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The Capture of the Smalah of Abd el Kader

One of a kind

The Capture of the Smalah of Abd el Kader

"Attributed to Emile Jean Horace Vernet"

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One of a kind

The Capture of the Smalah of Abd el Kader

This important and impressive work records the historic skirmish in 1843 between a cavalry unit lead by the duc de Aumale and the Arab chief Abd el Kader during the French military campaign in Algeria. The painting is attributed to Horace Vernet, and relates closely to a major work of the same subject by Vernet now in the Musée de l'Histoire de France in Versailles.

The work is a classic example of French Orientalist painting from the mid-19th century, at a point when the taste for Oriental culture and history in Europe had reached an artistic intensity and commitment under the patronage of the French King Louis Philippe.

It is an exceptional example of Orientalist art, one linked with an important historic event, and a major royal commission.

Vernet and 'The Capture of the Smalah of Abd el Kader':

By the time Horace Vernet returned to Paris in 1835, following his duties at the helm of the Academie de France in Rome, he had achieved a status as the country's most eloquent military painter, and was to enjoy the immediate patronage of the king, Louis-Philippe himself (right). He was set up in an atelier in the Jeu de Paume at Versailles, where he worked for the next ten years.

The centrepiece of his work for the king was a series of monumental paintings for Versailles, glorifying France's military successes in North Africa. On his return from a trip to Russia in 1843, Vernet was handed the greatest of these commissions, to record the victory of the duc d'Aumale, one of the king's sons, over the Arab chief Abd el Kader Abd ibn Muhyi al-Din, emir of Mascara, a charismatic 25- year-old who had assumed leadership over the divided tribes of North Africa.

On 16 May 1843 Aumale's force of 600 troops captured the Smalah, the emir's mobile encampment consisting of his family, servants and slaves, bodyguard and livestock. The Smalah had evaded the French for years, with constantly shifting tactics, and Aumale's cavalry charge, with a certain amount of luck, brought him some 3,000 prisoners. Abd el Kader escaped, and continued his offensive through nomadic tactics.

The vast canvas commissioned by the king to celebrate this (royal-led) victory (above) dwarfed all other works at Versailles. Measuring 23 metres in length, and 5 metres in height, Vernet completed the 'Capture of the Smalah of Abd el Kader' in less than nine months and exhibited it at the Salon of 1845. It is an extraordinary panorama, surrounding the spectator with bewildering formations, adroitly conveying the confusion, horror and chaos of contemporary combat.

The present work derives its composition directly from elements of the primary canvas, though re-ordering episodes in order to formulate a cohesive tightened version of the narrative. Other qualities of the two works echo each other extremely closely, including the lustrous mode of paint application, and the strong, luminous colour values.

Both works clearly also capture the extraordinary energy of the moment with a commitment to detail that is a hallmark of the artist's technique.

Horace Vernet was born in Paris in 1789 and was predestined for art by family inheritance: the grandson of engraver Jean Moreau le Jeune (1741-1814) on his mother's side and, on his father's, of Joseph Vernet (1714-1789), France's foremost painter of land- and sea-scapes, he was trained by his father, Carle Vernet (1758-1836), the witty chronicler of the post- Revolutionary decades. A prodigy in his childhood, a professional in his teens, Horace was spurred by the financial requirements of an early marriage, producing a torrent of saleable work from his studio: caricatures, portraits, horses in the manner of Carle, landscapes in the manner of Joseph.

In the early years of the Restoration, his studio became the meeting place of artists and veterans openly hostile to the Bourbon government. He flaunted his cult of Napoleon and found a patron in Louis-Philippe, duc d'Orléans, head of the disaffected cadet branch of the dynasty. A resolute modernist, he befriended Gericault and was one of the pioneers of lithography. In a series of battle scenes from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars painted for the duc d'Orléans in 1821-1826 (National Gallery, London), he gave a foretaste of what was to become his speciality.

The 1820s also saw Vernet make conciliatory gestures to the government, with practical results. He was made an officier of the Legion of Honor (1825), a member of the Institute (1826), and was appointed director of the French Academy in Rome (1829).

The Revolution in July 1830, which raised Louis-Philippe, Vernet's patron, to the throne, opened vast opportunities of official employment to him. The rapid flow of state commissions for battle pieces that now came his way taxed even his prodigious facility. Four very large canvases for the Galerie des Batailles (left) at Versailles, shown at the Salon of 1836, were followed by a second series in 1841. Accepting his calling as that of a painter of modern national subjects, specifically of scenes of combat, Vernet conceived of his work as a form of eyewitness reportage that required observation at the actual theatres of war. In five long visits to North Africa (1833, 1837, 1839-1840, 1845, 1853), he gathered on-the-spot documentation of the French conquests in Algiers and Morocco, material that he later worked up into wall-size canvases destined for Versailles.

The Universal Exposition of 1855, at which he was represented by twenty-four paintings, crowned his popular and official success. At the time of his death in 1863, Vernet, a member of thirty academies, was uncontestably France's most famous artist, admired and imitated throughout Europe and deeply imbedded in popular culture.

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The Capture of the Smalah of Abd el Kader

PROVENANCE: Private collection, United States
DATE: Mid 19th Century
RESIDES IN: Sloane Square, London
MEASUREMENTS: 47 1/2 x 55 1/2 in / 121 x 141 cms (including frame)
CONDITION: -
Artist: Attributed to Emile Jean Horace Vernet (1789-1863)

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