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« In France, History is Everywhere | Main | Architecture and Urbanism Linkage »

June 18, 2009

Detaille was Detailed, de Neuville was Better

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

During my scamper around Paris last month I visited the Musée de l'Armée in the Invalides complex (the Wikipedia entry is here, but is skimpy and somewhat off-topic).

The late-19th century display section included a number of works by noted military artist Jean-Batiste-Édouard Detaille (1848-1912) who had a hand in the establishment of the museum's collection; he'd collected a good deal of militaria as reference material for his genre. More information about him can be found here (extremely brief) and here (a little longer, but still sketchy).

Among the paintings were impressive fragments from a panorama painted by Detaille and Alphonse de Neuville (1835-85). Notes (in French) about part of this work are here and, with an illustration intact in PDF format, here. Two snapshots I took are below. (The color is way too orange; I need to shop for a camera that does indoor non-flash photography better than my little three-year-old Nikon.)



And here is a fragment of the same panorama that I found on the Web.


The artists painted two panoramas during 1881-83: the 16 August 1870 battle at Rezonville and the 30 November 1870 battle at Champigny during the siege of Paris. The fragments shown above are from the Rezonville work. More on the panoramas can be found here and here.

What impressed me was the "painterly" quality -- simplified, bold brushwork combined with color selection yielding a satisfying image when seen a ways away, important items for murals and panoramas. Some of this can be seen in my close-ups above, though the original art is much better.

Detaille was the lead artist on the projects, so I assumed his style dominated the cooperative effort. But after doing a little research, I'm not so sure. Let's look at some evidence.

Gallery: Detaille

As the pun in the title of this piece and similar comments elsewhere indicate, Detaille is noted more for his precision and attention to detail than to other artistic qualities. Nevertheless, while much of his work is indeed "tight," some is more "free."

This shows Napoleon in 1806. It's an example of Detaille's tighter painting style where details of uniforms and equipment predominate.

La Salue aux Blessée (Saluting the Wounded) is less tight, probably because the figures are so relatively small that detail became much less important than atmosphere.

"Charge at Mosbronn" is an action scene, one of many Detaille painted. Again, thanks to its subject matter, it too can serve as a basis for comparison with Neuville's work shown below.

Gallery: de Neuville

Titled "Attaque d'une maison barricadée à Vellersexel," we see a free, nearly sketch-like impression of a skirmish's aftermath. Compare the buildings here with those in the Detaille painting immediately above.

"La cimetière de Saint-Privat" is an example of Neuville's work that seems more tightly done. But that might be due to its scale: the Musée d'Orsay's web site contains comments on it and his work here along with close-ups of fragments that indicate painterly rather than hard-edged detail.

A simpler battle scene is "Surprise Attack in the Suburbs of Metz." I like the treatment of sun and shade, though the rifleman shooting at something off to the right seems to detract from the X-shaped composition focusing on the rushing man near the center. On the other hand, the composition has a secondary, oval element formed by the soldiers starting with the man in the X, leading to the aforementioned rifleman, then turning back over the dead or wounded men and returning to the center of the X.

"La repos après la bataille du Bourget" is another atmospheric piece, but not so freely executed. Again, this might well be due to a large reduction in scale hiding the nature of the brushwork.

"La dernière cartouche" ("The Last Cartridge" or sometimes "The Last Ammunition") is de Neuville's most famous work. This fame is due to its emotional depiction of a heroic last stand by French soldiers during the disastrous Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. Musée d'Orsay commentary is here. Compare the coloration of the image above to that shown on the Orsay site; I wonder which reproduction is more accurate.

Switching from the Franco-Prussian war to Britain's Zulu conflicts, we have "The Defense of Roarke's Drift" (1879), also spelled "Rorke's Drift." An account of the battle for survival by grossly outnumbered British can be found here.

Here is a detail from the Roarke's Drift painting. Note the similarity of the treatment of paint to that in my photos shown above. This suggests that the author of what attracted me in the Army Museum that day was de Neuville and not the more famous Detaille.

* * * * *

On reflection, Neuville's technique, exemplified by his treatment of people, reminds me of art by early 20th century illustrators that I greatly enjoy. Two examples:

The Magic Pool - 1907 by N.C. Wyeth

The Red Shawl - 1922 by Dean Cornwell



posted by Donald at June 18, 2009


have a black and white of this,came from england many years ago,appears to be a pencil or something.Does not feel like a print.Could it be an original?

Posted by: karen on July 7, 2009 2:55 PM

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