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The tragic deaths of Henri Regnault

As we approach the 150th anniversary of the start of the Siege of Paris in September 1870, I’ve been reading Théodore de Banville’s Idylles Prussiennes, a series of poems he wrote during the city’s four-month ordeal. The poems, which first appeared in the Parisian newspaper Le National, and were later collected in a book, have been disappointing – uninspired and repetitive in the main. But they did introduce me to a painter who was famous in his day and was then largely forgotten, only to re-emerge recently, sometimes in the strangest of modern guises.

regnault1_sm.jpgHenri Regnault has something of the allure of Wilfred Owen – a young man of immense artistic promise who is tragically killed in a largely futile attack just before the end of a major European conflict. The posthumous reputations of the poet and painter have diverged wildly, however, as we shall see.

Regnault was born in Paris in 1843, the son of a distinguished scientist whose photographs are now as sought-after as his son’s paintings. The young man’s artistic talents were spotted early and in 1861 he entered the École des beaux-arts, the traditional training ground for aspiring French painters. In 1866, he won the prestigious Grand Prix de Rome, which offered four years of uninterrupted study at the French Academy in the city. But like many other young artists, he chafed at the constraints imposed by regulations surrounding the prize and made frequent trips to Spain and North Africa, finding there a renewed sense of artistic purpose.

His first envoi, despatched from Rome in 1867 and addressing the Homeric subject of Automédon avec les chevaux d’Achille (Automedon with the Horses of Achilles),i was well received, even though it broke the Academy’s horseofachilles_sm.jpgrules by allowing two imposing horses to dominate the composition rather than presenting a simple nude study. According to Regnault scholar Marc Gotlieb, his portrait of a severe Spanish general, Juan Prim, completed in Madrid in 1868, similarly ‘embraced a conception of painting that was violent, equine, coloristic, and, thanks to the native, primordial character of his naturalism, by definition contemporary.’ii

It was, however, Regnault’s Salomé, exhibited at the Paris Salon in the spring of 1870, that sealed his reputation as the emerging young French artist. With its combination of pearl-coloured flesh, black hair, exotic jewellery, transparent clothing, intricate décor and sensuous effects of colour and surface, the painting was a public and critical sensation. Théophile Gautier hailed the work as ‘the Orient itself’.

Regnault’s star was very much in the ascendancy then when the Franco-Prussian war broke out in July 1870. He returned to Paris in August, putting a hold on plans to establish a permanent studio in Tangiers and to travel to Egypt, India, Persia and beyond. Although holders of the Prix de Rome were exempt from military service, in October he volunteered for the National Guard, a poorly trained and equipped militia, treated with contempt by many regular soldiers. With Paris surrounded and besieged, Regnault, like many of his fellows, became increasingly frustrated with endless guard duties and longed to prove his worth in a decisive battle with the enemy.

salome_sm.jpgHis chance came in January 1871 when the Parisian authorities, under political pressure to be more proactive, marched some 90,000 troops, around half of whom were inexperienced Guardsmen, to northwest Paris. On the 19th January at Buzenval, they launched an attack on the Prussians. The sortie proved to be a costly gesture that failed even to dent the enemy lines. Regnault was among the 1,500 French troops killed that day, alongside 3,500 wounded. Saint-Saëns, on hearing the news of the artist’s death, is said to have locked himself indoors for three days of mourning. Paris surrendered a week later.

Théodore de Banville’s poem, entitled simply ‘Henri Regnault’, written shortly after the artist’s death, is composed in stanzas of four octosyllabic lines, with alternate rhymes (abab). It adds little to our knowledge of the young painter’s life and work. Enchanted by art (‘Il s’enivrait de ses magies/Et de ses éblouissements’), he is depicted as making a Christ-like sacrifice (‘Qui pour notre rachat suprême/A donné son sang précieux’) and is promised eternal glory (‘A jamais dans sa chevelure/Verdira le divin laurier’). The most interesting section of the poem comes in the final two stanzas, where Banville transforms Regnault’s Salomé into an image of Destiny preparing to turn the artist into a martyr:

Hélas! la danseuse lassée
Qu’il peignit, folle et sans remords,
C’est la Destinée insensée,
Assise parmi des trésors,

Qui, paresseuse et l’œil candide,
Sans rien vouloir ni rien sentir,
Joue avec le couteau splendide
Qui doit immoler un martyr!

Alas! the weary dancer
He painted, mad and without remorse,
She’s insane Destiny,
Sitting among treasures,

Who languid, with an ingenuous eye,
Neither wanting nor feeling anything
Plays with the splendid blade
Which will sacrifice a martyr!

Théophile Gautier, another poet who remained trapped in Paris during the siege, offers a more detailed and intriguing pen portrait of Regnault in one of the articles collected in his Tableaux de Siège, published in 1871. In his role as art critic Gautier was well aware of Regnault’s work, but they only met when a mutual friend and fellow artist, Georges Clairin, brought the painter to Gautier’s home one evening during the siege. Clairin would later serve alongside Regnault in the National Guard at Buzenval.

In his article, Gautier notes Regnault’s interest in studying ‘ce monde oriental…ce monde mystérieux de l’Islam’, his knowledge of horses, a passion he shared with Théodore Géricault, and his love of music and fine tenor voice. During their conversation, Regnault evoked Tangiers so vividly that ‘pendant quelques minutes, au milieu de l’hiver parisien, nous nous sentîmes enveloppé de la chaude atmosphère orientale’ (‘we felt ourselves enveloped in the warm atmosphere of the East’). Poet and painter together admire a copy of Goya’s Estragos y desastres de la guerra (Ravages and disasters of war), an album which Gautier had been lent by a friend. Recalling how Regnault paused over an image of an old man and woman surveying a battlefield littered with corpses, Gautier wonders whether the young painter had ‘a vague premonition of his death’. As ten o’clock sounds, the two artists bid Gautier a cordial farewell, leaving the poet to speculate on whether, had he lived, Regnault would have changed the face of French art.

Regnault was not the only French artist to die during the Franco-Prussian war – Frédéric Bazille, for instance, killed on the battlefield in late November 1870, is now recognised as an important pre-Impressionist painter. But the rise and fall of Regnault’s reputation after his death tells us much about both reactions to defeat in France and also changes in the art market during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

goya.jpgAn extremely popular Regnault retrospective opened in Paris in spring 1872, featuring his final large-scale work, Exécution sans jugement sous les rois maures de Grenade (Summary Execution under the Moorish Kings of Granada), a painting whose violent depiction of a beheading was reputed to cause sensitive viewers to faint. A highly successful auction followed. That same year, a memorial to the dead artist was unveiled in the woods at Buzenval, topped by a bust made by his friend Louis-Ernest Barrias, copies and casts of which were then widely distributed. Regnault took centre stage in the monument to fallen students unveiled at the École des beaux-arts in 1876, as well as in paintings and drawings by many contemporary artists, notably Meissonier’s allegorical Le siège de Paris.

Meanwhile, the publication of his letters in 1872 found readers in France and abroad (including John Singer Sargent and Ilya Repin) and burnished his reputation both as an artist and a patriot. He figured in books aimed at promoting moral and patriotic education among children, while his work and his legend featured prominently at the 1878 Exposition Universelle. On a more troubling note, his story was taken up by the revanchist poet and militant populist Paul Déroulède, whose League of Patriots published patriotic biographies, the first of which was devoted to Regnault.

By the end of the 19th century, interest in the artist had declined dramatically and his works started to go into storage and to disappear from the art market. His academic training and exoticism looked increasingly out of place and melodramatic in the world of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, with Fauvism and Cubism just over the horizon. Some critics now argued that the legend of the patriot had masked the faults of the artist. When, in May 1912, Regnault’s Salomé came up for auction in Paris, a campaign was launched to save the painting for the nation. A vigorous and at times violently anti-Semitic counter-campaign (several of the leading pro-Salomé figures were Jewish) ensured that the painting ended up in the USA. The Great War would subsequently provide a plethora of martyred artists to replace the Regnault legend.

salome2_sm.jpgLike Gautier, we can only speculate whether the young painter would indeed have played a part in reshaping French art in the decades following 1871, or whether, following a successful commercial and academic career, he would have been largely forgotten, with just a few sensational pictures to his credit. Today, as nineteenth-century academic painting comes back into fashion, there are signs of revived interest in his work. The Automédon can be seen in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Salomé in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, while the Exécution, bought by the French State in 1872, is now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

One of the strangest re-appearances of a Regnault image has been the use of Salomé in the title sequence of the spoof vampire TV comedy What we do in the shadows, where the head of the main female character has been grafted onto Regnault’s depiction of the exotic dancer’s body. The fine arts at times move in truly mysterious ways!


David Hunter
August 2020

i Automedon is Achilles’ groom. The horses sense that they are taking the Greek hero to his death

ii Marc Gotlieb, The Deaths of Henri Regnault, University of Chicago Press, 2016, p. 24


Posted on:Tuesday 4th August, 2020