Saturday 20 September 2014

Book Review: Napoleon on Campaign - Carruthers

This lovely shiny new book arrived in todays post. I sat down and read it, cover to cover, in a few hours, and I spent quite a bit of that time just looking at the pictures.

Before I commence with the meat of this review, a few of the salient facts: this book is approximately 30 x 20 cm, in a landscape format orientation. There are, I believe (I did a quick count, but didn't go back and check!) 88 artworks, all printed in full colour. Paper and print quality are on the better than average side of good, but not premium. There are no picture credits or indexes, etc. All pictures shown here, except where noted, appear in the book (all sourced from 'commons' stock, I hasten to add).

I like Harriet Carruthers' book, as it certainly is, for the most part, a thing of beauty. She has also succeeded in her stated aims of letting 'the images do the talking' and showing that 'from war and conquest can come something beautiful.'

Certainly I share her enthusiasm for the subject, and can only applaud her desire to share 'a selection of old favourites lovingly chosen by one devotee for the enjoyment of all the others out there.' And I also, like her, have found that 'developing an interest in the life of Napoleon and the great story it tells, can be addictive and all consuming.'

One of the most iconic of early depictions of Bonaparte, a heroic rendering of his action on the bridge at Arcole, by Gros. This is a better reproduction than appears in the book, where the picture is severely cropped and too dark.

However, there are a number of things that I feel would've improved it. In her introduction she mentions that such things as the medium in which the art is produced, and the location in which it hangs are, for the purposes of her book, relatively unimportant. Consequently, such information is, for the most part, not given at all. 

I think this is a pity, making her book avowedly populist history of the kind in which one cannot check sources against provenance. There's also the fact that one might wish to know the locations of the original artworks, to facilitate seeing them 'in the flesh', so to speak.

The book would also certainly have benefited from longer captions, even if only supplying slightly more information. For example, the very first artwork, depicting the Siege of Toulon, shows artillery firing, alongside text briefly alluding to Napoleon's early military history. Yet the caption omits altogether the fact that Napoleon was himself an artillerymen, information both interesting in itself, but doubly so because it makes the choice of illustration more pertinent.

Battle of the Pyramids, one of a number of superb paintings by Louis-François, Baron Lejeune. The version in the book is severely cropped, mostly on the left. 

The quality of the printing is, in itself, very good. However, some of the images appear to have been sourced from fairly low resolution masters. I suspect, rather horrifyingly, from the web! A good example of this would be to contrast the first two depictions of the Battle of the Pyramids (a total of four portrayals of this event are included!), the first of which, by Watteau, is quite dark and slightly blurred, whereas the second, by LeJeune, is crisp and bright. 

This issue of reproduction quality really is a pity. For example, page 38's painting 'Napoleon and His Staff' really does look like an image sourced from the Internet, perhaps with a Photoshop filter used, in an attempt to soften the pixilated look. Shocking really!

For those who like to compare Napoleon with Hitler - something all to frequently done (especially by English historians), and a comparison which is, to my mind, although occasionally useful, more often isn't very enlightening - there is the Gautherot painting of 'Napoleon Ordering Troops Into Battle at Augsburg, 1805'. In this painting Napoleon's troops are depicted giving the Roman salute, as do the Horatii in David's famous painting of around the same time, 'The Oath of the Horatii'. At this time the Roman salute, in an era steeped in classical learning and allusion, had not yet acquired the sinister import it has taken on since Hitler and Mussolini.

Lejeune, Napoleon at Austerlitz, 1805 (poss. painted 1808?)

Returning briefly to the theme of tiny captions, I really do think a great opportunity has been missed. Okay, I can find out elsewhere about the artists themselves, or the more general art historical stuff, but more info on what is actually depicted would've been most welcome, and is sorely missed. 

A good example might be Napoleon at Austerlitz, on page 41, another great painting by Lejeune, in which Napoleon is shown in the centre of the painting, talking to some captured locals. Within this one highly skilful and deeply interesting painting, ranged around this central scene, are depicted numerous fascinating vignettes. Several typical rear echelon scenes are depicted: at centre left we see troops foraging, or rather pillaging; behind Napoleon we see his carriage, and around him his ADCs, including his Mameluke, Roustam. Elsewhere one sees such activities as troops gathered around a bivouac fire, whilst others gather wood, and yet others carry logs towards an artillery position, presumably for the building of defensive breastworks.

Overworked editor at a specialist press is overcome by fatigue and subsequently misses an entire proofing run.[1]

Although this book is absolutely fantastic in many ways, I still think it appropriate to remark that a suitably professional level of editorial finesse is severely wanting. The very scanty captions are littered with bad grammar and the like, as on page 44, where one sees two clumsy errors: the first, where the word 'on' appears where it should say 'of'; and the second, where a sentence begins clumsily with 'This however this did not bring...', instead of, presumably, 'However this did not bring...' One of he worst gaffes, but sadly not the only one of this sort, is when Carruthers says 'Napoleon's surrender ushered in almost 500 years of international peace in Europe'!

Even at what I assume was the intended 50, that'd be historically inaccurate (Crimean War anybody?), but the extra zero turns it from sloppy sounding history into a kind wacky and even more inaccurate Nostradamus style utterance! Near the end of the book we are also told he died in 1921! One has to wonder if anyone looked over the text in an editorial capacity.

Most of Felician Myrbach's works were entirely new to me, including this one, titled Marbot's Soldiers Foraging on the Retreat, showing troops in Russia rounding up cattle.

On the plus side, this book is chock full of wonderful paintings and prints and so on. Many of these images will be very familiar to those who love things Napoleonic, but there will also, more than likely, be some that you may not have seen before. I really like depictions of behind-the-scenes activities, such as the page 97 reproduction, depicting soldiers foraging on the retreat, in Russia 1812. This artwork, by Myrbach, who, though new to me, is featured heavily in this book, shows what I believe are French Chasseurs rounding up a herd of cattle in a forest.

Carruthers' captions running theme is the history of the Napoleonic wars, rather than information on the paintings illustrated. Those autodidact scholars, to whom Carruthers refers in her introduction, i.e. the dreaded Napoleonic buff, will almost certainly find a fair bit to quibble with, witness this review, brief as her synopsis style history is. There is also a slightly strange and possibly somewhat arbitrary balance, or imbalance, regarding the quantity of images given over to particular subjects, such that we have four paintings of the Battle of the Nile, but only one depicting Borodino.

Sadly this superb Lejeune painting, depicting Somo-Sierra, is not one of the two Peninsular War paintings that appear in this book.

Many British readers may be somewhat disappointed at the very thin coverage of the Peninsular War, in which England was heavily involved on the ground, rather than in her more normal role as financier. But for me, as someone more interested in the Austrian campaign of 1809, and yet more so the 1812 campaign in Russia, I could've done with more on those subjects. That said there are some very good images of both, particularly Russia 1812, including the fabulous 'Crossing the Berezina River', by Peter von Hess, a painting packed with imagery familiar to anyone who's read histories or memoirs of that disastrous but endlessly fascinating campaign.

Marshal Ney, 'bravest of the brave', as depicted by Adolphe Yvon

Rather sadly, 'Marshall Ney Sustaining the Rearguard', by Adolphe Yvon, is one of those images in which the reproduction quality is, whilst just about adequate, certainly not of the best. Thinking again of images I hadn't seen before, another pertaining to 1812 in Russia, pictures Napoleon and his staff surprised by Cossacks. No information is given about the scene depicted, but I suspect this may be a rendering of an event that occurred at some point around the battle of Maloyaroslavets.

Why are there four battle of the Pyramids paintings, and only one of Borodino? This Lejeune painting of the battle certainly should've been included!

Almost no supplementary information is given about the artworks, which, by and large, appear to have been gathered from material produced fairly close to the times of the events themselves. But sometimes this can be gleaned from a careful examination, as on page 109, where Rosen's 'Napoleon Leaving the French Army at Smorgoni' is clearly dated 1894, putting it amongst the later works used here. It's a pity there are no images from the great Napoleonic panoramas, like DuMoulin's of Waterloo, or Roubaud's Borodino.

Interestingly, given the general paucity of information or opinion in her overall narrative, it's interesting that Carruthers is amongst those who openly doubt the figures so frequently cited in narrations of the retreat from Russia. 

Oops! This one, A Resting Place for Prisoners, by Vereschagin, shouldn't be in the book at all, as it depicts events of the winter of 1877, in the Russo-Turkish War!

Whilst one cannot doubt Carruthers' enthusiasm for the subject, there are here a few reasons to question her depth of knowledge about it. One really quite big, bad blooper is the inclusion, on page 111, of Vasily Vereschagin's 'A Resting Place of Prisoners' (above). Although I have seen this illustration used once before in conjunction with Russia 1812, I can't recall offhand if in that instance they mention the issue at stake: which is that this is actually a painting relating to a much later conflict. The dead giveaway is the depiction of telegraph poles! 

Here's the caption from the website for the Brooklyn Museum of Art (where the painting hangs) about the artwork:

'With loose, expressive brushstrokes and sensitivity to raw emotional detail, Vasily Vereshchagin here conveys on a massive scale the horrors he saw firsthand in the Russo-Turkish War. In the winter of 1877, while working as a war correspondent, he witnessed thousands of Turkish prisoners freezing to death while being marched to Russian war camps.' (link to source).

Now, it may be that Carruthers knew this, and that the image is simply used (as it was in the other book where I saw it) to depict a scene not otherwise illustrated. But if this is the case, then I think an explanation in the text is a must! Carruthers commits an even bigger blooper, in terms of Napoleonic historiography, when she states, on page 142, that Napoleon's stay on the island of Elba was 'where he was to live out the remainder of his life in exile'!

Horace Vernet's painting of the battle of Hanau (1813).

The artworks are ordered chronologically, following the story of Napoleonic history, which is a very sensible strategy. Most of the content is, unsurprisingly, by French artists, with the occasional Russian or English, or even more occasional Polish painter, making an appearance. This changes rather dramatically once we enter upon the 'Hundred Days' campaign, climaxing in Waterloo. In this segment British artists make a significant inroad, with Hillingford and Lady Butler to the fore.

Sadly some of these well known pictures are affected by the issue of poor reproduction. I'm left wondering, as already briefly alluded to, if this was caused by images being sourced from the public domain, perhaps so as to avoid expense in terms of copyright issues? This might in turn have helped keep the book cheap to produce and therefore buy. But alas, if so, because it also leaves certain images looking plain cheap. In the images below I compare and contrast some images of Phillipoteaux's superb work 'Charge of the French Cuirassiers at Waterloo' (a book belonging to a childhood friend's dad, with this painting on the dust jacket, is amongst my earliest recollections of things Napoleonic).

Phillipoteaux's magnificent Charge of the French Cuirassiers at Waterloo, in a pretty good quality reproduction, not found on Wikipedia.

A detail from the above image: note the clarity of the detail.

This is the Wikipedia version of the Phillipoteaux work, in which the colour has been brought out in a nice brighter way, albeit perhaps a little over saturated.

The same area as per the Wiki-sourced image. Not quite so clear!

It appears that this image has had brightness and contrast dialled up, in Photoshop, perhaps. But hang on a minute, what's that going on in the centre of the picture? What's with the mashed up cuirassier? He's not been hit by canister, rather he appears to be suffering from dodgy montaging. This image is also grainer, i.e. less smooth, than the top one. And the image in Carruthers' book is, sadly, exactly like the Wikipedia one. So much so, I suspect they are one and the same (or at least sourced from the same original file somehow).

Vernet's depiction of Montmirail

The painting immediately above is, I hope you'll agree, a stunningly beautiful work of art. There's something rather poetic in that the light could easily be twilight (altho' it equally well be dawn: can anyone with more knowledge of the battle tell me which is more likely?), and this was, though a decisive French victory, amongst the very last hurrahs, as 'the sun of Austerlitz' finally set on Napoleon's glory for good.

In terms of the artists and artworks featured here, I think the single artist who emerges as my favourite, overall, is Horace Vernet, with Lejeune a close second. That he was incredibly talentd is perhaps less surprising when you realise he was third in a line of illsutrious French painters, and indeed, work by his father, Carle Vernet also features here.

Horace Vernet's father Carle Vernet depicts a scene from the battle of Wagram.

Horace Vernet's oil paintings have the high classical finish of artists like David and Ingres, and yet are, relatively speaking, more 'realistic' (i.e. less pseudo-classical), and he also frequently favours larger scenes, which convey well that essential Napoleonic development, the rise of the 'big battalions'. Their richness and grandeur is commanding, and he paints all the elements, horses, men, equipment, and landscape, with a stunning facility.

Napoleon at Jena (1806), Vernet

In the work reproduced above Vernet zooms in on a smaller scene for a change, as Napoleon and his entourage, including the ever flamboyant Murat, turn towards a grenadier, who calle out to them, perhaps simply shouting 'Vive L'Empereur!' (Or is he complaining that his hat doesn't fit?) Vernet captures a kind of charismatic intensity in Bonaparte's face which one imagines he must have possessed, to have lead the way he did. 

Horace Vernet.

Horace Vernet, looking supremely cool. Mind you, his bum might be quite toasty, if that stove's lit. Vernet was, quite literally, a child of the revolution, being born in 1879. Neither this nor the picture below appear in Carruthers' book.


Lejeune didn't just paint Napoleonic battles, he took part in them. With a kind of pleasingly poetic if not exact symmetry, Lejeune, around 14-15 years older than Vernet, died in 1848, year of France's February revolution, which founded the Second Republic, and saw the beginning of the Second Empire under Bonaparte's nephew, Louis Napoleon.

Having praised Vernet, and at least in part for a degree more realism than some other artists who depict Napoleonic battles, I must note that the final picture of his to appear in this book, also the final image of the book itself - 'Apotheosis of Napoleon' - is a different kettle of mackerel altogether. 

I've read somewhere that Boney was a keen fan of the myths of Ossian, creation of Scots author James McPherson. This fact would lead to such artworks as Girodet's 'Ossian Receiving the Souls of the French Fallen', and finally this work of Vernet's. In this work we see fact transformed into pure myth, as Napoleon rejoins his fallen generals and troops, is reunited with his sundered family, and unchained from Promethean captivity on the rock of St. Helena, the broken barque of his conquests and his laurels being reclaimed by the sea.

Rather than reproduce yet more of the works that can be found in Carruthers' book, here's the rather quasi-operatic painting by Girodet I mention above, which isn't: Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of French Heroes (1801)

A bluntly realistic view on all this mythologising might point out that this hybrid paganism, part Ossian part Greek tragedy, glosses over Napoleon's deathbed return to a Catholicism he could never utterly relinquish, whilst ignoring the fact that his family abandoned him (Marie Louise rejecting him and returning to the Austrian royal fold, and his son, The King of Rome - if Napoleon fell from great heights to become the ruler of a rock, his son's short life was, by comparison, a complete non-event - pre-decreasing him), and, far from rising to Valhalla, his bones lay mouldering in an unmarked grave. What a gap between myth and reality! Well, that's propaganda for you.

'Vie de Napoléon en huit chapeaux', Steuben.

Perhaps a more poignant if no less bizarre an epitaph to Napoleon's period of ascendancy, his rapid rise and even faster fall, is this painting by Baron Charles de Steuben. 'Vie de Napoléon en huit chapeaux', or 'life of Napoleon in eight hats'! I saw it in the little Museum on the Waterloo battlefield that was Napoleon's H.Q. on the night before the battle, in postcard form. This is another one that isn't in the book, by the way.

For my Amazon review of this book I wanted originally to give it five stars, the highest possible score. Now obviously, this couldn't be based purely upon how comprehensive, accurate, scholarly, or whatever other criterion one might choose, it is, but would be due to the fact that, despite it's several flaws, I love it (that is, after all, Amazon's 'definition' of a five-star review). And, at least via Amazon, it's available at such a modest price that I can tolerate the flaws. But in the end I had to dock a star for the editorial blunders and the lower than ideal quality of a significant number of the images.

Gillray's Maniac Raving's, or Little Boney in a Strong Fit. Napoleon is said to have alleged that Gillray did him more harm than all the armies of Europe! Satirical cartoons like this are not part of Carruthers' remit. She sticks to the 'Fine Art' stuff.

Cruikshank's The Corsican Shuttlecock, in which Gillray's 'Little Boney' becomes even littler. I didn't see him on first glance: that's him in mid air! If this sort of thing is the kind of Napoleonic art you dig, then you'd be better off with Mark Bryant's Napoleonic Wars In Cartoons.

Anyway, to conclude: this is, despite all the flaws, a beautiful book, and I certainly would recommend it to Napoleonic nuts. Maybe one day I'll get my chance to write a huge, lavishly illustrated compendium of art on this era, but, until then, this is one of the only books of this type I'm aware of. Or rather, the only one! As such, it's a worthwhile addition to any self-respecting readers Napoleonic library.


[1] I'd like to make it very clear here that I love Pen & Sword publications. I have a lot of their books, and will doubtless buy many more. Indeed, with all its mistakes and other issues I still love this book, and I hope that that comes across clearly in this review. Also, as a regular contributor to a musical periodical for over a decade, I have quite frequently witnessed the grammarian or syntactic mangling of my submissions, and (one hopes?) never due to malicious intent. And finally, although I'm perhaps loathe to admit, sometimes some of these mistakes may even have originated from me!

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