Born in Paris in 1789, Horace Vernet was predestined for a career in painting by family inheritance – the son of Carle Vernet, France’s leading equestrian painter, and grandson of Joseph Vernet, a celebrated marine and landscape painter, the younger Vernet would himself be one of the foremost French artistic figures of the first half of the 19th century. Just as his father’s later work glorified Napoleon, the early years of Horace’s career were also spent producing work flattering to the Emperor, and in the early years of the Restoration, his studio became the meeting place of artists and veterans openly hostile to the Bourbon government. Much to that government's irritation, 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. The Revolution in July 1830, which raised Louis-Philippe to the throne, opened vast opportunities of official employment to the artist. The commission for which the present painting is a study, Louis-Philippe and his Sons Riding out of the Château of Versailles (fig. 1), was among the last that Vernet would receive from France’s final monarch – it was commissioned in 1846 and exhibited in the Salon of 1847, less than a year before Louis-Philippe was removed from the throne by one of the many revolutions that shook Europe in 1848.
Louis-Philippe had made great efforts to cultivate popularity among the common people during the Bourbon Restoration. He made the Palais-Royal the foyer of liberals, dressed en bourgeois (long pants instead of knee breeches), and sent his sons to a public school. He even strolled the streets of the working-class sections of Paris and stopped frequently to chat with workers. Thus, when the Revolution of 1830 overthrew Charles X, the duke was proclaimed ‘King of the French’ in his place. Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People of 1830 was painted in commemoration of the July Revolution which had raised Louis-Philippe to the throne. Though the new king almost doubled the electorate when he came to power, by September of 1835 he had muzzled the press and refused to further broaden suffrage, a decision that would lead to his downfall. The king’s position was further imperiled by the accidental death of his popular son and heir Ferdinand Philippe, Duc d’Orléans in 1842 (see lot 43 for the duke’s portrait by Ingres), which vested the line of succession in the duke’s then four year-old son. In the midst of France’s economic crisis of 1846, the king commissioned this portrait from Vernet as a calculated bit of propaganda.
Documents show that the king personally visited Vernet’s studio five times throughout the second half of 1846 to check in on the progress of the painting, and was probably intimately involved in its composition which is full of images politically useful to the embattled king. The painting’s first goal was to create a visual reminder of the legitimacy of the claim Louis-Philippe and his sons had on the French throne. Some of the allusions to this, like the placement of the statue of Louis XIV, were more subtle, while others, like the decision to include the three fleurs-de-lis of the Bourbon coat of arms, unused in a royal portrait since the July Revolution, directly above the king’s head, were seized upon by his critics as a sign of his connection to the absolute monarchy of old. Further, the portrait was meant to communicate the king’s health and vigor, even at 73 years old. With growing concern over passing the crown to his eight year-old heir, and thus an accompanying regency, it was important that the king project as virile an image as possible. Vernet accomplishes this by bringing the king close to the foremost plane of the composition as if his horse’s next step will take him off the canvas entirely, and by showing the king in full control of his horse, its nostrils flaring slightly in annoyance at being reined in. Finally, the work shows the king surrounded by all of his sons, including the deceased Duc d’Orléans, who had been dead for four years when it was painted. According to contemporary accounts, Vernet had been directly ordered by the king to include this posthumous portrait of the duke riding on the king’s right, showing the royal family intact and with the hoped for succession in place. Vernet, working with the king, attempted to use the image to quell any public doubt about the king’s reign by showing him healthy and active and surrounded by his young, robust, self-confident princes, riding forth from the Sun King’s palace to claim their rightful place among the great rulers of France.
The present work shows the composition in a relatively final state with only a few minor variations, including changes to the positions of the king’s sons and the compression of the composition into a single image, with the troops en revue included along the very extreme edges in the final composition. Vernet’s painting for Louis Philippe ultimately survived the Revolution of 1848 and the king’s removal from the throne, and still hangs at Versailles today.
Emile Jean Horace Vernet, Louis-Philippe and His Sons Riding Out from the Château of Versailles, Salon of 1847. Musée National du Château, Versailles.