In a tragic twist of fate, Henri Regnault's promising artistic career was cut short when he was killed in battle shortly after having enlisted in the Franco-Prussian war at the age of 27. The artistic legacy he left behind as well as the mythology built around his image offers a glimpse into the mind of an artistic genius whose incredible talent led him to create an astonishing oeuvre of works.
The son of the director of the Sèvres porcelain factory, Henri Regnault enrolled at the age of seventeen in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he studied alongside Alexandre Cabanel and Louis Lamothe. In 1866, he was awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome and left for Italy the following year.
Fresh from his Italian sojourn the bold young artist stunned the critics when he debuted his first large-scale canvas Automedon with the Horses of Achilles, a powerful work that showcased the artist's technical brilliance in his ability to render the musculature of the human body and a large scale animal. This work defined him as a controversial but yet refreshing personality who liberally pushed the boundaries of the traditional repertory that was 'de rigeur' for students of the Academy. His freer, more flamboyant style had deep roots in the French Romantic movement and had he lived longer many believed he would have reshaped the course of the art establishment. A visit to Mariano Fortuny's studio in Rome would be a turning point for Regnault. Inspired and exhilirated by the exotic world of Orientalism brought to life in Fortuny's glittering canvases. The artist needed little convincing and soon departed with his friend Georges Clairin for Morocco.
The present oil study is representative of Regnault's first foray into the Orientalist genre. Painted studies after black models were widely used by artists and Perrin Stein suggests in the Boston exhibition catalogue that Regault most likely had seen Ruben's Four Studies of the Head of a Negro (fig. 1). Unlike Ruben's sketch, the present work presents two different models, one with a small goatee shown in two different poses and the largest of the three, a three-quarter bust length view of a muscular young man. Even for a sketch, Regnault's retains a highly 'polished' look and a beautiful painterly quality, enhanced by the contrast of the dark brown against the cream-colored background.
Sketches often pose challenges with regards to precise dating. Many scholars believe that this sketch belongs to a small group of preliminary sketches done in the spring of 1870 in Tangiers in preparation for Rengault's last great monumental canvas Summary Execution under the Moorish Kings of Granada (fig. 2). The rather gruesome picture which shows the aftermath of an execution features a regal Moorish executioner whose face closely resembles one of the models in the present work.
(Fig. 1) Peter Paul Rubens, Studies of the head of a black man, Musee d'Art Ancien, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Belgium
Photo Credit : Erich Lessing Art Resource, NY
(Fig. 2) Henri Regnault, Execution without Trial under the Moresque Kings of Granada, 1870, Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France
Photo Credit: Erich Lessing Art Resource, NY