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Alexandre Protais, Militaires sur un quai à Toulon, 1854

Alexandre Protais (1826-1890), Military on a quay in Toulon, 1854


History: Purchase and donation of the SAMO, December 2016

Oil on panel; 41 x 73 cm.

Photo credit: © Musée d’Orsay / Patrice Schmidt

The artist

Official artist of the Second Empire, Alexandre Protais is famous for his battle paintings made after taking part in the battles of Napoleon III’s main campaigns in the Crimea, in Italy and finally during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 which put an end to the regime. Like Meissonier, but in larger formats, he chronicled important military events, with extensive compositions such as Attack of the Green Nipple and White Works, 7 June 1855 (episode of the siege of Sebastopol during the Crimean War) and The Battle of Solferino, 24 June 1859 (both in Versailles, National Museum of the Castles of Versailles and Trianon). After the fall of the regime, and despite his proximity to his highest dignitaries such as Princess Mathilde, whose protégé he was, or the Count of Nieuverkerke, whose circle he frequented, Protais continued to be a prominent painter under the Third Republic among the battle painters of the next generation such as Alphonse de Neuville (1836-1885) and especially Edouard Detaille (1848-1912). He was one of the artists who kept alive the memory of the fighting against Prussia and took part in the ferment of revenge against the German enemy. He was commissioned for the new War Ministry building on Boulevard Saint-Germain and wrote some pages of national history by depicting episodes of the First Empire (Soir de Waterloo or Le Bataillon carré, 1815, the only work in the Musée d’Orsay collections and currently on deposit at the Musée d’Art de Nantes).

Alexandre Protais, Le bataillon carré, vers 1886. (c)photo musée d'Orsay-rmn
Alexander Protais, The Square Battalion. 1815, around 1886. Oil on canvas; h. 1.72; l. 2.53 m. Museum of Fine Arts, Nantes, France. photo Musée d’Orsay / rmn.

However, he also specialises in the representation of military life outside of combat. Le Matin avant l’attaque and Le Soir après le combat, (1863 and 1886, both in the Condé Museum in Chantilly) are among his most famous works which contribute to the commercial success of his work.

The painting

Dating from the beginning of the artist’s career, Militaries on a Quay, Toulon 1854 undoubtedly evokes the preparation of the Battle of the Crimea in which the French Empire participated within a broad coalition whose aim was to put a stop to Russian expansion towards Central Asia, to the benefit of the weakening of the Ottoman Empire. The painting differs from the compositions of the period by its clear tonalities, the width of the brushstroke and the multiplication of characters that give the impression of a moment taken on the spot, a device that was at the origin of the painting of the avant-gardes of the following decades. The subject is a pretext for demonstrating the talents of the artist who multiplies the poses, looks and costumes in a perfectly mastered frieze composition.

This successful genre of painting – and whose importance was demonstrated by the Spectacular Second Empire exhibition – is lacking in the collections of the Musée d’Orsay. The acquisition of this work completes this picturesque representation of the army during the Second Empire and completes the history painting rooms currently being reconstructed.

Note by Xavier Rey, curator at the Musée d’Orsay.


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