• The artist’s collection.
• Probably the artist’s post-mortem sale, Paris, Drouot, May 10th-12th, 1860, lot 101 (“L’oeil du Maître (Dresde 1813). Sepia.") Purchased for 90 francs by "Black."
• M. de Ressac Collection (according to inscription on verso of the mount.)
• France, Private Collection.
"We leave his imagination and freedom to each artist, under the condition that at the same time he permits us to defend the truth of art for all time. For these reasons, we were very moved, it would be difficult to say to what point, by this little drama by Raffet. During a stormy night, the emperor dreamt of his victory the next day, and who is to say it would be a useless victory. In this scene, which is terrible through being simple, no preparation, no studies, nothing heroic...Of course, nothing here resembles an ode, dithyramb or war poem from the Pindaric period, and yet in it is interest and sympathy, that is to say that the most difficult problem of art is demonstrated.”
An anonymous author described Denis-Auguste Raffet’s lithograph soberly intitled 1813 in these terms in L’Artiste. The era of the Grand Army, the tragedy of the last year of the Empire, the solitude of the Emperor-soldier almost stripped of his crown, seemed to be summarized here by an artist who was already famous for restituting drama into recent episodes from history without any grandiloquent body language or the theatricality of academic painters.
Nephew to General Nicolas Raffet, orphaned of his father at an early age, Denis Auguste Raffet began his career as an apprentice painter and porcelain gilder. Passionate about drawing, he followed the courses at the Swiss Academy and in 1824, entered the studio of Nicolas-Toussaint Charlet (1792-1845), draughtsman and lithographer specialized in military scenes and helped construct the Napoleonic legend, along with Horace Vernet and Hippolyte Bellangé. In 1829, thanks to Charlet, the young artist, who had already published many lithographs in his master’s tradition, was admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the studio of Baron Gros. There, Raffet drew on his great ability and power of composition to free himself totally from Charlet’s influence.
As a painter, Raffet became famous mainly for his series of historic plates and illustrations of works, of which Thiers’ Histoire de la Révolution française (History of the French Revolution) and Norvins’ Histoire de Napoléon which appeared in 1829 decorated with 351 engravings. Characterized by critics as the “painter of the French Army,” Raffet avoided anecdote and large panoramic views in his military subjects. Rather he sought verity, as much in the details as the poses, and was helped by his keen sense of observation and multiple sketches after Nature. The artist concentrated on a precise instant so as to give an historic event the appearance of a scene seen and experienced.
Raffet’s Prints Entitled 1813
The lithograph which appeared in L’Artiste in 1836 was not the first to bear the simple date of 1813 as the title. In 1833, Raffet published an album of twelve plates which traced the campaign in Germany through a few historic and genre scenes, and without any battle views. Opening the collection, 1813 shows Napoleon riding a magnificent white horse followed by his marshals and officers. Further along, plate 6 shows his guards’ grenadiers passing the battle front in review. Finally, he is seen in the center of L’Œil du maître, plate 8, standing upright, his lorgnette in hand, with a lively conquering gaze directed outside of the frame, while the battle of Dresden rages in the background.
After three years and several engravings more devoted to the twilight of the Empire, Raffet gave L’Artiste a composition which, under the title 1813 , actually came from L’Œil du maître. Napoleon is standing in the center on a knoll turned towards the spectator with an impenetrable serious gaze. His hands are behind his back and tighten on the back of the chair on which he leans. To his left, the saddled mount from L’Œil du maître gives way to a shelter constituted of boards where two camp aides write the orders which an ordinance officer awaits. To Napoleon’s right, the grenadiers advance in rows rendered virtually ghostly by the smoke and driving rain. That no more allusion is made to the Battle of Dresden, the Emperor’s last great victory, reinforces the allegorical aspect of the plate which isolates Napoleon’s figure as it anticipates his fall and the disappearance of the Grand Army.
A preparatory study to this lithograph, our drawing proves that the artist had envisaged dramatizing the scene even more, while making it more trivial and situating it more precisely in Dresden in the rain in the early morning on the second day of battle, August 27th, 1813. Although one finds the hut with the camp aides and the officer as they will appear in the lithograph, logically reversed from the plate for L’Artiste, everything else is different. Leaning on his chair, the Emperor here is seen from the back observing troop maneuvers on the plain. His immediately recognizable slightly curved silhouette does not in the least make it possible to guess the thoughts which absorb him and make him ignore the storm which descends on the battle field.
The scene is handled swiftly, as if taken on site. The nervous alert brushstroke only captures essentials, and suggests in a few lines the violence of the rain, the cuirassiers’ movements, the wind blowing through Napoleon’s clothes and the folds of the canvas covering the shelter. Playing with the softness of diluted ink and the clarity of the paper left in reserve in places, Raffet distributes the masses, planes, and models the volumes with a rare sense of chiaroscuro. To finish, he reinforces the opacity of the smoke with gouache and thus confirms its central place, against all the academic rules. Abandoned in the final lithograph, this intensely dramatic staging reveals the complexity of the Napoleonic figure in Raffet’s oeuvre. It shows a painter who is more Romantic than in his lithographs and sketches after Nature, to the point that the text in L’Artiste seems to correspond curiously better to our drawing, with its simultaneously lyric and tense atmosphere, than to the lithograph.
General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
Pierre LADOUE, Un peintre de l’épopée française : Raffet, Paris, A. Michel, 1946.
Hector GIACOMELLI, Raffet, son œuvre lithographique et ses eaux-fortes , Paris, 1862.