Uniforms of Napoleon's Army
Vernet, Carle. Uniforms of Napoleon’s Army London: Greenhill Books, 2002. 96 pages, with 77 color plates. ISBN# 1853675202. $53. Paperback. (English translation of Vernet's Uniformes Napoléoniens)
In July 1811, Napoleon set up a commission to standardize the uniforms worn by his Grande Armée. Until then the regimental colonels had much leeway on uniform distinctions and hence the look of a regiment depended on the whims and tastes of the commander. Not only was this expensive, it made uniform procurement difficult. The mission of the Uniform Commission was to standardize the uniforms and to ensure every commander knew what the new uniforms were. The commission was called the Bourcier Commission after its leader. It consisted of, among others, General Sorbier of the Artillery, Colonel Dauttencourt of the Cavalry, Major Bardin of the Infantry, and Intendant Dufour of the Staff. Interestingly, the subsequent regulations would be known as the Bardin Regulations.
The original plan was for the committee to design the uniforms and describe them in detail in the regulations. Major Bardin objected to this, stating that this would leave the interpretation of the regulations in the hands of the regimental commanders. Bardin proposed that the regulations be accompanied with illustrations on what the uniform was supposed to look like. The committee bought his proposal. Artists working at the Depot de la Guerre were tasked to do the draft drawings of the uniforms and Carle Vernet was commissioned to provide miniatures in 1/10 scale of the uniforms of an officer and soldier for each of the army’s line units. Each regiment would receive a copy of the miniature, because in this case a picture is worth a thousand words!
Uniforms of Napoleon’s Army consists of 77 of the 244 illustrations Vernet painted for the regulations. Forty-two of these illustrations are full page, while the rest are generally half page in size. All are in color and the colors are vivid. Most plates have multiple figures in them and show both the front and back of the uniforms. Since these plates were designed to show the regimental commanders what the new uniforms were supposed to look like, the figures are usually in posed as if they were in garrison or on bivouac. Many of the figures are depicted in full dress uniform, while others are in field dress, society dress, or fatigue uniform. Particular attention is given to the uniforms of the musicians and trumpeters.
The 76 plates include:
In addition to the plates, Uniforms of Napoleon’s Army also provides background information on uniform regulations prior to 1812, the Bourcier Commission, a biography of Carle Vernet, and an overview of how the plates were drawn. Since only 76 of the 244 plates are shown, obviously all units are not represented. The publisher states he randomly chose the plates in the book, but they are representative of the collection. Readers might be surprised to find that the book contains no plates of the Imperial Guard. The Commission wisely decided that changing uniforms of the Imperial Guard would be too difficult to do because of the political pull of their leaders.
Unfortunately there is no accompanying text to explain the plates. Although the price may seem expensive for a paperback book, the color plates are beautifully reproduced and will make a great companion to the other two recent Greenhill uniform books: Napoleon’s Elite Cavalry: Cavalry of the Imperial Guard, 1804 & 1815, the Paintings of Lucien Rousselot and Wellington's Army: the Uniforms of the British Soldier, 1812 – 1815.
Reviewed by: Robert Burnham
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