Your Collection at the NGC: General Foy by Horace Vernet

Horace Vernet, General Foy, 1825, oil on canvas, 73 x 59.5 cm. NGC 

As a multifaceted art institution, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) is often more interested in the artist who painted a portrait than its subject. This painting, however, is an exception to the rule. In this case, General Foy found his perfect match in Horace Vernet, and the artist was encouraged to create a powerful work, thanks to the General’s fame.

General Maximilien-Sébastien Foy (1775–1825) was an extraordinary figure. Celebrated as a “warrior-lawmaker,” he enjoyed a long military career — first in the French Republic, then under Napoleon, and finally under the restored French monarchy. Later in life, he was elected to the Assemblée nationale as a member of the Chambre des députés.

His brilliant career was marked by his open defence of liberty, and his willingness to stick to his principles. He voted against Napoleon’s seizure of power and, as a deputy, resisted the attempts of French kings Louis XVIII and Charles X to acquire more extensive powers.

Vernet’s portrait subtly acknowledges the General’s many achievements and awards. On his chest he wears medals of the Legion of Honour and the Order of St. Louis, and around his neck is the Order of the Crescent, awarded to Foy by Sultan Selim III for his aid in training Turkish troops. 

Horace Vernet, General Foy (detail), 1825, oil on canvas, 73 x 59.5 cm. NGC 

Foy died in Paris on November 28, 1825. His funeral two days later, said to have been attended by some 100,000 mourners was, in many ways, a vast protest against the government of the reactionary King Charles X. In death, Foy became a symbol of resistance, and a wave of commemorative projects followed, which also served to unite the opposition.

Vernet was the natural choice to commemorate Foy. A few years earlier, he had painted a sketch of the general, which he turned into the painting now hanging at the NGC. In addition, Vernet, like Foy, opposed the government of his day. In Vernet’s case, this meant looking back to Napoleon’s Empire: to its victories and power, and to its military might.

Vernet’s opposition to the current regime was evident in his art. His defiance of artistic convention had a political edge to it: rebellion in one could imply rebellion in the other. For starters, he expressed disdain for Neoclassicism — made famous by artists such as Jacques-Louis David — and thus the art of ideal beauty. In its place, Vernet espoused a more vernacular style, expressing violence and emotion, sometimes using anecdote and reportage, all of which was new and exciting. He was particularly renowned for his paintings of battles and other scenes from war, and was a stickler for detail, once proclaiming about a battle scene for Napoleon III, “Vernet does not alter history.”

As one of the leaders of the burgeoning Romantic movement, Vernet took naturally to a style of painting that defied convention. His portrait of General Foy is deliberately under-finished, giving it an air of dash and daring. He chose to use a relatively restricted colour palette, relying on the contrasts between black, red, gold and silver to give the work its power, and his flesh tints are unnaturally florid. In addition, the brushmarks are clearly visible, suggesting a confident artist asserting his virtuoso command of both materials and technique. The painting is an evocative likeness of the proud and defiant Foy; but it is also easy to sense the temperament of the artist behind the work. In this portrait, both subject and artist come together to create a painting of undeniable power.

Horace Vernet, General Foy (detail), 1825, oil on canvas, 73 x 59.5 cm. NGC 

From this vantage point, it is difficult to understand just how famous Foy was during the 19th century. He crops up in works by both Balzac and Zola, a rose was named for him, and he can even be found in children’s rhymes designed to teach spelling, playing on the homonyms foy, fois, foi, foie and Foix. Thanks to Foy’s fame, it is possible to follow Vernet’s work on the painting in the newspapers of his day. Realizing that the painting would become the official public image of the deceased, its creation was newsworthy.

The painting was quickly reproduced as a print, with funds from its sales going towards a monumental tomb for Foy, and support for his widow and children. The painting itself was purchased by Louis-Philippe, the Duc d’Orléans, who was Vernet’s greatest patron. It was a gesture with political overtones. The Duke was cousin to King Charles X and was playing a dangerous game, positioning himself as a liberal alternative to the current regime.

Small gestures like buying a portrait of Foy, or otherwise supporting the rebellious Vernet had an impact. On the Duke’s walls, the portrait hung near the likenesses of earlier kings of France, and of leaders such as Cromwell and Napoleon. Louis-Philippe’s intent was to demonstrate that he respected the achievements of all these men — kings and liberators alike — and would attempt to seek a moderate path. A few years later, Louis-Philippe came to power in the July 1830 revolution that deposed his cousin and made him king.

In his lifetime, Vernet was viewed as both a rebel and a trailblazer. In his work, there is a distinct aura of barely restrained power, whether in his vigorous and highly visible brushstrokes, his unusual palette, or his realistic compositions. Nor has his legacy been lost to popular culture. In the story, “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter” by Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes claims to be related to “Vernet, the French artist,” explaining that “art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.”

Purchased by the NGC in 2016, General Foy strengthens the Gallery’s collection of early 19th-century French art, and provides a counterpoint to a strong group of British portraits, adding depth and range to the collection. The painting is on view in Gallery C210.

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