Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 1, 2019
Katie Hornstein Picturing War in France: 1792–1856 New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018. 208 pp.; 100 color ills.; 46 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (9780300228267)

Representations of war and soldierly actions have assuredly fascinated entire generations, especially during fragile political contexts such as revolutions and governmental changes. Rarely, however, has military imagery been dealt with from a critical art historical perspective. Military imagery has typically been understood in terms of its official ideological role and its capacity as a tool for the state to guide public opinion. Katie Hornstein has managed to invert this tendency. Her book on war imagery in the first half of the nineteenth century in France provides not only a brilliant discussion of the diversity of visual resources and references that were used in military imagery, but also a deeply researched study of the sociocultural context in which this imagery developed.

Consistently relying on sharp analyses and a compelling historical approach, the author focuses on the changing perception of warfare in France from the late eighteenth century to the end of the Crimean War in 1856. Hornstein has two primary objectives. First, she aims to identify and discuss the number of links and interactions between different visual images such as prints, maps, paintings, and photographs in order to understand the political consequences of these exchanges. The consideration of a multitude of media allows an accurate and far-reaching discussion of these visual dynamics. Hornstein then goes a step further by investigating “the ways in which representations of armed conflict functioned as ‘communicative spaces’ in which French audiences might take an unofficial stake in politics and negotiate their relationship to the fledgling idea of the nation” (3), borrowing the term “communicative spaces” from Jurgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (2014). This second objective leads her to recontextualize war images in terms of their impact on the art market, the response of the public, and the number of governmental initiatives aimed at controlling military images as a way to show state achievements and strength. This mechanism of intermediality and bridging different modes of visual perception is evident throughout the book and spans political periods as well as sociocultural changes.

The volume consists of four chapters chronologically developed. Chapter 1 deals with the postrevolutionary and Napoleonic periods. In a certain way, this chapter represents the basis of the whole book, because war imagery dramatically flourished during the first years of the nineteenth century. As the author points out, the conflicts of this period were characterized by their ability to unify people from diverse social backgrounds and were therefore different from previous wars. Furthermore, the increase of the printmaking industry offered the grounds to develop an immediate and punctual understanding of military actions. Hornstein rightly pays much attention to the “role of spectatorship” (19), as demonstrated for instance by the discussion of Louis-Léopold Boilly’s The Reading of the Bulletin of the Grande Armée (1807). The direct participation of the public is indeed a crucial element of the newly developed accessibility of such images, an effect encouraged by the work of artists who also served as military officers. Louis-Guislain Bacler d’Albe and Louis-François Lejeune show the importance of direct observation in the production of artworks whose collective sense of veracity was somehow guaranteed by the personal experience of war.

The depiction of violence and death in the context of war proved to be a matter of debate, with a wealth of archival and primary sources shedding light on the complex perspective of being an eyewitness. This eyewitness perception privileged during the postrevolutionary period was radically questioned during the Bourbon Restoration (1815–30), which is the focus of chapter 2. Despite political changes, Napoleonic representations of warfare continued to fascinate public opinion and artists. The Bourbon government painstakingly attempted to censor the conditions and contexts of production as well as the reception of these representations, trying to rely on their popularization as a factor of national unity rather than as a symptom of political nostalgia. Hornstein shows how military imagery during the Restoration reacted to the need for political stability after the Napoleonic period. Her analysis stems from the eyewitness mechanism initiated by artists-officers. For instance, she demonstrates that Lejeune’s View of the Monastery and the Ancient Bulls of Guisando, on the Banks of the Albergo, in Castilla (1817) actually dates back to a personal experience from April 1811, when the painter was ambushed by guerillas in Spain. Hornstein’s analysis here is thought provoking because, indeed, while the landscape might formally recall the composition found in the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Jakob van Ruisdael’s Jewish Cemetery of the rainbow and storm-like atmosphere, the artist’s depiction is in fact a military painting referring to the Napoleonic period.

Given that chapter 2 focuses on the changing approach to military subjects under the restored Bourbon monarchy, Horace Vernet’s works during this period provide an important full-scale study of the impact of war imagery on shifting public perceptions. Hornstein starts with the examination of paintings such as Vernet’s Battle of Tolosa (1817), which no longer depicts Napoleonic warfare but an episode from the Crusades, underlining a new coexistence between medieval and Napoleonic subjects. The author shows how Vernet appropriated military subjects and their narrative impact, even in his nonmilitary paintings. The most striking example of this process is possibly the Crossing of the Arcole Bridge, exhibited at the 1827 Salon. The impact of this painting is utterly critical because it proved the passage from a mere representation of a historical event to a painting that offered a performance-like experience.

Chapter 3 focuses on how military paintings during the July Monarchy (1830–48) were deeply involved in the political criticism determined by the complex development of French society and the differentiation of social classes in the 1830s and 1840s. The public craze for military subjects during the July Monarchy provided King Louis-Philippe with the means to promote the official politics of the new constitutional monarchy but also to potentially fight the critical perception of France’s military actions that led to the colonization of Algeria. Beyond paintings, Hornstein also considers how alternative formats such as Jean-Charles Langlois’s panorama of The Battle of Navarino (1827) provided an alternative exhibition space, or  communicative space, distinct from the more official discourse of the Salon. The study of Langlois’s panorama focuses on the role of the imagination that such objects generated. The structure of the panorama evidently contributed to a process of projection that spanned artistic and recreational spheres. Spectatorship, intended as individual experience, is again called into question as the author meticulously reconstructs the perception of panoramas and the aftermath of warfare, representations described by some contemporaries as the “horrifying truth” (108). This narrative and historical approach is further analyzed in Vernet’s paintings on the colonization of Algeria. Hornstein shows here how Vernet worked on his subjects and what pictorial solutions he developed to serve his visual project. A parallel between Langlois’s panorama and Vernet’s The Siege of Constantine: The Assault (1839) gives evidence of how the narrative and chronological dimension of the panoramic format entered military painting to trouble the government’s official perspective of war.

The last chapter of the book is devoted to the representation of the Crimean War (1853–56). The author insists on the fact that this conflict is the first one to be widely pictured by photography. Indeed, while photography served as a medium to illustrate conflicts, nothing of this scale had ever been done so far and France’s involvement in the Crimean War during the Second Empire offered the grounds to develop new visual and technical technologies. The increasing popularity of press illustrations played a crucial role within this context because it represented a quick and effective way to produce a truthful image of an ongoing conflict. Contemporaries debated the function of photographic reportage and on the position of photographers in battlefield. Such discussion also yields the opportunity to study and contextualize lesser-known artists whose works have hardly been studied. This is the case, for instance, of Henri Durand-Brager, who produced a series of twenty-one paintings on the Siege of Sebastopol, exhibited at the 1857 Salon. These paintings were much indebted to Durand-Brager’s practice as a photographer and put forward the industrial dimension of this conflict. The diffusion of warfare imagery evidently and progressively relied on mass production as demonstrated in the last part of the chapter.

Overall, Hornstein’s methodology, groundbreaking research, wealth of documentation, and visual model make this book an innovative work that will be vital as a study reference. It also provides rich insight into the transformations that occurred in French society in the first half of the nineteenth century. The author’s strategy of focusing on the shifts in perception and moments of change offer significant contributions to art historical research and methodology.

Camilla Murgia
Faculty, History of Art, University of Lausanne

Please send comments about this review to