The Clichy Gate, The Defence of Paris, 30 March 1814

Artist(s) : VERNET Horace
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The Clichy Gate, The Defence of Paris, 30 March 1814

Horace Vernet was a Bonapartist and profoundly patriotic, and he sought to evoke the Napoleonic era in his numerous works, which often have Napoleon as their central figure. Here he not only celebrates the will and the courage of marshal Moncey (1754-1842), a famous military personage, but also anonymous Parisians who rallied to the defence of their city when the allied forces of the 6th coalition attacked on 14 March 1814. This painting belongs to a series of depictions of great battles led by the ‘nation’, just like those of the Battle of the Navas de Tolsa (1817; Palace of Versailles Museum), the Battle of Jemmapes (1821, National Gallery, London), the Battle of Valmy (1826, National Gallery, London), the Battle of Montmirail (National Gallery, London), the Battle of Hanau (National Gallery, London).
It was Claude Odiot (1763-1850), goldsmith to Napoleon and his court, who commissioned this painting from Vernet. He is depicted as receiving a command from Marshal Moncey: Odiot, like Horace Vernet, had taken part in the combat. The painting was presented at the salon of 1822, but refused; Horace Vernet was close to the Duke of Orleans. Odiot donated this painting to the Chambre des Pairs in 1835. From there it passed to the Musée du Luxembourg in 1837 and then to the Louvre in 1874.

In 1813 a 6th coalition was formed against the Empire, uniting England, Austria, Prussia, Russia and Sweden, who together won a decisive battle at Leipzig on 19 October. In January 1814, as the coalition troops advanced “like a torrent on the capital” (according to the architect Pierre-François Fontaine), Napoleon was forced to start a campaign on French soil, to the north east of Paris. Despite a series of French victories, the allies advanced on the capital, which was badly protected by 20,000 men and a national guard of 12,000, armed with little more than 10,000 rifles and failing that, pikes.
Moncey had been named Major General on 11 January 1814, and was second in command of the national guard of Paris. He was thus in charge of the defence of the city’s gates. The walls of the Fermiers Generaux, often discontinuous, afforded little in the way of defence. A small amount of work was undertaken to barricade the outlying quarters, and the gaps in the city wall were filled with fencing (which can be seen in Vernet’s painting), as well as round, crenellated structures protecting the gates. From 27-28 March, the allies took up position at Pantin, Bondy and on the St Denis plain and launched their attack in the early morning of 30 March. Marshal Moncey led his counter attack on the Russian troops at the Clichy Gate, at the head of a motley group made up of just over 1,000 men, volunteers, invalided soldiers and students of the Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole Vétérinaire. The loss of the French positions on the same morning at Pantin, Belleville, Romainville and at Buttes Chaumont led to the capitulation of Paris, signed by Marshal Marmont on the night of 30 March. On the morning of 31 March at 12pm, the allies made their entrance into the city via the Porte St Martin.

The scene depicted in Vernet’s painting highlights the energy of the combatants in a struggle that proved to be vain, but he also mixes action with  despondency. The midground draws the observer’s attention first of all. At the centre, on a horse in movement, sits Marshal Moncey, giving an order to colonel Odiot. He stretches his arm out towards the men fighting behind him. To the left of the Marshal, the soldiers rise up in front of the pavilion of the Clichy Gate, in front of which is a wooden barrier.
In the foreground, slightly off-centre, towards the right, in a space relatively removed, the figure of a woman catches the eye: she is dressed in light garments and seated on a small trunk, surrounded by possessions which she could carry on her flight. Clutching a small child to her breast, her head inclined to the ground, her gaze lost, she represents the despair and the negative outcome of combat. On the right, near to the woman, two young pupils of the guard are seated, wounded, accentuating the impression of despondency of this side of the painting. To the left, as a counterpoint, a lancer depicted in profile looks at Moncey to his right, and his body is turned towards the left (towards the injured soldiers), lending a sense of action to the piece.
The background, made up of sombre tones, highlights the men attacking the enemy, lost in the smoke of gunfire. One can also see the inn of père Lathuille, which served as the headquarters of marshal Moncey.
Horace Vernet used all the skills at his disposal, blending realism and precision with a sense of hope and despair to pay homage to Odiot, to heroism and patriotism of the volunteers engaged in defending their city.

Irène Delage, January 2013
tr. Andrew Miles

Date :
Dimensions :
L = 975 m, P = 1 m, Diam. = 305 m
Place held :
Louvre Museum, Paris
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