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Taking of the smalah from Abd-El-Kader to Taguin. May 16, 1843.
© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot / H. Lewandowski
Publication date: May 2005
Emir Abd el-Kader had been the soul of the resistance to the French colonization of Algeria, the conquest of which had been undertaken in 1830. However, this victory sounded the death knell for Algerian independence, despite some local resistance. .
This painting, one of the largest ever made, is an airy composition in which Vernet managed to avoid the frieze and which he knew how to punctuate. By a succession of triangles, the two most important of which are on the left around the Duke of Aumale and on the right around the palanquins, the only elements to stand out against the sky - this sky whose blue was spread with sabers -, Vernet is managed to show the French attack, the Algerian resistance and the flight of the Muslims. These triangles are also punctuated by breakthroughs in the direction of the viewer who anticipate the panoramas, direct ancestors of cinema. If in the background we see the attack of Yousouf's spahis, it is the foreground, behind the duke sitting on his white horse and giving his orders, which nevertheless focuses the gaze. This is where the artist brought together the French protagonists and anecdotes intended to bring the painting to life, such as the Jew who fled with his possessions. Among the characters, who form a gallery of portraits, are the second lieutenant of Canclaux whose charge allows to free the soldiers of second lieutenant Delage, at the center of the composition, surrounded by Muslims, and whose horse is killed, Lieutenant-Colonel Morris of the 4th Chasers, Captain d'Epinay on the far left, and Captain Dupin, later famous for his expeditious action in Mexico. It will be noted that the axis of the Duke of Aumale allows to slide towards a marabout named Sid-el-Aradj who had consecrated Abd el-Kader, a blind character reading the Koran, and whose presence makes it possible to show the religious side of the scene. Topographically, the work is very accurate, with the small stream in the center of the valley, the location of the ruined Turkish fort and the arid mountains in the background. The same goes for the location of the Emir's white tents and the positions of the troops, except probably for the location of the figures which had to be shown in close-up.
From a stylistic point of view, the artist multiplied the sources of inspiration while asserting his own way, particularly in the representation of horses of which he was a specialist like his father and master Carle Vernet. Taking up the orientalizing fashion initiated with Napoleonic paintings (Girodet), he applied himself to painting figures of Muslims, some of whom had exact costumes, but in cases such as women climbing on palanquins, he was visibly inspired by the Death of Sardanapalus (Louvre) by Delacroix. It is also from this painter that he draws inspiration from his Arabs fighting on horseback as in wild fantasies. As for the animals, it seems that it was from Rosa Bonheur that Vernet borrowed the oxen from the center of his composition. But he probably copied his gazelles and camels, like Barye or Cain, at the Jardin des Plantes. More interesting is the woman who implores the Duke of Aumale at the foot of his horse. Directly inspired by the Russian soldier at the foot of the Emperor's horse in the Napoleon on the battlefield of Eylau de Gros (Louvre), it reveals the reference to which Vernet was attached to compose his work. But if in Gros the sacredness of Napoleon is accentuated by this anecdote, nothing remains in Vernet. His Duke of Aumale is no more than a general giving his orders and he barely stands out from all the figures. This painting seems to fall within Gros's conception of the battle scene, but the military and topographical vision rather takes up the formula of Lejeune and Bacler’Albe. Vernet wanted in this immense canvas to synthesize the two conceptions of battle painting, while announcing panorama painting.
In addition to questions related to battle painting in the XIXe century, this painting shows in a disproportionate way a relatively secondary episode of the conquest of Algeria, since Abd el-Kader did not surrender until 1847. The size of this painting in fact reveals a desire for propaganda by Louis-Philippe at a time when his power was being challenged. By magnifying the courage of his son the Duke of Aumale, he was trying to show how much he and his sons had worked for the greatness of France. However, the painting cannot be conceived independently of the other paintings in the room known as the Smalah, in Versailles, for which it was designed, and without those in the neighboring room, known as Constantine. In front of The Taking of the Smalah, Vernet painted The Battle of Isly, a victory won by Marshal Bugeaud in 1844 and certainly more striking, but which did not occupy an entire wall. In the Constantine room, Louis-Philippe also applied himself to showing the feats of arms of his sons, The Duke of Nemours repelling a Kabyle attack in Coudiat-Aty, The Capture of the Mouzaïa Pass by the Duke of Orleans, Battle of the forest of Habrah led by the Duke of Orleans against Abd el-Kader, three paintings by Vernet who became the cantor of the royal family. In summary, these rooms give the impression that the conquest of Algeria was carried out by the sons of the king of the French, while it was a long-term work that lasted until the Second Empire. If there is a sort of mystification here, it must be recognized that these works are very little known to the general public, proof that the goal sought by Louis-Philippe has not been achieved.
- colonial conquest
- Louis Philippe
Claire CONSTANSCatalog of paintings from VersaillesParis, RMN, t.II, 1995 Jean MEYER, Annie REY-GOLDZEIGUER, Jean TARRADE Colonial history of France, t.1, The conquest Paris, Armand Colin, coll. "Agora Pocket", 1991.
To cite this article
Jérémie BENOÎT, "Taking of the smalah of Abd-el-Kader"