Napoleon's Elite Cavalry: Cavalry of the Imperial Guard, 1804-1815, the paintings of Lucien Rousselot.
Text by Edward Ryan. London: Greenhill Books, 1999. 208 pages, 91 color plates. ISBN 1-85367-371-4. Hardcover. $85
A few days ago, I was at one of my usual bookstore haunts in Paris and this volume was on display. An elderly gentleman, former acquaintance of Lucien Rousselot picked up the book, flipped through it and simply said "Il n'y a pas a dire: ça a de la gueule" (quasi-untranslatable - "for sure, this knocks you down" gives the flair of the sentence). What better tribute to Rousselot's work than this blunt sentence, almost "grognard-like"? After such words, it's difficult to come up with anything that's close to a traditional review. So, I'll look at the other side of the hill and point out what this book is not:
It is NOT an exhaustive study of Napoleon's Imperial Guard cavalry. Missing from the illustrations are several regiments or units. These are however listed in the appendix.
It is NOT a detailed history of those regiments featured - but one will come out of it having learned much about the campaigns and conditions those troops faced.
It is NOT a formal uniformology study - in this is quite remote from Rousselot's masterpiece of 100+ plates on the French Army. The focus here is not presenting uniforms and detailed pieces of equipment, but rather to show men in actual conditions of battle and peacetime.
What you get with this book is a stunning view of some of the most famous and attractive regiments of Napoleon's army: The Imperial Guard Chasseurs à Cheval, Grenadiers à Cheval, Dragons and Polish Lancers. If the Chasseurs and Lancers have been amply treated elsewhere - this is not the case for the Dragons and Grenadiers, despite them having probably one of the most elegant uniform and equipment in the whole army.
Rousselot's work (a private commission in the 1950's from Mrs. Brown) is superb and near perfection. He achieves precision while setting the men within appropriate surroundings. In some cases, one will probably even discover small details that had been overlooked - especially for the young guard regiments. Edward Ryan's text is not to be forgotten either. While some may criticize how little it gives - one should remember that these plates were never intended to have the same purpose as Rousselot's uniformology works - Mr. Ryan's text puts them in context and keenly points out specific areas of interest for each of them.
Finally, Greenhill must be congratulated for having published those plates in their original format and even more so at a wonderful price - The list price is in the $85 range, but most retailers seem to be carrying it in the $50-$60, even in continental Europe.
Is everything therefore perfect? Well, almost...but I will point out something which has made me smile. Do check out the female portraits in many of these plates. Those ladies are indeed good-looking but they are not the neo-classical beauties that contemporary illustrations display...they look, like, well...1940's Parisian girls.
Reviewed by Yves Martin
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