Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 22, 2019
Katie Hornstein Picturing War in France, 1792–1856 New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018. 208 pp.; 100 color ills.; 46 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (9780300228267)
Thumbnail

In Picturing War in France, 1792–1856, Katie Hornstein examines four distinct phases of the history of the representation of warfare in France, beginning with works made during the revolutionary wars and the First Empire, through the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy, and culminating in the visual culture of the Crimean War of 185356. In four impressively researched and eloquently written main chapters, the author examines the viewing experience of contemporary warfare as mediated through paintings, prints, and photographs as well as technologies of mass spectacle with the overarching goal of highlighting “new forms of spectatorship that emerged around nineteenth-century war imagery” (5). Doing so requires creating a nuanced account of the heterogeneity of the visual culture through which the beholders at home were made to imaginatively participate in wars being waged on their behalf, a task the author successfully accomplishes. One theme explored throughout the book is the interchanges among popular culture, mass media, and painting. Hornstein demonstrates that in the work of some of the most innovative practitioners, what may at first seem like distinct realms of representation with different conventions were put in productive conversations, such as when topographical maps informed new modes of detail-based battle paintings by Louis-François Lejeune, or panoramic viewing experiences were translated to monumental easel paintings in the work of Horace Vernet.

The first chapter focuses on the visual culture of the Napoleonic campaigns, bringing to light a series of fascinating objects attesting to the richness and complexity of the material culture, which aimed to give meaning to overseas battles in the light of shifting political agendas. Hornstein convincingly highlights how popular prints and maps, and in particular campaign maps of exploits abroad, entered public consumption and imagination in an unprecedented manner at a period when France’s borders constantly changed due to intensive military campaigns. As Hornstein argues, these kinds of mediated experiences of ongoing battles were in line with the ideological novelty of postrevolutionary warfare in France: these were causes now promoted in the name of the people. The chapter puts into conversation many pieces well explored in art historical scholarship, such as Antoine-Jean Gros’s Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims at Jaffa (1804), with those that are lesser-known today (yet which, in their time, were wildly popular and influential battle paintings), such as those by Louis-François Lejeune, an artist who fought in the Napoleonic campaigns. The author’s analysis focuses on a series of innovative pictorial devices that promoted Lejeune’s paintings—themselves informed by topographical maps of battlefields—as eyewitness accounts, and generated visceral responses in the viewers who were invited to participate by proxy. In Lejeune’s paintings, the primacy of proliferating details replaced the established compositional template of centralized action and actors offered by conventional modes of history painting. Paintings such as the artist’s The Battle of Aboukir (displayed at the same Salon of 1804 in Paris as Gros’s Jaffa) not only invited viewers to participate in their minds’ eyes in recent battles waged abroad in their name, but also functioned as ideological tools, representing the constantly changing outlines of the empire as a stable entity that could be visually possessed.

The impact of Lejeune’s innovations becomes clear when Hornstein discusses the visual culture of the Restoration, and in particular the work of Horace Vernet, in chapter 2. Vernet’s strong debt to Lejeune’s strategies is revelatory. Vernet’s pictorial inventions addressed a public that remembered the Napoleonic past while living under the restored Bourbon rule. As Hornstein argues, Vernet’s paintings of the recent past did not merely appeal to existing political factions within French society; in the open-endedness of the scenarios presented in these paintings, their audiences were able to formulate and articulate their positions in relation to contemporary politics. As such, art played a role in forming political identities, rather than being a mere representation of them. In a persuasive visual analysis of Vernet’s masterly The Crossing of the Arcole Bridge (1826), which depicts the collapse of command chain experienced by Napoleon Bonaparte in the first Italian campaign in 1796, Hornstein demonstrates how the multiple pictorial devices developed by Vernet emphasize the depicted event as an ongoing incident at the moment of the viewing—and not as the bygone past independent of the present—enabling viewers to project themselves into the scene. Reading this against predominant contemporaneous accounts of the incident at the Arcole Bridge in terms of the treason of the soldiers who refused to follow Bonaparte’s orders, Hornstein interprets the painting’s popularity through its success in conveying the possibility of agency for the individual members of a collective to make a decision for or against a leader. According to the author, the overwhelming popularity of Napoleonic themes in representations of war during the Restoration, at a time when official state propaganda was hard at work demonizing the Napoleonic past, signals the agency of the disenfranchised populations, who were resisting the myriad methods of political oppression and control exercised by the state.

When Louis-Philippe took over France’s rule with the July Revolution, one of the ideological devices with which his regime attempted to control contemporary political sentiments was regulating the narration of the past. The historical museum he established at the Versailles Palace and the series of paintings he commissioned in that context played a key role in this attempt to control the memory of the past, as discussed in chapter 3. One of the most ambitious paintings to be completed for the Gallery of Battles at Versailles was Vernet’s Capture of the Smalah of Abd-el-Kader by the Duc d’Aumale at Taguin, 16 May 1843 (1845), but it is Hornstein’s discussion of the triptych depicting The Siege of Constantine (1838–39) that brings home the point that Vernet put his mastery of epic painting in the service of the empire at a time when opposition at home belittled France’s colonial ambitions in Algeria. While the two flanking canvases show the French army’s preparations and the aftermath of the assault, the central and largest scene depicts the beginning of the attack on the walled city of Constantine. The author’s deft selection and analysis of a few details from a whopping hundred square meters of canvas surface packed with incidental details is a tour de force in highlighting the numerous narrative and pictorial devices the now mature and experienced Vernet implements in this grand machine of a painting. The work ceaselessly blitzes the viewer’s eyes, tempting her to become a willing participant in what is presented as an ongoing heroic feat of capturing the Algerian city. Hornstein once again puts these pictorial strategies of viewer participation in the broader visual cultural context, demonstrating Vernet’s indebtedness not only to Lejeune’s topographical battle paintings but also to yet another, more recent optical device carefully calibrated to generate experiences in its viewers: the panorama. Jean-Charles Langlois’s popular panoramas of the 1830s, such as The Panorama of the Battle of Navarino (1831), offered visceral experiences of the sheer expanse of a battlefield, a landscape too large to be glimpsed in a single look. The lessons Vernet learned from the popularity of the panorama were than translated to the specific medium of easel painting in his Versailles works.

The fourth and final chapter, which examines the visual economy of the Crimean War, is perhaps the most original section of the book in terms of the novelty of the objects Hornstein discusses, as well as the connections she draws between different media. As the first artillery war, the Crimean War arguably initiated modern warfare. New technologies put an end to hand-to-hand battle and introduced the era of rockets and artilleries that effectively automated death. The representation of the Crimean War in the French press, through a combination of woodblock engravings purporting to be eyewitness accounts and military dispatches sent to the government, took on a serialized format. Unable to present the war in a single totalizing account, the print media instead offered it as steadily accumulating witness reports all purporting to add up to the ever-elusive larger picture, in effect transforming a slow war into “a sellable news event” (132). War photography also played an important role, presenting visual chunks of the battlefield as consumable representations of the totality of this unheroic, protracted, and devastating war that was unfolding far away. In fact, as Hornstein explains, the market quickly became oversaturated with war photographs sent from the front. In this context Hornstein’s discussion of the photographs taken by Henri Durand-Brager, which were then used to construct his series of paintings showing the Siege of Sebastopol at the Salon of 1857, makes a compelling case study that highlights the representational challenges posed by this new kind of warfare, and the legacy it left for the depiction of war in the following century.

Gülru Çakmak
Associate Professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.