Monday, 8 June 2015

HORSES IN ART ~ MARENGO


NAPOLEON CROSSING THE ALPS

The full title is Napoleon (1769 – 1821) Crossing the Alps at the St. Bernard Pass, 20th May 1800 c1800-1

  

This portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte was painted by Jacques-Louis David (1748 – 1825) circa 1800-1. It is an oil on canvas and measures 102 x 87 inches (8’6” x 7’3”, 260 x 221cm). David was an ardent Bonapartist and this shows in the majesty of the pose and the bold composition of the work. This painting was intended to infer greatness.
It is almost a piece of propaganda, for it shows Napoleon in an attitude of triumph, his fist raised, his horse in the half-rear stance known to nineteenth century equestrians as the pesade. The storm clouds behind are in stark contrast to the vibrant red of Napoleon’s cloak, the rocks and the glimpse of artillery in the background hinting at the struggle he had overcome. On the other hand, it has been suggested that those tiny figures represent the army following in Napoleon’s wake, small through distance but also to show their insignificance in the presence of their great leader. Whatever the truth of David’s intent, the viewer’s eye is taken straight to the horse and rider and held there in awe by the commanding combination of muscle and determination.
The portrait was painted after Napoleon’s victory at Marengo in June 1800 – the battle which gave the horse his name. The horse in the painting is believed to be Marengo, although the conception of the work is slightly from the realms of fantasy. Napoleon did cross the Alps at the St. Bernard Pass, but it was going towards Italy for his second campaign there, and he rode upon a mule! David also ignored the true nature of the landscape and used artistic licence to place his idol in a setting he considered of sufficient grandeur.
David would have been the perfect ‘spin doctor’, for he also used that same rose-tinted perspective on Napoleon himself. The General is depicted in heroic form; a lithe, athletic figure in the uniform he wore at Marengo and (at Napoleon’s insistence) on a perfect likeness of his favourite horse. It is almost like an author having a ghost writer, or hiring an actor to be their stand-in at public functions, for Napoleon was not a tall man, but here he dwarfs his charger.
The horse, too, is shown as a powerful, imposing creature, a king of his species despite his lack of stature. Indeed. The portrayal of Marengo is probably far more accurate than that of his master. Although standing a mere 14.1 hands (a hand is four inches, measured from the ground to the withers, at the base of the horse’s neck where it joins the back), Marengo was an Arab stallion, a breed renowned for their courage, endurance and fire, the latter yet tempered with a calm, steady nature in most individuals. Marengo was imported from Egypt in 1799, when he was aged about six. He may well have been bred at the celebrated El Naseri stud. He carried Napoleon safely through the Battle of Marengo and the Emperor was so impressed with his new charger’s prowess, he named him after the successful conflict.
Napoleon’s chargers were always superb Arab or Barb horses, mostly cream or grey and schooled at the Imperial Stud. They had to remain calm but ready for action on the battlefield and move with a smooth, even pace for the Emperor’s comfort on long-distance marches. Marengo was no exception. He carried his master at the conflicts at Austerlitz, Jena and Wagram, survived the disastrous Russian expedition of 1812 and is thought to have stayed at the Imperial Stud during Napoleon’s exile on Elba, before arriving at Waterloo at the grand old age of twenty-two.
In the painting, Marengo is performing the half-rear or pesade at Napoleon’s instruction. A movement which is now obsolete, having been replaced by the levade, the pesade was the early introduction for the horse to the ‘airs above the ground’. In the pesade, the horse must engage his hocks (bend them underneath him to support his body) and hold his forequarters off the ground at an angle of thirty-six degrees. In the levade, the angle is forty-five degrees. It takes a great deal of skill and strength from both horse and rider to perform this exercise – particularly if the horse is to be trained not to rear at will. That this is a pesade and not the rear of a frightened or resisting horse, can be determined by observing the rider. He is sitting upright, to keep his weight back and thus enabling the horse to raise his front legs rather than leaning forwards to push his mount back on to all fours; his lower leg is drawn back, the spur lightly asking the horse to lift, not administer discipline, and finally, the horse’s hocks are flexed to a ninety-degree angle, thus demonstrating their engagement.
Marengo, therefore, is showing by his posture that he is a noble steed worthy of a master who is a supreme horseman and king of all he surveys.
As might be expected, with respect to a combination as revered as l’Empereur and his battle horse, this is by no means the only painting of Napoleon and Marengo. The stallion was aged about thirty-one when James Ward produced an equally celebrated portrait of him in 1824. Set against a wild, stormy sky, the horse is depicted running free on a grassy cliff overlooking the sea at sunset. He is shown as being virtually white, which, given his advanced age, was most likely accurate, since grey horses lighten in colour as they grow older. I suspect it is a somewhat glamorized portrayal, to show him well cared for and happy in retirement. Marengo was captured by the British at Waterloo, and lived until the grand old age of thirty-eight, dying in 1831. His skeleton is now on display at the National Army Museum in London.
Marengo, James Ward 1824

Another purely equine portrait of Marengo was painted by Antoine-Jean, Baron Gros. In this he is again depicted as a dapple-grey, although lighter in tone than the David portrait. He has one foreleg raised and haunches lowered, in an attitude of spirit or defiance, as though about to spin around and take flight. He is shown with a thick, muscular neck and powerful hindquarters – again, a charger fit for an emperor, especially since he is harnessed with an ornate gold bridle and breastplate in addition to a richly ornamented saddle cloth of red and gold, with gold fringing, tassels and stirrups. His mane is plaited and embellished with red ribbon and gold tassels at each end, while a gold crupper is similarly adorned at the top of a flowing tail. Once again the message is clear – this magnificent creature is fit to carry the mighty Napoleon Bonaparte.

Marengo, Antoine-Jean, Baron Gros 1801


Baron Gros painted a similar portrait with Napoleon mounted, distributing the Sabres d’honneur aux Grenadiers after the Battle of Marengo. It is an evocative depiction, but undoubtedly owes more to a romantic ideal than actuality. Marengo is in the same pose as in the previously mentioned painting.


In the final two paintings I am looking at in this article, one by Ernest Messonier, painted in 1862, and one by Ludwig Elsholtz, 1845, Marengo is being ridden by Napoleon. In the former, they are set against a brooding landscape with indistinct figures representing the army in the background – suggestive, as in the David portrait, of their lack of importance when compared with the ‘great man’. Marengo is again pale grey, with darker tints in his mane and tail. The latter painting depicts him almost as a Victorian rocking horse – dapple-grey body with darker shading on the quarters, and black points, meaning mane, tail and lower legs. Interestingly, he has his right foreleg raised and is wearing the same elaborate harness in this painting as in the Baron Gros one. It appears that Elsholtz may have used Gros’ work as a reference for his own.


Napoleon I in 1814, Ernest Messonier 1862



Napoleon I with his generals, Ludwig Elsholtz 1845

We will never know, now, what Marengo’s true colour may have been, but one of his hooves, which was made into an inkwell, is on loan to the Household Cavalry Museum; it has a lock of white hair in the silver well.

As we get nearer to the Battle of Waterloo, I shall be telling Marengo’s story and revealing a possible mystery which has been unearthed!
~*~
 Beaux, Ballrooms, and Battles:
A Celebration of Waterloo 

When Susana Ellis put out the call for authors interested in collaborating in an Anthology set around the Battle of Waterloo, I jumped at the chance. It seemed a wonderful way to celebrate one of Britain’s most famous victories and a great excuse to write a story involving the fabulous Copenhagen. It has been both a learning experience and fun working with other, more established writers. After months of furious scribbling and editing, Beaux, Ballrooms and Battles was released to the world on 1st April, 2015.
“June 18, 1815 was the day Napoleon Bonaparte's Grande Armée was definitively routed by the ragtag band of soldiers from the Duke of Wellington's Allied Army in a little Belgian town called Waterloo. The cost in men's lives was high—22,000 dead or wounded for the Allied Army and 24,000 for the French. But the war with Napoleon that had dragged on for a dozen years was over for good, and the British people once more felt secure on their island shores.” Susana Ellis 

 

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Copenhagen’s Last Charge

When Meg Lacy encounters a broodingly handsome Light Dragoon at the Duchess of Richmond’s grand ball, she little expects that in the hours following the Battle of Waterloo she will be accompanying him around the streets of Brussels. Romance is the last thing on her mind as they seek a lost and valuable item belonging to the Duke of Wellington himself.
 

Lieutenant James Cooper is surly and unhelpful, but Meg senses the Dragoon will need her help if they are to succeed. As they bicker their way around the narrow streets, a strange empathy begins to develop as gradually glimpses of the man beneath start to be revealed. Meg finds herself drawn to that person, but when they finally recover and then return the item to the Duke, Cooper makes a grave error of judgement which jeopardizes their budding friendship… 

 

Excerpt

Standing beside her father as he discussed cavalry tactics with General Lord Edward Somerset, Meg had the opportunity to observe the milling crowd ‒ the flushed cheeks of the young ladies as they danced by with equally youthful, dashing officers; the happy smiles and carefree pursuit of pleasure, all as though the French were not gathering to Bonaparte’s banner with the intention of destroying them all. Although the beau monde of Brussels was partying as if the escaped Emperor were but a fly to be swatted, Meg took a more realistic view. During the crossing to the Continent, she had become acquainted with a young man, Godfrey Winterton, who was seeking his elder brother. Their father was ill, not expected to live beyond a few weeks and the boy – for he could barely own more than seventeen years – was desperate to find his sibling, the heir to the family estates, before the unthinkable occurred. Unthinkable it might be, but to Meg it was not something to be ignored, swept beneath a rug until someone fell over the ensuing lump. 

She was glad when the music stopped and Georgy came to claim her attention from her maudlin thoughts. In her tempestuous wake, Georgy dragged her brother, the Earl of March. He was a handsome young man of four-and-twenty, a few years senior to both Meg and his sister. He was already Aide-de-Camp to the Prince of Orange and bidding fair to enjoy an illustrious military career. 

He bowed deeply as Georgy presented them and begged the honour of the next dance. A quadrille was forming and feeling her cheeks heat at the honour he did her, when there were several beauties of higher rank present whom could be said to have greater claim, Meg curtsied. 

“I should be pleased, my lord.” The words had barely formed on her lips when Georgy nudged her arm. 

“Who do you suppose that could be?” 

Meg followed the line of her friend’s gaze to observe a tall, leanly built officer in the blue coat and white facings of a cavalry regiment, who was leaning casually against a pillar near the French windows, which had been opened to admit the warm night air. In his hand he held his red silk embellished dress helmet, as though he had little intention of remaining. 

“I cannot conjecture,” she replied with a smile. “Recollect I have but recently arrived and know hardly anyone.”
 “Oh, tush!” Georgy tapped the precious fan on Meg’s arm. “He is very fine, do you not agree?” She chuckled. “And with a mien almost as brooding as Lord Byron!” Turning abruptly to her brother, she said, “March, do be a dear and go discover who he is!”
 

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Photographs of Marengo and Copenhagen courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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