into dull earthy colors of the revolution, spilled blood and ground trampled by war. Volume is added through the effects of impasto and whirling brushstrokes charged with pigment which bring sky and earth together.
Regnault’s work was praised for his lively colorist powerfulness, rather than for minute attention to detail, but by exercising the depiction of passions on the canvas. With these figures which are only sketched, Regnault suggests more than what he puts on paper: more than a portrait of General Prim, the work is intended as an allegory of victory.
After long process of thinking about how to elaborate his masterpiece, the equestrian portrait of Juan Prim was presented at the Salon of 1869 and won the Gold Medal. This monumental canvas was certainly one of the most admired in Regnault’s lifetime and was acquired by the State a year after his death. It was exhibited in the Luxembourg Museum and then the Louvre before being hung in the Orsay Museum.
The boldness of Henri Regnault’s works assured that they were particularly original among Second Empire paintings and ahead of his time in their anticipation of many 20th century painters:
“France lost a great artist in Regnault, a future leader of a school who should have renewed art annoyed by affectations or degraded by realism, and instead continued the glorious traditions of French Painting.”
(Henri Baillière at the exhibition, Henri Regnault in 1872, p. 100)