From 14 February to 13 May 2012, the palace of Versailles
presents the exhibition Napoleons Wars. Louis François Lejeune, general and painter in the Africa and Crimea rooms.
The soldier, spy, painter and diplomat Louis François Lejeune (1775 - 1848) is a unique figure in the history of his time: as a soldier, he fought in all the wars of the Revolution and the Empire before reaching the rank of brigade general. But that was not enough for him: during his military career he painted the principal battles in a dozen paintings, then described the Napoleonic campaigns at length in his Souvenirs.
The exhibition is designed to do justice to this colourful artist. It presents his drawings and his paintings in the context of the artists of his time, as well as his personal memories of military and civilian life during the Empire, the Restoration and the July Monarchy.
Six sections present his production of battle paintings, from his observation of the theatre of operations until their exhibition in the Parisian salons. Through the life and works of Louis François Lejeune, the visitor discovers an eyewitness account of the wars of Napoleon.
SOME WORKS OF LEJEUNE
Sketch for the Battle of Lodi, 1804 Salon
Napoleon Bonaparte crossed the river Po at Piacenza on 7 May 1796. He pursued the Austrian troops to Lodi where his victory on 10 May opened up the way to Milan.
Lejeune did not himself take part in the battle of Lodi. On that day he was in Paris, assigned to the fortifications depot. So in order to depict this battle he had to consult the reports drawn up by the historiography officers. He also used cartographic materials and the drawings of other military men, in particular the sketches of the geographer-engineer Guiseppe Bagetti. Lejeune almost literally copied the gouache painting by Guislain Bacler dAlbe, another geographer-engineer in the army. Its composition is at the same time an archive document, a training instrument and a piece of propaganda.
Lejeune depicts the charge of the carabiniers across the wooden bridge that measured nearly two hundred metres long. The sideways point of view gives depth to the composition, while also highlighting Bonaparte and his chiefs of staff in the foreground on the left. The commander is riding a white horse. He turns to the right, indicating how the viewer should read the painting.
The composition gives an important place to the landscape and reminds us that Lejeune started out as a pupil of the landscape painter Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes. The painting plays on effects of light in the sky and the river. The charge of the column across the bridge is more suggested than seen owing to the smoke of the fighting.
View of a Bivouac of the Emperor in the plains of Moravia on one of the days before the Battle of Austerlitz, in December 1805, 1808 Salon
Austerlitz was regarded by Napoleon as his outstanding battle. To celebrate it, the Director of Museums Dominique-Vivant Denon commissioned over a dozen paintings. He asked Lejeune to depict the preparations for the combat.
The scene of the bivouac is viewed from a height. In the centre we see Napoleon flanked by his marshals Berthier and Bessières. He is questioning the Moravian peasants and deserters from the Russian army that Lejeune brought to him. The artist is depicted with his back to us, wearing the red and blue uniform of the aides de camp of Berthier, the major general or head of the chiefs of staff of the Emperor. Roustan, the Mameluke personal attendant of Napoleon, is folding a fur blanket, while his equerry stands at the door of the landau wrapped in his white greatcoat.
In the foreground, the orderlies of marshal Berthier serve a meal to the chiefs of staff, while others chop wood or chase poultry.
His military training enabled Lejeune to insist on the preparations for the battle of Austerlitz, which he depicts in minute detail, leaving to the history painters such as Gérard the allegorical representation of the victory.
Battle of Guisando at the col dAvis, 1817 Salon
Lejeune devoted several paintings to the Spanish War of Independence. Like all the eyewitnesses and combatants of these events, he was particularly struck by the permanent harassment of the troops by the local population practising a form of guerilla warfare, in contrast to the major battles fought on the plains of northern Europe.
Lejeune was taken prisoner near Illiescas in 1811 during an attack led by don Juan Padalea, known as El Medico, a doctor who put himself at the head of the resistance. A few days later the convoy reached Guisando, near Talavera de la Rena. That is where Lejeune locates his painting which combines several places in one scene.
The dramatic omposition is centred on Lejeune. His escort has been massacred by the Spanish peasants. In the foreground we see Guillaume Bariol who has just been pierced by a sword. Over to the left, vultures and stray dogs devour the bodies of French soldiers killed a few days before. Surrounded by fighters, Lejeune is attacked by soldiers wielding pikes but is not injured. Seeing this miracle, El Medico goes to his defence.
The painting was executed during the Restoration period and exhibited anonymously at the Salon of 1817 under the title View of the Monastery and Antique Bulls of Guisando, on the bank of the Albergo in Castile, as it was no longer possible at this time to exhibit scenes of the imperial wars. The artist returned here to his predilection for landscape: he depicts with detailed virtuosity the rocks of the summits, the broken bridge over the river, the rainbow and the large trees in the foreground. On the fringes of the combat, three monumental sculptures of bulls refer to the Guisando bulls, sculptures from the Celtiberi period.
LOUIS FRANÇOIS LEJEUNE
In the course of his life, the general and painter Louis François Lejeune (1775-1848) alternated between military missions and periods consecrated to painting.
Lejeune studied painting in the private studio of the landscape painter Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819), and at the Royal Academy of Painting, which he entered in 1789. In 1792, aged 17, he abruptly interrupted his studies and enrolled in the army, in the Compagnie des Arts.
He rose up rapidly through the ranks: after being incorporated into the Engineering Corps, he became one of the aides de camp of marshal Alexandre Berthier in 1800. During twenty years he took part in most of the military campaigns, including the siege of Charleroi (1794), the crossing of the Rhine (1795), the second Italian campaign (1800), the first German campaign (1805), the war in Spain (1808-1812) and the Russian campaign (1812).
While he embraced his military career with enthusiasm, Lejeune did not forget his vocation to be a painter. In 1798, he exhibited for the first time in the Salon with The Death of General Marceau. The success of The Battle of Marengo, exhibited in the Salon of 1801, led him to undertake a cycle of paintings of battles in which the triumphal marches of the armies are balanced by the long hours spent in bivouacs and sieges.
The Battle of Aboukir and The Battle of the Lodi Bridge were exhibited in 1804. The Bivouac of Napoleon on the Eve of Austerlitz was the only commission he ever received. This cycle of paintings shows an encyclopaedic aim as Lejeune also depicted battles in which he did not participate. While fully pursuing his military career, he managed to have works presented up until 1845 in nearly all the Salons during the Consulate, the Empire and the Restoration.
In 1835, the July Monarchy put an end to the functions of Lejeune in the army. He then began a career as a public figure: he was appointed Director of the School of Beaux-Arts in Toulouse. He was also appointed interim Mayor of that city in 1841. At the same time he was writing his Souvenirs, in which he presented his experience of Napoleons wars. He died in 1843 in Toulouse at the age of seventy-three.de Napoléon.