Horace Vernet was born in Paris in 1789 and was predestined for art by family inheritance: the grandson of the engraver Jean Moreau le Jeune (1741-1814) on his mother's side and, on his father's, of Joseph Vernet (1714-1789), France's foremost painter of land- and seascapes, he was casually trained by his father, Carle Vernet (1758-1836), the witty chronicler of the elegancies of the post-Revolutionary decades and the empire. A prodigy in his childhood, a professional in his teens, he was spurred by financial needs arising from his early marriage in 1811 to exploit his phenomenal native facility. A torrent of saleable work soon poured from his studio: fashion designs, caricatures, portraits, horses in the manner of Carle, and landscapes in the manner of Joseph. In 1814 he was among the civilian defenders of Paris against the approaching allies, an episode he later represented in La Barrière de Clichy (1820, Louvre). In the early years of the Restoration, his studio became the meeting place of artists and veterans openly hostile to the Bourbon government. Much to that government's irritation, he flaunted his cult of Napoleon and found a patron in Louis-Philippe, duc d'Orléans, head of the disaffected cadet branch of the dynasty. A resolute modernist but little affected by romanticism, he befriended Gericault and was one of the Pioneers of lithography. In a series of battle scenes from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, Jemmapes, Montmirail, Hanau, and Valmy, painted for the duc d'Orléans in 1821-1826 (National Gallery, London), he gave a foretaste of what was to become his speciality. His discreetly conciliatory gestures to the government had meanwhile been gratefully received and were producing prompt results. In short order, he was made an officier of the Legion of Honor (1825), a member of the Institute (1826), and after successes at the Salons of 1826 and 1827 was appointed director of the French Academy in Rome (1829). During his seven years there, he displayed an agile versatility with paintings of Italian popular life (Tbe Brigand's Confession), oriental subjects (Tbe Arab Story-teller), and historical anecdotes (Encounter of Raphael and Michelangelo in the Vatican). The Revolution in July 1830, which raised Louis-Philippe, Vernet's patron, to the throne, opened vast opportunities of official employment to him. The rapid flow of state commissions for battle pieces that now came his way taxed even his prodigious facility. Four very large canvases for the Galerie des Batailles at Versailles, shown at the Salon of 1836, were followed by a second series in 1841. Accepting his calling as that of a painter of modern national subjects, specifically of scenes of combat, Vernet conceived of his work as a form of eyewitness reportage that required observation at the actual theaters of war. In five long visits to North Africa (1833, 1837, 1839-1840, 1845, 1853), he gathered on-the-spot documentation of the French conquests in Algiers and Morocco, material that he later worked up into wall-size canvases destined for Versailles. Louis-Philippe's overthrow by the Revolution of 1848 and the advent of Napoleon III in 1849 scarcely affected his activity. The year 1850 found him at the French siege of Rome; in 1854 he visited the battlefields of the Crimea. He had in the meantime enjoyed the lucrative patronage of Czar Nicholas I during two long visits to Russia in 1836 and 1842-1843.
The Universal Exposition of 1855, at which he was represented by twenty-four paintings, crowned his popular and official success. His reputation among artists and critics, on the other hand, was not uncontested. Baudelaire scathingly referred to him as "un militaire qui fait de la peinture," and while his painstaking factuality and the sheer magnitude of his production commanded respect, the prosy shallowness of his realism, his stylistic banality, and the stridency of his chauvinism were early noted and contributed to the eventual neglect of his work. At the time of his death in 1863, Vernet, a member of thirty academies, was nevertheless France's most famous artist, admired and imitated throughout Europe and deeply imbedded in popular culture. [This is the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Durande, Amédée. Joseph, Carle et Horace Vernet. Paris, 1864.
Blanc, Charles. Une Famille d'artistes. Les trois Vernet, Joseph, Carle, Horace. Paris, 1898.
Dayot, Armand. Les Vernet. Paris, 1898.
Silvestre, Théophile. "Horace Vernet." Les Artistes français. Edited by Elie Faure. Paris, 1926: 2:38-73.
Eitner, Lorenz. French Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I: Before Impressionism. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2000: 351-352.