|© Francesco Frasca
The First Italian Campaign as seen by the artists of the Dépôt de la Guerre
The collection 'des tableaux du ministre de la Défense' conserved at the Service historique de l'armée de Terre consists of a large number of water-colours, gouaches, and drawings of battlefields of the ancien régime, the Revolution and of the Empire.
The artists belong to a little known group that was nevertheless not unimportant because it provided military reconnaissance until the invention of photography. In point of fact their functions anticipated those of photographic reconnaissance and I must say that the results that they obtained with their painting techniques go far beyond the cold reproduction of the mechanical instrument.
Van der Meulen, who accompanied Louis XIV on his campaigns in Flanders as peintre ordinaire de l'histoire du Roy, started a tradition that was to last for over two-hundred years. The figure of the painter officer emerged in France in 1744. He was part of the corps of geographical engineers, of the Dépôt de la Guerre and his task was to collect topographical data for the War Ministry and its General Staff. Later on, in 1769, a special corps was set up which was added to that of the 'geographical engineers'.
Under Louis XV, talented artists excelled in this field. For example, Charles Parrocel, who painted the battles of Fontenoy, Lawfeld and Ypres; Cozette, Lenfant, Jean-Baptiste Martin, Le Paon, who amongst other things, painted the battles of Nordlingen and Rocroy; Louis Nicolas Van Blarenberche, who painted pictures of the battles of Amfelt and Fontenoy; Louis Boze, who was appointed peintre breveté de la guerre in 1786 by Louis XVI and who was portrait painter of the royal family and then of the new men like Marat, Mirabeau, Lafayette and of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was accompanied by Berthier to the battle of Marengo, which painting was made in co-operation with R. Lefèvre and Carle Vernet.
During the French Revolution the Committee of Public Safety passed the Decree of 12 Ventôse of Year III (3 March 1795) which gave the military painters new status at the topographical department of the Dépôt de la Guerre. The first fatal casualty was the artiste dessinateur et peintre de batailles Jules Ducreux, who was killed at Jemmampes in 1792 whilst assisting the historiographer Berthier in his duties with the Army of the North.
The war against the European Coalition gave a new impulse to the work of the painters who followed the French armies. Thus, in 1796, it was Bonaparte who started what was to become one of the finest collections at the Dépôt de la Guerre in order to have a permanent record of his time in Italy. He was well aware that the Italian campaign was a political launching pad and wanted to acquaint the public with his victories by means of pictorial representations.
One of the most important artists of these works was the Piedmontese Pietro Giuseppe Bagetti (1764-1831), who was a professor of drawing and fortification at the Royal Academy of Turin in 1792, and who entered into the service of the armée d'Italie after the French occupation of Piedmont in 1798, with instructions to portray the sites of the most important battles. He was then sent to the topographical office of the armée de Réserve as a geographic engineer and was the author of a series of drawings that so impressed Bonaparte that in 1800 he ordered a series of water-colours and gouaches based on Bagetti's battlefield sketches.
The following people were called on to paint the water-colours: a career officer and distinguished cartographer, Bacler d'Albe, who was a companion-in-arms and friend of Bonaparte's, an Italian artist, Pasquieri (whose name was gallicised as 'Pasquier') and a geographical engineer, Gautier. All three were chosen for their fine artistic gifts. Bagetti finished up at the topographical office of the armée de Réserve and was to remain there until 1815 as a captain of geographic engineering.
The first work to be accomplished for Bonaparte was the Battle of Marengo. Bagetti then painted water-colours of Rivoli, after a mission to Italy during 1804-1805 to the battlefield. Only a small number of water-colours was completed during this period (about ten) but Bagetti continued to make a large number of sketches of the landscapes of the battlefields.
His work was subsequently mainly used by other artists. There are no fewer than 90 works, including water-colours, gouaches and oil paintings based on Bagetti's sketches. Under the Empire, two other officers, Lejeune and Cadolle took part in the topographical campaigns in order to make topographical surveys of the battlefields.
The Dépôt de la Guerre also printed a series of scenes taken from the water-colours. The first was by Dego and was presented to Napoleon in 1807. Napoleon was so impressed he ordered the entire collection to be printed. Not content with this, Napoleon commissioned the general Bacler d'Albe (1761-1823), the director of his topographical office, with two paintings based on Bagetti's sketches: Crossing the bridge at Lodi and The Po near Piacenza, which were finely executed.
The five views of the Battle of Rivoli of November 1797 were drawn and painted according to the same, unchanging scheme: historical accounts of about 25 pages and then a programme of the views to be executed, the artist's notes and the record of the work's completion. View 3 of the Battle of Rivoli gives a general idea of the whole site and of the battle. That is, l'artiste doit avoir bien parcouru le terrain, avoir bien lu la bataille et avoir vu les divers objets qu'elle doit contenir. Like the others, this water-colour meets precise requirements, i.e. 'The painting must be an exact depiction of the battlefields and be of the dimensions established by the Dépôt de la Guerre, i.e. 50 x 80 cm. It must represent the scene as viewed by the commander in chief and the colour of the sky must reproduce the same intensity of light as that during the battle'.
The strict instructions should not blind us to the fact that Bagetti was painting a battle eight years after it took place, so that there may be some doubts about the authenticity of the depiction of the colour of the sky. However, the project of creating a collection depicting the Italian Campaign made it necessary to draw up a coherent set of rules based on unity of style, and therefore of method for all the artists. These were the same as those that were applied to the topographical works.
This contributes to the quality of the Italian collection, whose homogeneity is such that at times it is difficult to attribute a given painting to a given artist. After calculating the angles and the distances the artist drew more general views. This preparatory work served as a cartoon for the final painting in the artist's atelier.
The artist then chose the exact instant to be depicted, the angle to be considered between the extreme right- and left-hand field of vision which had to contain, in accordance with precise instructions, all the necessary details so that the picture would be as close to truth as possible, making it both a historical document and a work of art.
Bagetti complies with these instructions as far as he can, but he cannot always put everything into the picture that he has been asked to. The view of the battlefield is the basis of the work. After calculating the angles and the distances, he sketched one or more general views of the battlefield. This first stage determined the final choice of vantage point. Later, this preparatory drawing, in which the pen and water-colour bring out the terrain and light, was used as a cartoon. The second stage of the work was the difficult choice of the vantage point and moment to be depicted. In general, when Bagetti had to depict a vantage point overlooking hilly terrain, it was normally very easy to find a position on the battlefield and he just had to paint the scene as he saw it and then insert the figures.
But it was a different matter when he drew flat terrain where the people and details in the foreground hid those on the horizon. Similarly, a picture of a battle that uses as a basis the terrain that can actually be seen, often loses all authenticity as a historical document because it is no longer possible to show the positions of the armies and to give an overview of the battle unless only a very small episode is depicted. In these situations Bagetti gives the view as seen by someone on horseback. This view better exalts Bonaparte, provides a full view of troop movements and shows the effect of tactical decisions on the battlefield. The scenario represents the decisive moment in which Bonaparte turned the course of history in his favour. The position from which he observes and directs is a distinct point that provides the correct vantage point and enables the correct decision to be made. The water-colour places Bonaparte in a glorious position at the moment of the historical decision, and it is his military genius that impresses meaning to a placing otherwise considered neutral.
In the depiction of the landscape nature is the 'stage': it is certainly the theatre of operations but it is also a manifestation of nature's abundance. The diverse sites, the great number of rivers and streams and the variety of vegetation are depicted with extreme precision that shows the influence of the military topographer. His presence is felt in all the views. The landscape occupies an essential position. It is the main 'actor' of the scene with all its romantic qualities.
For the artists of the Dépôt de la Guerre, the classical composition is only a means of depicting a landscape. A closed structure is represented as a theatrical scene, the spirit of which is a small wood or an escarpment with the main object in the centre, well situated in a village or bounded in the distance by the subtle natural scenery. If such a structure does not exist in nature it is created artificially.
The human figure is almost always present, but not always identifiable in the views of the Italian landscapes: sometimes the minuscule moving groups depict, or rather represent, marching divisions. As far as pre-Romantic painting permits, the project of the Italian series made it necessary to create a coherent whole that was at the basis of a stylistic unity and method of execution for all the artists concerned, taking its inspiration from the rules as a whole, which are applied essentially to topographical work. This contributes to the quality of the Italian series, the homogeneity of which is such that today it is difficult to attribute certain works to a given artist.
Bagetti and his colleagues continued their work for the entire duration of the Empire. Bagetti's water-colours for the Italian campaign make up a collection of 68 works.
After the 1807 campaign, the Ministry of War had the water-colours depicting the battles of the Italian Campaign taken to Fontainebleau, where they were exhibited in the gallery of the chateau. At the same time it commissioned a catalogue that was printed in a thousand copies. In 1807, when Bonaparte saw the beauty of the first battle print, which was in black and white and executed by Dego, he ordered all Bagetti's works to be printed for the Cabinet du ministre de la Guerre. This was due to the fact that despite their use as propaganda tools, the water-colours still had tactical use. When they were made between 1800 and 1807 they depicted sites that were still battlefields or which were potential battlefields. The documents used by the artists to make works for public view were secret as is shown very clearly by the instructions of the General Staff 'remis et spécialement recommandés à la surveillance du chef de Brigade, chargé du levé de la carte d'Italie' who 'est expressement recommandé de ne communiquer à personne l'exposé sommaire de la bataille et les détails donnés sur les combats'.
The collection of the Dépôt de la Guerre was considerably extended by the 'July Monarchy', thanks to the industry of its director, the general Baron Pelet, who continued the historical work that was started when he was a captain of the geographical engineers. He commissioned depictions of the Revolutionary wars and those of the Empire. Later, towards 1830, two other French painters, Parent and Morel, were commissioned to continue painting the Italian battles and to make copies.
In 1834, General Pelet tried in vain to prevent some of the paintings of the Dépôt de la Guerre from being transferred to the new Musée historique de Versailles, which was created by Louis Phillipe, who in 1837 provided funding for printing a collection of the view of the champs de bataille de Napoléon in Italy between the years 1795 and 1800 by Bagetti, Lejeune, Parent, Morel, Gautier, Vernet, Cadolle, Genet and Comba, who were all military water-colour artists.
The next year, the general Baron Pelet decided to have accurate copies made of most of the works transferred to Versailles. Whilst a large part depict the Italian Campaign, the rest depict the great battles of the Revolution and of the Empire. Another series was painted upon the orders of Pelet and bears vivid witness to the conquest of Algeria. The increase in paintings was essentially due to two artists, Théodore Jung and Gaspard Gobaut. It reached its zenith under General Pelet. Nevertheless, under the Second Empire his successors remained faithful to the spirit of the collection and commissioned oil paintings and water-colours that depicted the great battles of the Crimea, Italy and Mexico.
For the whole of the eighteenth century the collection was a reference to artists, politicians and soldiers. It was only at the end of the century that the tradition of water-colours was gradually lost as they were increasingly replaced by photographs, although some artists at the Dépôt de la Guerre like Pierre Comba and Louis Trinquier still continued to use water-colours throughout the 1880s. In 1897, some of the works were stored at the musée de l'Armée, and form part of the pictures displayed in this museum.
After the two world wars some artist officers contributed their drawings to the collection that was kept by the Service historique de l'armée de Terre, the successor to the Dépôt de la Guerre. From 1943 to 1945, Jouanneau Irriér was the last official war artist to paint the armies on active service. Today, the Collection is still in the care of the Ministry of Defence and continues to increase thanks to the acquisition of contemporary or older works of art.
Currently, the 'collection des tableaux du ministre de la Défense' contains about 3500 pictures, most of which are unknown to the public. For this reason, they are about to be catalogued and some of them will be restored. Last year, the author and the personnel of the section symbolique of the S.H.A.T. selected some of these pictures for the 'La liberté en Italie' exhibition which was held at the Chateau of Vincennes from 6 June to 13 October 1996.
The first italian campaign as seen by the artists of the Dépôt de la Guerre, in "Atti del Congresso Internazionale Napoleonico", 21-26 giugno 1997, Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 1999, pp. 521-532.