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The Closest France Came to a British Sporting Artist

Some artists are neatly defined by the school or movement they dominated: Watteau, Rococo; David, Neo-classicism; Delacroix, Romanticism; Monet, Impressionism.

Others, like Andy Warhol, seem to personify their times. Pierre Alfred de Dreux (1810–1860) is also in that category, for his 30-year career as a fashionable and productive artist embodies the “Generation of 1830” that flourished in France under the Bourbon Restoration through Napoleon III, and in Regency and early-Victorian England. His paintings of the leisured French aristocracy and the English landed gentry, hunting and horse racing, and equestrian portraits of his beau monde patrons, epitomized his era and flew out the door before the paint was dry.

Although de Dreux’s proclivities and temperament were well suited to English country living, he was born into an artistic family in Picardy, a region historically tied to Dutch-speaking Flanders. Flemish realism trickled down to him, and probably predisposed him, in 1825, to becoming a student of Léon Cogniet, whose landscapes were influenced by the 17 th-century Low Country artists van Ruysdael and Meindert Hobbema.

After his father won the Grand Prix of Rome for architecture, the family moved in 1815 from Paris to the Villa Medici, home of the Académie de France in Rome, to study the ancient amphitheaters of Greece and Turkey. But it was Géricault’s dramatic horses, rather than ruins, that informed de Dreux’s life’s work after he met Géricault through his uncle, the artist Pierre-Joseph Dedreux-Dorcy. De dreux studied under the innovative Romantic artist until Géricault’s premature death in 1824. In fact, de Dreux’s first large oil painting, in 1825, was a reprise of Géricault’s Mazeppa, based on Byron’s poem about the Cossack officer who was lashed naked to a wild horse as punishment for seducing a noblewoman—a theme also taken up by Horace Vernet, Chassériau, and Delacroix.

When his father went bankrupt, de Dreux, with no formal art academy education, was pressed to paint for a living. Fortunately, he won early and immediate success with his first submission to the 1831 Paris Salon (the absolute arbitrator of public taste), a steeplechase and a stable scene.

The following year he was appointed court painter to the everything-English and horse-loving Louis-Philippe I and received the first of many important state commissions, including the official equestrian portrait of the king’s son, the duc d’Orléans, as a reminder of the Orléans dynasty’s legitimacy, and, later, equestrian portraits of Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie that earned him the Légion d’honneur in 1857.

The discreet and observant de Dreux started painting hunting scenes in the 1830s, but few are dated and it’s impossible to establish a real chronology of his sporting art, which, like Carle Vernet’s, emphasized the horse over the hunt. Yet unlike Vernet, he seldom used historical or mythological themes to exploit his commitment to painting horses. He did paint cuirassiers, the armored cavalry soldiers descended from medieval knights, with their dappled grays; and the patron saint of horses, Saint Hippolyte, who was martyred by being dragged to death.


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Catering to the current taste for Orientalism, de Dreux painted the mounts of Algerian Emir Abd-el-Kader with their embroidered saddles, and exotically dressed Nubian horsemen or African grooms with Arab stallions that gleam like Flemish pearls.

Starting in 1840, de Dreux painted all the coursing and hunting steeds in Louis-Philippe’s stables, and at some point began appearing in the prestigious hunting magazine, Journal des chasseurs. Although more a chronicler of present-day venery, de Dreux decorated the residence of Belgium’s ambassador to France, Count Charles Le Hon, with hunting scenes such as La chasse au vol sous Charles VII and La chasse à courre sous Louis XV, nostalgically set in the past.

In 1844, de Dreux accompanied Louis-Philippe to England for his meeting with Queen Victoria, and then followed his king into exile, in Surrey, after his abdication in favor of his grandson in 1848. The king’s son, Henri d’Orléans, was de Dreux’s protector, and presented him to earls and duchesses, whom he painted by the dozens at aristocratic ease on their mounts, the amazones sidesaddle and the men in timeless hunting pinks. He portrayed Jockey Club gentlemen like Hollingworth Magniac, who’d made his fortune shipping opium from India to China, and tea from China to India and England, in his role as master of the Oakley Hunt in Bedfordshire.

Recognized as a fine cavalier and hunter himself, de Dreux was invited to pursue fox and hare at important country estates like Lord Derby’s. He eventually dropped Epsom and Longchamps for the prestigious hunts of Saint-German-en-Laye and Marly. His high standard of living, including keeping two horses in Paris, obliged him to work nonstop. To meet the relentless demand, he composed, sketched out, and selected the palette for works to be completed by his studio, a not uncommon practice.

Two movements from across the Channel impressed upon de Dreux’s style: the hunting, racing, and stable themes of contemporary British sporting art; and the naturalism of English landscape watercolorist, John Constable (1776–1836).

De Dreux probably met John E. Ferneley, Sr. (1782–1860), whose hounds dash across bucolic British landscapes, and John Frederick Herring, Sr. (1795–1865), who visited Paris in 1840 at the invitation of the duc d’Orléans. If de Dreux’s early work has the decorative feel of early British sporting art, with its seemingly cutout figures pasted on predictable backgrounds, he later followed its lead by consecrating some 20 works to hunting dogs—greyhounds, pointers, setters, fox and Jack Russell terriers. Their harmoniously juxtaposed beiges, grays, and ochers demonstrate his growing strength as a colorist.

One must remember that Britain had been cut off from the continent during the Napoleonic wars, and British artisans, such as lacemakers, had been forbidden to emigrate between 1814–24. Yet there were so many British in Paris after Waterloo that it was considered an English town! By 1824, Constable’s gold-medal–winning landscapes and the shimmering, light-of-touch watercolors of Richard Parkes Bonington (1802–1828) earned the Paris art exhibition the nickname, “The English Salon.”

Although the xenophobic Constable never visited France, by 1826 more than 20 of his paintings hung there. Romantically predispositioned artists like Delacroix and de Dreux were awakened to his use of color and light to create emotion; to atmospheric clouds and skies, painted from nature, expressing immediate feelings.

From “naturalism,” de Dreux also learned a more spontaneous, fluid, and frank brushwork. He made the edges where colors meet count, and his surfaces became more varied, light-capturing, and interesting. He strongly contrasted dark backgrounds with brighter subjects for a chiaroscuro effect, using, in small areas to introduce eye-catching light, just the right amount of gouache, or perhaps “Chinese white,” a superfine zinc oxide pigment patented in England in 1834.

When de Dreux returned to Paris in 1852, he wisely began painting Emperor Napoleon III and his entourage. The Meet at La Grande Clairière, Chantilly, large, busy, gay, and richly colored by early fall foliage, suggests the excitement of the Emperor’s first hunt of the season, with its salutations and eager hounds. De Dreux’s style now feels looser and more liberated, his palette lighter and more modern. To strengthen complex compositions, de Dreux used shadows or branches to define the space and relate his protagonists to their setting.

In the oil The Meet in the Forest of Rambouillet, hunters wait at the poteau, or finger-post, that marks the wide hunting alleys through the forest. In its companion, The Commencement of the Hunt, the ardent amazone and scarlet-coated hunters race across the canvas in pursuit of stag, their cheerful colors creating both movement and perspective.

Like many watercolorists of his time, de Dreux took up engraving and gave his works to the best lithographers, such as Régnier, for printing. This made him less subject to the whims of his demanding patrons and expanded his market to Great Britain, Germany, Russia, Poland, and the United States. In fact, some of his prints, including the two previous titles, became so popular that it may have undermined his reputation over time.

Opinions vary widely on de Dreux’s work, much of which remains in private hands. Some say his horses’ heads are too small, the dogs too big, the riders’ backs too arched. Others praise his candid view of a vanishing mondain lifestyle that he captured freshly each time. They even argue over the spelling of his name: de Dreux, De Dreux, or Dedreux.

It was long believed that the never-married de Dreux died in a duel with Général Fleury. In fact, it was hepatitis, and an incomplete hunting scene was still on his easel. He had been the Beau Brummel of French art, the man Baudelaire declared “le peintre de la vie élégante,” but once his debts were paid with his few possessions and with works removed from his mother’s walls, there was nothing left.

During the pleasant task of researching de Dreux and his British and French contemporaries, Brooke Chilvers was delighted to find Géricault’s portrait of the young Alfred de Dreux on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum.



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