The Wallace Collection

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Horace Vernet: The Lion Hunt (P585)
Treasure of the Month - May 2003

Horace Vernet: The Lion Hunt (P585)

This is a particularly fine painting by one of the favourite artists of the 4th Marquess of Hertford, father of Sir Richard Wallace and the principal collector of the paintings in the Wallace Collection.

Signed and dated 1836, it has an unusually violent subject for Lord Hertford’s taste.

Vernet and Lord Hertford
Horace Vernet (1789-1863) was one of the most successful artists of nineteenth-century France. Grandson of Claude-Joseph Vernet (whose magnificent Storm with a Shipwreck can be seen in the Oval Drawing Room), he soon developed an extraordinary facility as an artist, painting a wide range of subjects including scenes from literature, the Bible, contemporary Italy, North Africa and the Middle East, as well as many works celebrating French military prowess. There are twenty-two of his oil paintings on display in this and three other galleries in the Wallace Collection (the Housekeeper’s Room, the Nineteenth-Century Gallery and the Reserve Gallery). Ranging in date from 1819 to 1860, they were all acquired by the 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800-70) who, though he seldom socialised with artists, seems to have been on unusually friendly terms with Vernet. Writing to him in 1855 he said he dearly wished he could begin ‘My dear Horace’, as in the good old days but now there was this ‘beastly business of Marquis and Monsieur’, and referred to ‘our old friendly relations which I recall with so much pleasure’.

The Painting
Vernet’s many foreign journeys included four visits to Algeria and one to the Middle East. Fascinated by Arab civilisation, he became one of many nineteenth-century artists to depict ‘Orientalist’ subjects. The scene shown in The Lion Hunt seems to have been a recollection of his first trip to Algeria in 1833 - when the picture was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1836 it was given the title Hunt in the Sahara Desert 28 May 1833. The subject is unusually bloodthirsty for a painting owned by Lord Hertford, an animal lover who frequently said that he only liked ‘pleasing pictures’. It is, however, characteristic of many of Vernet’s paintings of battle scenes in which there is a similar freezing of figures in violent motion (such as the lioness on the right) and a similar precise observation of surfaces and colours to produce a ‘snapshot’ image. As with some of Vernet’s other works (for example Joseph’s Coat in the Nineteenth-Century Gallery) the painting is also a reworking of a subject which had been treated by earlier artists, in this case Rubens and the eighteenth century French painter Jean-François de Troy. Vernet’s picture achieved some renown. It was engraved twice, and a table with a micro-mosaic top based on its composition is currently on display at the Gilbert Collection, Somerset House.