The Napoleonic Wars. Louis François Lejeune, General and Painter

Versailles, Château, from 14 February to 13 May 2012

1. Louis François Lejeune
The Battle of Marengo,
Salons of 1801 and 1802
Oil on Canvas - 180 x 250 cm
Versailles, Musée national des châteaux
de Versailles et de Trianon
Photo : EPV/J.M. Manaï

Louis François Lejeune was adept at wielding the sword, the brush and the pen, putting them at the service of the Empire and his own, as attested by the almost 120 works deployed in the Africa and Crimea galleries at the château in Versailles : paintings and drawings, by Lejeune and his contemporaries, as well as military objects. Certain paintings held by the artist’s descendants are being shown to the public for the first time. Visitors can also admire drawings, some presented on small screens which cleverly turn the pages of a sketchbook, for example. The attribution of some of the sheets, however, is not always obvious, as certain ones reveal similarities notably with the art of Sébastien Leroy. The setting staged by Nicolas Adam who had already designed the exhibitions featuring Houdon in 2004 and Lebrun in 2007, is elegant and understated, blending woodpanelled walls with others painted in almond green.
This retrospective provides a chance to recall the wealth of the collections in the château’s historical galleries, which hold notably a dozen paintings of battles produced by Lejeune ; the First Empire rooms located in the Midi wing will also open more frequently to the public during the exhibition, permitting visitors to enjoy such masterpieces as Girodet’s The Revolt in Cairo.

2. Louis François Lejeune
Sketch of the Battle of Lodi, Salon of 1804
Oil on Canvas - 202.6 x 257.5 cm
Versailles, Musée national des châteaux
de Versailles et de Trianon
Photo : EPV/J.M. Manaï

The catalogue is particularly rich, treating artistic, historic and military questions. Valérie Bajou who does an excellent job of associating the canvases and the artist’s memoirs, has also invited persons from outside the art world to look at Lejeune’s work : an international reporter and film director who studies the way war is represented today and a psychoanalyst who looks at the artist’s personality as well as “the art and the manner of dying”. Two contributions which are sure to either attract or repel the reader but which remain discreet within the ensemble of essays. We would however express our regrets at not seeing the works grouped together as a catalogue instead of being scattered throughout the essays, some accompanied by detailed commentaries and others not. Nevertheless, the end of the publication assembles the entries of the battle paintings by Lejeune from the brochures of the Salons and from the Notices sur les tableaux de bataille peints par le general baron Lejeune published in 1850. Finally, a detailed chronology follows the artist’s life and historic events in parellel.

3. Louis François Lejeune
Sketch of the Victory of Aboukir, in Egypt,
7 Thermidor an VI
, Salon of 1804
Oil on Canvas - 185 x 255 cm
Versailles, Musée national des châteaux
de Versailles et de Trianon
Photo : EPV/J.M. Manaï

Louis François Lejeune learned the art of landscaping with Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819), as recalled by two paintings hanging in the first rooms, before enlisting in the army in 1792, at barely 17, starting out in the Arts Company, then in the Engineering Corps before becoming one of the six aide-de-camps to maréchal Berthier, Napoleon’s right hand.
The show clearly demonstrates how Lejeune’s artistic career is inseparable from his military pursuits. Self-portraits, then the manuscript of his Mémoirs and the first edition of his Souvenirs d’un officier de l’Empire published in 1851 reveal the care he took in presenting his image and personal feats ; his military career is evoked through the uniforms, notably a dress coat for aide-de-camp to maréchal Berthier’s general staff, also by a set of tools used by the Engineering Corps – decameter, graphometer and other measuring instruments – including Bonaparte’s field-glass and other viewing devices.

The exhibition then presents the great Napoleonic battles, Marengo, Aboukir, Austerlitz, Borodino (Moskova in French)…, which Lejeune reported on, despite not always witnessing them firsthand. The hostilities begin in Marengo, the painter’s first large canvas exhibited at the Salon of 1801, warmly welcomed by the public (ill. 1). This work sets the tone : we find the same succession of planes in all the compositions with the first or foreground presenting the narration occupied by anonymous figures who illustrate war’s dreary reality : a defeated soldier who commits suicide, a dog howling next to his dead master, a thirsty soldier lying wounded ; behind these, stand the great protagonists of this epic, the First Consul and maréchal Berthier, to which the artist incorporates his own representation ; already, he adds an autobiographical dimension to his account of History. Finally, in the distant background, he describes the painting’s subject : the troops are deployed around the church in Marengo and the artist evokes an overall view of the battlefield. Although Lejeune takes certain liberties with historical fact, his status as a witness and the precision with which he renders the event give us the illusion of an authentic image. Herein lies the ambiguous character of his work.

4. Louis François Lejeune
View of the Emperor’s bivouac in the Moravian plains,
one of the days which preceded the Battle of Austerlitz,
in december 1805
, Salon of 1808
Oil on Canvas - 180 x 220 cm
Versailles, Musée national des châteaux
de Versailles et de Trianon
Photo : EPV/J.M. Manaï

5. Louis Albert Guislain Bacler d’Albe (1761-1824)
Napoleon Visiting the Army’s Encampments
on the Eve of the Battle of Austerlitz,
1st december 1805
, 1808
Oil on Canvas - 180 x 220 cm
Versailles, Musée national des châteaux
de Versailles et de Trianon
Photo : EPV/Dist. RMN/J.M. Manaï

Valérie Bajou raises the question of what constitutes a battle painting ; she disassociates historical truth and historical painting, through a juxtaposition of the artist’s canvases with those of his contemporaries establishing two groups : Girodet, Gérard Gros, David’s students are historical painters who create compositions focused around a small number of figures in order to magnify the scene. These are confronted by Lejeune, but also Giuseppe Bagetti and Louis Albert Guislain Bacler d’Albe, painters and geographical engineers, who opt for precision and clarity to provide testimony of the event. Bagetti meticulously drew military operations or city views, in gouaches used by army officers. Lejeune’s brush of course went beyond a simple military document, offering a panoramic view, one which looks down on the combat zone and which might be that seen by a general. His compositions seem to extend outside of the frame. The detail of the uniforms and the maneuvers tend towards the historical truth of an image which blends strategy, the picturesque and the horrors of war. However, the different incidents of the battle as they happen at distinct moments appear on the canvas. The artist manipulates facts, rewrites history, summarizes it and reconstructs it. In this sense, he is just as effective as Le Bulletin de la Grande Armée, Napoleon’s fabulous communications tool.

6. Louis François Lejeune
The Combat of Guisando, at the Avis Pass, Salon of 1817
Oil on Canvas - 210 x 260 cm
Versailles, Musée national des châteaux de Versailles
et de Trianon
Photo : EPV/J.M. Manaï

The exhibition compares several versions of the crossing at Pont de Lodi (ill. 2) : painted in 1804, Lejeune, who was not present, studied officers’ reports, Bagetti’s drawings and found inspiration in a gouache by Bacler d’Albe.
He did not travel to Egypt either, nor to Syria but represented the battles of the Pyramids (1798), of Mount Tabor (1799), and the second battle of Aboukir Bay (1799) (ill. 3), works which the curator associates with those by Gros and François André Vincent. Here again, while Gros chose a low perspective to better illustrate the grandeur of the huddled figures, Lejeune analyzes, breaks down and details the maneuvers with an aerial perspective which gives the illusion of continuing beyond the canvas, much like the principle of a panorama.
The battle of Austerlitz, commissioned by Napoleon, was divided into eighteen episodes entrusted to different painters. The days preceding the combat are recounted by Lejeune and Bacler d’Albe (ill. 4 and 5). Lejeune illustrates the Emperor’s bivouac in the Moravian plains while Bacler d’Albe shows the Emperor visiting the army’s encampments on the eve of the battle. The fighting itself was evoked by Gérard. In Lejeune’s painting, Napoleon is seen surrounded by his marshalls, Berthier and de Bessières ; the painter is also there, as always, his back turned, in uniform. The Emperor is talking to Moravian peasants and deserters from the Russian army while in the foreground, a meal is being served to the officers of the General Staff.

7. Louis François Lejeune
The Battle of Borodino, 1822
Oil on Canvas - 210 x 264 cm
Versailles, Musée national des châteaux
de Versailles et de Trianon
Photo : EPV/J.M. Manaï

The Peninsular War in Spain was fully illustrated by the artist in six canvases, such as in The Battle of Somo-Sierra or The Sieges at Zaragoza. As the exhibition progresses, History gives way to the personal accounting of Lejeune’s military career as narrated by Lejeune the artist. He becomes the central figure in The Combat of Guisando, at the Avis Pass (ill. 6) where he was taken prisoner in 1811 ; this was in fact an ambush by bandits rather than an actual battle and as Valérie Bajou lightly reminds us, in Lejeune’s paintings one dies gracefully, with little shedding of blood. The landscape once again occupies a larger share of the canvas in these last works, but it is not real ; the artist shamelessly blends several locations in one place, adds or reinterprets certain sculptures… While claiming to present reality, he instead develops a fictional rendition of it.

The Russian campaign is seen represented with The Battle of Borodino (ill. 7). Indeed, the itinerary of the exhibition, as well as the catalogue order, are not historically chronological, following instead the artist’s production. The Battle of Borodino (1812) was the last one (1822) painted by Lejeune who chose to recount the final assault.
The last room no longer presents the Napoleonic wars but rather works executed at the end of his life, after settling in Toulouse where he became a person of considerable standing. He directed the Ecole des Beaux-Arts there in 1837 then took over as head of municipal affairs for the city of Toulouse in 1841. The artist continued to paint, representing the surroundings, famous landmarks such as View of the Lake and the Oo Waterfalls and the Toulouse Gardens, revealing his sensitivity to light and majestic settings. In fact, he did not find it easy and complained to one of his friends : “Interpreting a sky here requires genius”.

Curator : Valérie Bajou

Under the supervision of Valérie Bajou, Les Guerres de Napoléon. Louis François Lejeune, general et peintre, Editions Hazan, 2012, 280 p., 39€. ISBN : 9782754106023

Visitor information : Château de Versailles, RP 834 78008 Versailles Cedex. Tel : +33 (0)1 30 83 78 00. Open every day, except Monday, from 14 February to 31 March 2012, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., from 1st April to 13 May 2012, from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.. Admission : 15€, château + exhibition (reduced : 13€).

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, mardi 28 février 2012

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