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Le Sporting Art Français

The century from Louis XVI’s reign through the collapse of Napoleon III’s Second Empire in 1870 is a Gallic mishmash of monarchies, republics, and empires. For artists with roots in the Ancien Régime, the dizzying decades after the 1789 French Revolution required switching camps from the nobility, to Robespierre, to Napoleon Bonaparte, back to the Princes de sang and the aristocracy during the Bourbon Restoration, to elected President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte who became Emperor Napoleon III with his 1851 coup d’état.

Simultaneously, mainstream French schools of art developed from Rococo (think Boucher) to Neoclassicism (David) to Romanticism (Delacroix). Yet through it all the depicting of venery—chasing game with hounds—endured, as did the sport itself.

In France, François I is credited with establishing the rituals and chivalresque codes of honor for spearing game from the saddle or on foot. By reserving the forests’ hunting exclusively for the crown (la vénérie royale), he preserved their noble quarry from extinction after the introduction of firearms. Hunting imagery during the Renaissance was confined mostly to tapestries and illuminated hunting treatises.

Then Desportes and Oudry, in service to Louis XIV and Louis XV respectively, filled royal hunting chalets with bloodcurdling closeup confrontations between snarling hunting dogs and stag, boar, and bear ā la Frans Snyders and Paul de Vos; the noble Nimrods were nearly always off-canvas. The rest was mostly decorative art representing after-hunt picnics or fêtes champêtres on table settings and porcelain vases produced by the Manufacture de Sèvres, or as inserts for lavishly gilded paneled rooms. Hunting’s conviviality and refined social setting were emphasized over the panting dogs, foaming horses, and struggling prey of bloodsport.

Sporting art in the style of British artists such as John Wootton and James Seymour was imported rather than endemic. And then came Antoine Charles Horace Vernet, better known as Carle Vernet (1758–1836). Carle was the son of the acclaimed marine artist and painter to King Louis XV, Joseph Vernet (1714–1789), and his eccentric (and later mad) British Catholic wife. Carle’s son was the renowned battle-scene and orientalist artist Horace Vernet (1789–1863). All three were among the most popular, honored, and well-connected artists of their time.

Joseph adored his clever, talented, and naturally elegant son and took him everywhere. In Age of Enlightenment Paris salons, Carle met Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, the painter Carle Van Loo, and Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, portraitist to Marie-Antoinette. At age six, his first real drawings were of horses, while he learned to write by copying a thesis on painting. An artist’s apprentice at 11, by 13 he had his own palette, easel, and pigments and was painting faces for his father’s works; by 14 his teacher, Lepicié, was passing him commissions for portraits.

Yet Carle was horse crazy, and with his sketchpad hung around the stables of the British horse-master close to the Louvre, where established artists like his father were provided lodgings—a practice started in the 16 th century by Henri IV that would endure until Napoleon took the Louvre for his own in 1806; Carle would live there for 44 years.


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Sidelined from horses in his quest for the Prix de Rome—indispensable for recognition and success—Carle moved to more academically treated conventional subjects, such as martyrs and mythology. He won it on his second try in 1782 with his Return of the Prodigal Son, which has since disappeared.

But Rome also brought him romantic heartbreak, which almost drove him into a monastery until an abbot recommended he “be a great painter instead of an obscure monk.” His doting father’s gift of two horses, which the duc d’Orléans allowed to be kept in the royal stables, cured him. The duke invited the topnotch cavalier with a paint box to join his trend-setting hunt.

The anglomaniac duke, who would first support the Revolution and then lose his head to it, had already begun importing English thoroughbreds, hunting dogs, and even jockeys for the new pastime of horse racing. By 1783, he’d replaced the Ancien Régime hunting garb of fawn-colored coats and breeches, bicorne or tricorne hats, and funnel-shaped boots with the English red redingote, black velvet hunt cap, and shapely yellow-topped hunting boots that forever hence have been associated with hunting to hounds on horseback.

Vernet’s 1787 portrait of the duc d’Orléans with his 14-year-old son (the future King Louis-Philippe) at a hunt rendezvous would mark the moment le sporting art crossed the English Channel to France.

Until then, horses, like landscapes, were mere accessories to portrait art, intended to offset the well-heeled subject posing in the studio on a wooden steed. Here, instead of mounts functioning merely as flattering but static ornaments, their energy, grace, and individuality are Vernet’s hidden topic. The duke and his son occupy the foreground, their images complemented by the excitement of horsemen, houndsmen, and hunting dogs moving across the horizontal planes of the painting’s meticulous landscapes.

The turned backs of many riders draw the eye into the lively action in the deepening background, an effect also found in the undated Chasse à Courre. Here, the hunters’ path follows a blue-gray waterway disappearing toward the paling mountains. The sheer rocky outcrop in the mid-ground that splits the canvas supports the painting’s strong vertical composition, itself emphasized by the tall, craggy tree in the right foreground. For action, the other hunters and a stream of dogs are already descending below the principal rider, who is holding back his eager steed while he questions a peasant woman.

To gain entry into the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in the riotous year of 1789 (also the year Joseph died and Horace was born), Carle returned to historic pageantry with The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus, which celebrates the victory of the Roman general over King Perseus of Macedonia. Although works submitted to the Academy became property of the Academy, through a labyrinth of circumstances the nearly 14.5-foot canvas hangs today in the MET. Here, as in his masterpieces of the Napoleonic Battles of Marengo and Austerlitz (which earned him the Légion d’honneur), military subjects and his Roman chariot races are pretexts to populate the scenes with charging, rearing, and parade-trotting horses.

Unlike politically engaged artists like David, Carle appears lukewarm to revolutionary causes, especially after his sister was guillotined for possession of too many candles and correspondence with her aristocratic chums. Carle’s riding skills allowed him to traverse the chaos as a member of the National Guard; he even competed in horse races across Paris’s Champs de Mars in celebrations of Liberté and Fraternité.

Then came Napoleon. Although Bonaparte was no hunter—he sprinkled everyone with shot and let his horses run rampant—he knew the importance of appearances (he wore hunting clothes to meet the pope) and established a hunt with Ancien Régime splendor, keeping 80 horses, 300 dogs, and a hunt staff of 400. In 1811 he commissioned Vernet to paint Napoleon on a Hunt in the Forest of Compiègne. The heavily staged setting shows a large depression encircled by the hunters and Empress Marie Louise and her cortège looking on as the dogs pour across it to bring the stag to bay. Rather unsportingly, Napoleon is dismounted and shooting his overwhelmed quarry with a firearm!

Vernet painting Napoleon hunting various royal forests, including the bois de Boulogne and Fontainebleau, where the Emperor’s chasing down a fleeing hart, accompanied only by his faithful Mameluke bodyguard, Roustan, suggests his military prowess while the chateau in the horizon symbolizes the continuity with and legitimacy of his non-Bourbon crown.

But Carle was at his best representing the ceremonious hunts of the returned monarch Louis XVIII, and, like his father before and son after, was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Although his 1818 Chasse au daim pour le St-Hubert shows imperial crimson coats and black bicornes, Charles X’s anglophilia would bring back into style the visually appealing British red raiments, as in Carle’s 1824 Départ pour la chasse, that define the now established genre.

Carle actually preferred drawing and watercolors to oils, which suited the introduction of lithography to France around 1815. Today he is mostly remembered for his 600-plus engravings and illustrations of military figures, charming caricatures, and horse races.

As for his rarer sporting art oils, during his long career Carle stuck to his formula of festive assemblies and fairytale settings, to the busy departure or sentimental return, rather than the final sword thrust of the hunt. But without the “French Stubbs” there wouldn’t have been Géricault who was his student, or Alfred De Dreux, who would define le sporting art for the next generation.

Brooke Chilvers thanks her husband, Rudy Lubin, for their “summer of venery,” chasing Carle Vernet’s works in the hunting museums of Senlis, Chantilly, and Paris.



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