Napoleonic French Uniforms 1798-1814:
As Depicted by Horace and Carl Vernet and Eugene Lami
Guy Dempsey (Editor)
Helion & Company (2021), soft cover
Images: 103 colour illustrations
This is a delightful book. Guy Dempsey has rendered all students of the French army of Napoleon a great service by preparing a new edition and translation of the 1822 publication, Collection des Uniformes des Armées Francaises de 1791 à 1814, produced by the artists Horace and Carle Vernet and their protegé Carl Lami. The original Collection was a study of French military uniforms depicted in 101 lithographic prints. Napoleonic French Uniforms is not an exact copy of the original, Dempsey did not include 14 plates that depicted uniforms from the early years of the French Revolution as he wanted to emphasize the Napoleonic period, but he did add five prints by the same artists which may have been intended for the Collection.
Dempsey informs us that the origin of the original publication was ironic, if not somewhat humorous. Lami was facing conscription into the army unless he could provide a substitute recruit. Lacking the necessary funds, he hit on the idea of publishing a book of uniform illustrations from the First Empire, at a time when the Napoleonic era was not popular among French officialdom. There is little doubt that Lami did the greater part of the work as of the 78 plates that are signed, 77 were his work, five that of Carle Vernet and two the work of Horace Vernet.
Dempsey, however, did not use the original prints because the quality varied considerably among the three published editions of the Collection. Instead, he took gouache paintings of the originals contained in a manuscript volume held by the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection in Providence, Rhode Island. The copies were painted by one Paul D’Autrive, a gifted copyist. The D’Autrive paintings are larger and as Dempsey informs us (page ix) that, with a few minor exceptions, there are no differences between his copies and the prints except that some uniform details are more crisply delineated while the colours are brighter and clearers than even than even the best examples of the lithographs.
The result is an extremely colourful production which depicts an example of every major style of uniform in Napoleon’s army and navy as well as many minor and unknown entities (the 1799 Coptic Legion for example). Each painting, reproduced in 11.5 by 8 inches format, contains the original text written by the artists, which often include details of the original uniform decrees that stipulated them. The artists also made use of simplified charts to show the differences between the units in a branch of service (e.g., the light cavalry) and these are reproduced faithfully. The result is a book that is not only attractive to the eye but full of useful information.
It might be argued that the Collection is not really a primary source because it was produced seven years after the dissolution of the Empire As Dempsey points out however, the Vernets had been painting military subjects throughout the Napoleonic period while the younger Lami had been sketching Cossacks in Paris at the age of fourteen. They must have taken the trouble to make their renderings as accurate as possible, given that the greater part of their customers would have been familiar with the original uniforms.
Highly recommended for all serious students of the Napoleonic army and of military art and costume during the period, 1798-1814.
Donald E. Graves