Henri-Alexandre-Georges Regnault (1843 –1871), a Parisian, began his Salomé in Rome. The model was Maria Latini, the fiancée of one of Regnault’s friends. (She also posed for the female sculptor Marcello’s bronze Pythia, 1870, Opéra Garnier, Paris). Regnault met Maria in Rome, and the painting began there in 1868 or 1869 as a portrait head. He later enlarged the canvas at the bottom and right and painted his subject as Salomé, completing the work in Tangier in the spring of 1870. Regnault sold the picture for between 12,000 and 14,000 francs to an art dealer who sold it in March 1870 to the young Paris dealer Paul Durand–Ruel (1831 – 1922) for 14,000 or 16,000 francs. Durand-Ruel lent it for exhibition at the 1870 Salon from May 1 through June 20, then sold it for between 35,000 and 36,000 francs. Salomé won Regnault his second gold medal. The acclaimed history painter and sculptor, Ernest Meissonier (1815 – 1891) considered Henri Regnault the future of French art.
Regnault began drawing zoo animals by the age of eight, and his father, Victor Regnault (1810 – 1878) – an eminent chemist and physicist — sent his precocious, well-educated second son at age 17 to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which taught drawing but not painting. Like James Tissot, Regnault first attempted to study painting under Hippolyte Flandrin (1809-1864), a student of Neoclassical master Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867). But Flandrin was busy painting frescoes at Saint Germain-des-Prés, and sent him (as he had sent James Tissot) to Louis Lamothe (1822-1869), another former student of Ingres. Lamothe directed him to copy Italian Renaissance painter Raphael (1483-1520), French Baroque painter Poussin (1594 – 1665), and Ingres. At the École des Beaux-Arts, Regnault studied with Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889), drawing from nude models.
Regnault entered the prestigious Prix de Rome competition in 1863 but did not win, and at the 1864 Salon, he exhibited two unremarkable portraits. But in 1866, almost giving up hope, he finally won the Prix de Rome, with Thetis Giving the Weapons of Vulcan to Achilles. He was still 22.
A Parisian with an expansive dining room had commissioned six large canvases from Henri Regnault and two of his fellow students, Georges Clairin (1843 – 1919, who first exhibited at the 1866 Salon) and Édouard Blanchard (1844–1879, who also studied with Alexandre Cabanel at the École des Beaux-Arts, and who would win the Prix de Rome in 1868). One of these paintings, Regnault’s Still Life with Pomegranates (c. 1865, now at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia), was exhibited at the 1867 Salon.
Winning the Prix de Rome entitled Regnault to a grant from the French government that funded his travel and living expenses for three years while he studied classical painting at the French Academy in Rome. He left in March, 1867 with great freedom to learn and explore. He only was required to send one history painting a year back to Paris.
Friends described Henri Regnault as demanding, arrogant and temperamental, but also fun, generous and compassionate. He was a well-bred gentleman who enjoyed music, particularly Beethoven, and had a fine singing voice. He also was athletic and enjoyed hiking, swimming, hunting, and horseback riding.
Regnault sent a portrait of a lady to the 1868 Salon, and he completed the enormous Automedon Taming the Horses of Achilles (1868, 124 x 129.5 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) as the first history painting due in Paris by the terms of his prize. In August, he and his friend Georges Clairin traveled to Madrid. At his request, Regnault was permitted to continue to work in locations other than Rome while still funded by his Prix de Rome grant — the first prize winner to receive this special permission. He studied Diego Velázquez (1599 –1660, an individualistic painter in the court of King Philip IV) and Francisco de Goya (1746 –1828, court painter to the Spanish Crown, known for his bold handling of paint) in the Prado Museum while painting portraits, including that of the liberal revolutionary General Juan Prim y Prats (1869, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Regnault loved to paint horses, and he was invited to select the horse from the royal stables for this equestrian portrait. Although the General rejected it, his life-sized portrait (124 x 102 inches) won a gold medal at the 1869 Salon in Paris and was purchased by the French Government.
Regnault returned to Rome in the spring of 1869, writing his father in March, “Rome now seems to me lighted by a night-lamp.” By August, he had moved to Spain. He and Clairin went to Alicante, then Granada. But by December, Regnault was in Morocco, and Clairin joined him. The two painters rented an ancient Moorish house in Tangier where they could work in solitude, waited on by a half-dozen devoted servants. They furnished the place richly with Oriental carpets, textiles and curiosities, and they kept horses and dogs. Regnault loved his picturesque, sunny and tranquil life there so much that he purchased land and built a studio massive enough to accommodate his largest paintings. He planned to construct his own house – “a little palace” with stables and dog kennels – there as well.
Under the terms of the Prix de Rome, Regnault was required to send one last history painting back to Paris. He sent Execution without Judgment under the Moorish Kings (1870, Museé d’Orsay, Paris), to the 1870 Salon.
And then war was declared between France and Prussia.
The Prix de Rome exempted winners from military duty, but at the outbreak of war between France and Prussia, Henri Regnault joined the ranks of the National Guard defending Paris because he felt he would be only a mediocre officer but a model foot soldier. He served in the 69th infantry battalion, 4th company, and he prepared for death in combat by attaching to his clothing a card with his name, “Henri Regnault, painter, son of M. Victor Regnault, of the Institute [of France, a learned society],” and some letters and portraits for his Parisian fiancée, with her name and address. On January 19, 1871, seven miles west of Paris during the Battle of Buzenval [in which James Tissot’s unit also fought], Regnault and Clairin were separated. The retreat was sounded, and Clairin could not find Regnault. He returned to Paris without him.
It was reported in the New York Times on January 29, 1871 that Henri Regnault was a Franc-tireur, or sniper. One of Regnault’s comrades saw Regnault stay behind after the retreat was sounded – to fire his last bullet – and this comrade believed he saw Regnault fall an instant later. The sculptor Joseph Carlier (1849 – 1927), who himself took three bullets, said he saw Regnault drop. A contemporary reporter noted, perhaps with a little flair for drama considering that Regnault was shot in the left temple by a Prussian bullet, “When they picked [Regnault] up, he had just strength to point to the address [of his fiancée], and then he was dead.”
In the extensive research I conducted for my novel, The Hammock*, I happened on an eyewitness account from an American volunteer who was on the battlefield digging graves. He stated that Regnault’s fiancée was there:
“We saw out there the young lady who was soon to have married Henri Regnault. She was looking for his body among the dead, and found it during the day. The memory of that sweet, brave girl in that awful scene has lent a pathos to the story of his life and death which I do not get out of the writers and painters who have since dwelt so much and so lovingly upon the subject.”
The distinguished painter and sculptor Ernest Meissonnier claimed to have personally retrieved Regnault’s corpse from the battlefield, but Regnault’s biographer writes that a medical volunteer had located his body the morning after the battle, and that it was moved the next day with two hundred others from the battlefield to the Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Henri Regnault’s funeral service at the new Church of St. Augustine was packed with hundreds of mourners – politicians, soldiers, poets and painters – and the crowd spilled outside the entrance. Meissonnier delivered the oration at the funeral, held on Friday, January 27 – the day before France surrendered to Prussia. It is said that Regnault’s fiancée, Mademoiselle Geneviève Bréton (1849 – 1918), set a small bouquet of white lilacs on his casket.
Only twenty-seven when he died, Regnault left sixty-five oil paintings, forty-five water colors, nearly two hundred sketches, and a reputation as a genius – the greatest French painter of his generation.
For years, Regnault’s friends met on the day and at the place that he was killed, where a monument was erected to his memory. Among the other tributes to Regnault was Marche héroïque (1871), by his friend, the French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921), who also had served in the National Guard. Louis-Ernest Barrias (1841 – 1905) sculpted a bronze bust of Regnault, now at the Museé d’Orsay, in 1871. Henri Chapu (1833 – 1891) sculpted a monument to the students of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris who died defending Paris in 1870-71. The monument, incorporating a bronze bust of Regnault by Charles Degeorge (1837 – 1888), in the courtyard of the École, was erected in 1872 by the pupils there at the time of a memorial exhibition for Regnault. The French government bought Regnault’s Execution without Judgment from his heirs in 1872, to honor his memory.
Meissonier completed his heroic painting, The Siege of Paris, 1870, around 1884; it features the fallen Regnault leaning against the pedestal in the center.
For years, Henri Regnault’s Salomé was considered a masterpiece of contemporary art. When it was put up for sale by a private collector in 1912, Baron Henri de Rothschild tried to raise the funds necessary to keep the painting in France. He was outbid for the purchase price of 528,000 francs, and Salomé was presented to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1916, where it continues to shimmer with the youth and promise of its creator.
[*] In my book, The Hammock: A novel based on the true story of French painter James Tissot, Henri Regnault is killed in the Battle of Malmaison on October 21, 1870 [in which he likely fought] rather than in the Battle of Buzenval on January 19, 1871. I included him in my opening chapter to depict the caliber of the artists fighting to defend Paris.
© 2013 Lucy Paquette. All rights reserved.
James Tissot: Painting the Victorian Woman
The Hepworth, Wakefield, U.K., March 28 to November 3, 2013
“Taking the much cherished painting On the Thames, 1876, from our collection as a starting point, this new collection display explores the representation of women in the work of French born artist, James Tissot (1836-1902).
The display will also feature loans from Tate and several regional art galleries, and will discuss the portrayal of Victorian femininity in relation to Tissot’s life-history and the contrasting roles of women in the region’s coal industry.”
For more information: www.hepworthwakefield.org