Noël-Dieudonné Finart (1797-1852)
Prince Eugène de Beauharnais at the Battle of Borodino.
Oil on canvas, signed and dated lower left: Finart 1832
60 x 73 cm.
This magnificent oil by the French military and historical painter Noël-Dieudonné Finart portrays Prince Eugène de Beauharnais (1781-1824), valiantly commanding his forces at the Battle of Borodino (also known as la Moskowa) on the 7th September 1812. The painting was completed in 1832, thus twenty years after the event that marked the Russia’s final effort at stopping the French advance on Moscow, which fell a week later. As general de chasseurs à cheval, de Beauharnais distinguished himself at Borodino, closely followed by the Battle of Malojaroslavitz (Maloyaroslavets) and on several occasions during Napoleon’s ensuing retreat. De Beauharnais, who was the eldest child of Joséphine Tascher de la Pagerie and Viscount Alexandre de Beauharnais, not only gained Napoleon’s respect on the battle field but on a more personal level. He also became Napoleon’s stepson after his widowed mother married Bonaparte in March 1796. Eugène de Beauharnais first encountered Napoleon when he demanded the return of his father’s sword, which had been taken from Alexandre at his arrest, prior to being guillotined. Impressed with Eugène de Beauharnais’ loyalty and courage, Napoleon duly saw to it that the sword was returned. Although he initially disliked his new stepfather, de Beauharnais served as aide-de-camp to Bonaparte, firstly during the Italian campaigns of 1796-97 and then in Egypt, where he was wounded at the Siege of Acre in 1799. Due to his injuries, de Beauharnais returned to Paris where he found his mother and Napoleon at odds. Proving himself a shrewd negotiator, Eugène and his sister Hortense brought about the couple’s reconciliation.
After the proclamation of the Empire in 1804, de Beauharnais received the title of prince, with a yearly stipend of 200,000 francs, and was also appointed general de chasseurs à cheval of the Guard. The following year, when the Italian republic became the kingdom of Italy, with Napoleon as king, Eugène received the title of Vice-Roi d’Italie. In 1806 he was legally adopted by Napoleon and was subsequently given the title, Prince de Venise. That same year, he also married Princess Augusta of Bavaria in a union arranged between Napoleon and her father, Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria. Their politically astute marriage was to mature into a contented and happy bond, with the couple eventually having seven children. De Beauharnais proved himself a popular leader in Italy, taking an interest in the country’s constitutional reform and defending his territory against Austrian forces during the 1809 War of the Fifth Coalition. It was here that he experienced his first significant military defeat at the Battle of Sacile but later that same year he went on to win a series of victories at the Battle of the Piave and the Battle of Raab. Following the Battle of Aspern-Essling, Napoleon recalled the Italian army and after joining the main army on the island of Lobau in the Danube, de Beauharnais took part in the Battle of Wagram securing his position and reputation. However, his glittering career ended abruptly with the fall of Napoleon. Seeking advice from his father-in-law, Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria, he retired with his family to Munich and remained there until his death on 21st February 1824, aged only forty-three.
As a man of influence, a handsome and fearless soldier as well as a gifted military strategist, Eugène de Beauharnais was an ideal subject for the artist. Noël-Dieudonné Finart’s equestrian portrait can be compared to an oil by Henri Scheffer (1798-1862), housed at the Musée de Versailles as well as an engraving by John Outhwaite of 1840, after the original drawing by A. Sandoz. In each de Beauharnais is shown wearing the Hungarian-style uniform of the hussars, or light cavalry, calmly mounted on a rearing Arab stallion. Like Scheffer, Finart worked in the Romantic tradition, and won acclaim for his grand historical works. But unlike many artists, who showed their work at the Paris Salon, Finart was predominantly self-taught. As such, he initially drew inspiration from the works of the great masters and furthered his talent by making close studies of nature. Born on 27th March 1797 at Condé-en-Brie, Aisne to the north east of Paris, he made his debut at the Paris Salon in 1817 with a view of Clignancourt Parade Ground. 1840 saw him being awarded a third-class medal at the Salon, where he continued to show military and historical works as well as landscapes and genre scenes up until 1850. In addition to his exhibited work, Finart was commissioned to execute a series of drawings and watercolours depicting a wide variety of military uniforms which were then disseminated as engravings. Most portrayed the French army, though some also include the allied forces as well as British and Russian troops.
In 1833, the year after the present work, Finart completed another equestrian portrait of Eugène de Beauharnais. He also featured other similar cavalry soldiers (including an example at Bowes Museum, Co. Durham, UK). Among other military scenes is a drawing of Tsar Alexander I surrounded by Russian officers, in contrast to more comical views, such as La Venus Antique à sa Toilette, portraying an elderly lady surrounded by her maids (of which an engraving after the original is at Minneapolis Museum of Fine Art). Finart’s work can also be found at the Trianon Versailles (September Morning), the Benaki Museum, Athens (an oil showing the French Mission to the Morea, dated 1828); the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Cambrai (an Arab scene; Circassian Cavalry and a landscape at dusk). In addition, several of Finart’s military drawings are housed at the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, Marseilles; the British Museum, London and in the British Royal Collection.