Édouard Detaille is known as one of the greatest French military painters. His paintings possess the heroic, romantic spirit favored by his contemporaries, but are also known for their accuracy and detail, aided by both his artistic training and his actual military experience.
Born in Paris in 1848, Detaille showed an early talent for art. After completing a standard education, he went to work with Ernest Meissonier. Meissonier (1815-1891) was a well-respected French military painter, known particularly for his detailed approach to painting, a method he had learned from studying the work of the 17th century Dutch masters. Detaille learned this detail-oriented approach to painting from Meissonier, a characteristic that would define his paintings throughout his career. Detaille first displayed his work at the 1867 Salon, showing a painting titled The Corner of Meissonier’s Studio. Meissonier touted his student’s work, and Detaille quickly become known in his own right. As The Art Journal put it in 1888, “the student surpassed the master.”
In 1870, Detaille joined the French military, serving in the Fourth Corps d’Armée during the Franco-Prussian war. He was stationed at St. Maur, and sketched all of the battles he participated in directly after the fact. Later during the war, he became personal secretary to General Félix Antoine Appert (1817-1891), which allowed him to fully witness many of the major events of the war, such as the siege of Paris. The scenes he observed during the war–and his sketches of them–later formed the basis for many of his paintings, as well as providing him with the basis of realism he used to create paintings which depicted war in a much more accurate way than many of his contemporaries, including the horrors alongside the heroism.
After his brief military career, Detaille focused exclusively on painting, creating many works based on his own experiences as well as from other wars. Along with individual paintings, he provided illustrations for several books about the military, and was the driving force behind a heavily illustrated two-volume encyclopedia of French Military uniforms. He even traveled to other countries to study their military uniforms, and became quite a collector of uniforms and military paraphernalia. In keeping with this interest in history, he completed many paintings of historical battles and military activity. While he obviously did not observe these battles firsthand, he retained his dedication to accuracy in these historical paintings, often visiting the battle sites for research.
This painting is one of these carefully researched historical paintings. It depicts trumpeters of the 23rd Regiment of Dragoons greeting Alsatian villagers during the Napoleonic wars. It illustrates the close relationship between the soldiers and the villagers, demonstrating Detaille’s interest in Alsatian sympathies to the French cause. An excellent example of Detaille’s work, particularly due to its size and number of figures and horses, this painting brilliantly uses the dramatic sloping lines of the roof to draw the eye to various vignettes within the painting. In addition, this work is notable for the inclusion of a dog. Detaille enjoyed hiding dogs in his paintings, and this particular dog appears in several of his works.