Horace Vernet's Battle of Jemappes (fig. 1), now in the National Gallery, London, is one of four battle scenes commissioned by the Duc d'Orléans (later King Louis-Philippe) in 1821 for his gallery in the Palais Royal in Paris. In November 1792 the French Revolutionary army under General Dumouriez defeated the Austrians at Jemappes near Mons. This battle broke Austrian power in Belgium and led to the French occupation of the country. The young Duke distinguished himself in the battle and later frequently referred to his role in it as evidence of his Republican sympathies.
Émile-Jean-Horace Vernet, known as Horace Vernet, was the grandson of Carle Vernet (1756-1836) and the grandson of Joseph Vernet (1714-1789). Joseph had been commissioned by Louis XV to produce a series of paintings of the seaports of France. Trained as a painter by his father, Horace Vernet frequented the studio of the neo-classical painter François André Vincent (1746-1818), a family friend, who provided him with an academic education. In 1810, he was unsuccessful in the prestigious Prix de Rome competition but succeeded in exhibiting at the Salon of 1812. This was thanks to the patronage of the young Duc d'Orléans whose protégé he later became. He participated in the defence of Paris in 1814 and was made a member of the French Legion of Honour by Napoleon. He fell out of favour after the restoration of Charles X. The paintings he submitted for the Salon in 1822, one of them being the Battle of Jemappes commissioned by the Duc d'Orléans, were thought to express anti-royalist sentiments and were rejected. However after the Revolution of 1830 and the accession of Louis-Philippe it was put on public view, reflecting the change in the political climate. In 1828 Vernet was appointed Director of the French Academy in Rome. He returned to France in 1833 and was appointed Professor at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1835. Vernet was a close friend of Théodore Géricault and both shared an enthusiasm for horses.
The present oil study concentrates on the fiery white charger ridden by General Dumouriez, set in contrast to the black horse of an adjutant. In the finished work Vernet abandons this effective device, probably for compositional reasons, and places the two horses, although in the same posture, side by side (see fig. 2). The brushwork is vigorous and confident. The light effects are created with remarkable economy. The figure of the general interests the painter only in so far as it overlaps with the anatomy of the horse.