Horace Vernet The Lion Hunt
Housed at the Wallace Collection in London, Horace Vernet's The Lion Hunt is a particularly unambiguous vision of the early impulses towards empire, expressed here in a vortex-like surge of animal energy. Painted in 1836, Vernet's canvas is a wonderfully emblematic reflection of the Orientalist style in both form and content. Aiming to meet the market needs of a rapidly expanding middle class, as well the bearers of old money and established wealth, many Academic painters painted the wild lands and 'wild' cultures of the lands that were rapidly falling under the dominion of the world's great empires. Thus, Orientalist painting was an attempt to view the East, personified by the culture of Islam, through the eyes of the West; a process that produced prodigious and imaginative visions as well as consolidating racist stereotypes, many of which endure to this day.
Completed through sketches made of his first trip to Algeria in 1833, The Lion Hunt is a stunning study of cascading movement, all rendered in a cyclical rhythm of brute force and struggle. Certainly little anchored in any sense of verisimilitude, Vernet allows himself artistic license to explore the early relationship between occupier, the French, and occupied, the Algerian people. Having actually joined a hunt in the Sahara Desert, the artist recalls from memory the Bedouin Arabs' instinctive cloud of violence. In the forefront of the French colonial mindset was the fear of resistance, the potential tactical might of which Vernet imagines in this canvas. Preparing for war by hunting, these imagined Algerians are depicted as both the perfect subjects if subjugated and the worst opponents in revolt. In form, balance, and technique, Vernet's The Lion Hunt is a masterpiece. The spiral composition, the uncertainty of the outcome, and the iconographic imagery all unite into a stunning vision of an ideal colonial land.
When shown at the Paris Salon of 1854, the only individual to commend Vernet's painting was the poet Charles Baudelaire. Perhaps it was the fact that the artist chose to depict the Atlas lion as the hunted subject, when it had long disappeared from North Africa, that so captivated the imagination of the iconic French man of letters. A shameful testament to the violence of empire, The Lion Hunt remains a powerful reflection of how the collective consciousness of the French nation saw itself at this vital stage in its imperial ambitions.
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