The eye of the collector by Jean-luc Ferrand

VERNET Horace

Monday 2 May 2016, by Barbara Cogollos

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Horace VERNET painted the painting, that’s inspired our version, in 1831, in the Villa Medicis, where he was the director. It’s a prestigious rank because it was a place which symbolizes the glory of French art in Italy, the greatest reference for artists. He sent his work to Paris, for being exposed in the Salon the same year. It’s an important Academic event for painters and sculptors who exposed their piece of art.


Horace VERNET is an artist from a great dynasty of painter: Claude-Joseph his grand-father (navy painter mostly) and Carle, his father (genre painting and horses’ representation). Thanks to this glorious family, Horace VERNET didn’t need to compete for Rome prize and to be elected at the institute in 1826. His entourage was his natural formation all over the years. However, he was formed in Vincent’s workshop which was, at this time, a competitor of Jacques-Louis David workshop. VERNET went a first time in Italy in 1820 and, he became later, the Villa Medicis’ director between 1828-1835. So, Horace VERNET hasn’t a classical and academic formation meanwhile he has established himself as a great painter of the 19th century. Charles Blanc, VERNET family biograph, said about the painter “two precious faculties, imagination and memory, that were confounded and make one faculty”. For that, he is one of the 19th century great painters.

Horace VERNET works on many genre of painting: Biblical themes, portraits and mostly war scenes. These military campaigns serve his passion for Orient and give to him new theme for his paintings like foreign civilization. Horace VERNET’s talent is recognized on a first hand because of fidelity representation but, on the other hand because of his timeliness, which seems essential for this type of paintings.

Judith’s book, from the Old Testament, tells the story of this famous Assyrian king Nabuchodonosor who has sent his best general, Holopherne conquering the territory of Israel. His army destroys everything in his way and besieged city of Bethulie. For saving her people, Judith chooses to visit Holopherne camp accompanied by her servant. She makes him believed that she has important information about Jews. Charmed by his beauty, he invites her around a big feast where he gets drunk and then takes Judith in his room. When he falls asleep Judith takes advantage for cutting his head off and bring it to his people. It’s a classical theme which has been treated by many glorious artists like Caravaggio, Giuseppe Cesari, Donatello, Gentileschi or Gustav Klimt.

In this version, the scene culminates at the fatal moment when Judith is about to cut off Holopherne head. In this way, VERNET breaks with the tradition of other painters and their representation of this equal scene. Thus, several newspapers reacted and critics had been really hard about the Judith and Holopherne. For example, the Constitutionnel talk about the painting “The Judith by VERNET is absolutely not biblical”. Critics stand to the choice of iconography frequently exploited by many artists. Nevertheless, today we can easily find the wealth of the Judith and Holopherne by Horace VERNET because of its originality and his fine pictorial touch. The point of view of our contemporaries found some qualities in this painting. Here is a copy but we can see, to compare with other version of this canvas, that details are close of the first painting; it’s a really good copy.

In classical versions, Judith is beheading Holopherne or holds already his head. Regarding VERNET does not sit on this tradition. In fact, he raises the sexual act between the two protagonists and emphasizes it with the repulsive figure of Holopherne sleeping. Moreover, a purple tissue has been quickly established around her hips which suggests sexual acts just before. She holds on her right hand the scimitar which will cut his head off. We feel, in this character the strong and courage indeed, Horace VERNET take care to represent her in the power of movement. .Regarding Holopherne, the artist doesn’t hesitate to make a character really unattractive with his mouth not close, he seems snoring and dreaming. Thus, Horace VERNET doesn’t sit on the Judith and Holopherne tradition and exercises a great modernity at this time.

The art of copying exists since Antiquity and institutionalizes during the reign of Louis 14 particularly thanks to Colbert. Copying master piece masters play an important part in arts education because beginners can improve their look and their taste. In the French Academy, young painters copy after drawing on the first level, then they copy sculpture for second level and copy after living model for the most informed students. Here, this a Horace VERNET contemporary inspired by his Judith and Holopherne. This version stays really close of the first version. Copy practicing in the 19th century is more like homage for great artist which is remarkably emphasized in this version.

This painting inspired a piece theater by Friedrich Hebbel which is called Judith, created in 1840. In a letter addressed to Elise Lensing, the author said “I stay quiet long behind this painting. He expressed the same things that I put on stage in my tragedy…”

First version of Judith and Holopherne is now preserved in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Pau. There are several copy of the same painting by Horace VERNET himself, one at the “musée des Beaux-Arts de Dole” and another one at “musée Sarret de Grozon, Arbois”.

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