- Horace Vernet and the Thresholds of Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture ed. by Daniel Harkett and Katie Hornstein
In the Salon de 1846, Baudelaire dedicated several pages to his deep disdain for Horace Vernet (1789-1863). Proclaiming his paintings to be 'une masturbation agile et fréquente', the critic characterized Vernet as 'l'antithèse absolu de l'artiste', but also, tellingly, 'le représentant le plus complet de son siècle' (Œuvres complètes, ed. by Claude Pichois, 2 vols (Paris: Gallimard, 1975-76), II, 470-71). While Baudelaire's contempt for Vernet might strike us now as excessive, there is an undeniable element of truth in his assessment of the artist as the embodiment of his time. Indeed, much of what led Baudelaire to 'hate' Vernet (he repeats the verb haïr five times in the opening paragraphs) is precisely what makes him of interest today: his popularity, his fluidity, his mobility, his canny appeal to bourgeois audiences, his embrace of new media, and ultimately his position as the national painter of France. Vernet's prodigious output of images, from battle scenes and Orientalist propaganda to history paintings, portraits, and genre scenes, reflects the political, cultural, and artistic landscape of the tumultuous decades from the rise of Napoleon Ier through the reign of Napoleon III. Daniel Harkett and Katie Hornstein's marvellous collection of essays presents a compelling argument for the importance of including Vernet (and painters like him) in our consideration of nineteenth-century art: as 'threshold figures' crossing the boundaries between high and low, public and private, avant-garde and academic art, they mirror the complex conditions of the cultural marketplace in post-Revolutionary France. Their mixed reception and ambivalent social capital — both then and now — reveal the ongoing anxieties of blurred boundaries and distinctions, and this study brings invaluable [End Page 609] perspectives and correctives to our understanding of French Romantic painting. The volume is divided into three equally compelling sections: 'Making Vernet' charts the artist's creation of his public image, a self-fashioning achieved through his engagement with the press and new forms of publicity, his navigation of new urban spaces of public and private performance, and his acute awareness of the power of public opinion. Part Two, 'Vernet and Genre', establishes the modern and often radical nature of Vernet's challenges to established categories of artistic genre and hierarchies of value, even as the Director of the French Academy in Rome. And in the final section, 'Vernet and New Media', authors examine the connections between visual technologies and forms of his day — lithography, photography, vaudeville, printmaking, panoramas, dioramas — and Vernet's representations, that is, not only his artistic production, but his critical and popular reception as well. Harkett and Hornstein's book includes a lively Introduction and the first overview of Vernet's life and work to be published in English since 1880. The contributors to the volume are an impressive collection of well-established scholars and newer voices in the field, giving the work in its entirety a refreshing energy to complement its impressive depth and breadth. Singly and collectively, these articles make a strong case for considering Horace Vernet another worthy candidate for the title of 'le peintre de la vie moderne', Baudelaire notwithstanding. Beautifully conceived and generously illustrated, this is a must-read text for anyone interested in the politics of art and culture in nineteenth-century France.