Throughout his life Vernet traveled to the Middle East on many occasions. His first trip was to Algeria in April of 1833 during his Directorship of the French Academy in Rome. In later years Vernet’s travels took him to Egypt, Morocco, Syria and the Crimea.
“le Marchand d'esclaves" clearly demonstrates Vernet’s colorful palette, similar to his self-portrait painted in 1835 at the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia and to some of his later works. In some of his paintings a powerful central figure is placed in the foreground while the background figures are less clearly defined. Jacques-Louis-Cesar-Alexandre, Compte De Randon Marechal De France and Jean-Baptiste-Philibert Vaillant, Marechal De France are both characteristic of this monumental style.
History of le Marché d’esclaves, le Marchand d’esclaves:
There is a smaller version (25 &1/2 x 21 &1/4 inches (65 x 54cm) with the title “Sklavenmarkt” at the National Gallery Berlin (Alte Gallery Inventory number NRWS244) signed Horace Vernet (similarly to the present larger painting) at the top left on the wall in Arabic letters and also (unlike the present larger painting) signed Horace Vernet in Roman script (used for French and English letters) and dated 1836 lower left.
Madame Claudine Renaudeau In her Thesis of 1995 “Horace Vernet 1789-1863, Chronologie et Catalogue raisonne de l’oeuvre peint”, notes on page 386 that on the 17th of May 1836, Vernet received the sum of 4,500 French Francs for a painting titled “Un marchand d’esclaves” (25 &1/2 x 21 &1/4 inches (65 x 54cm) from Jean Pierre Marie Jazet (1788-1871). This sum paid by Jazet would have also included the right to make an engraving. Jazet paid an average of 2000 FF for this privilege; however, as this was a version he had especially requested he would most certainly have paid more.
It appears that Leon Lagrange (Horace Vernet’s biographer) substantiates this, as page 455 of Gazette des beaux-arts 1863 states “the Berlin Marchand d’esclaves dated 1836 was ordered and painted for Jazet”, implying that he wanted a version of a painting that was already in existence (which was perhaps the present large le Marchand d’esclaves). Furthermore, Lagrange also mentions on page 443 that there was a Le Marchand d’esclaves in 1835 amongst a group of Orientalist themed paintings. This additionally indicates that there was a painting of the same subject in existence before the small 1836 painting was sold to Jazet on the 17th of May 1836.
Count Pavel Karlovitch Fersen (1800-1884) was close friend of Vernet and a collector of his paintings; having purchased at least twelve original works including his own commissioned portrait painted in 1836. In 1835 he arranged and participated in Vernet’s banquet when Vernet gave up his directorship of the French Academy in Rome, (Pages 371- 387 Renaudeau). In 1838 Fersen saw Le marchand d'esclaves for sale at a gallery in Berlin. He wrote a letter to Vernet on the 13th of March 1838 expressing an interest in buying the painting. As it happened, Vernet was in St Petersbourg, Russia in March of 1838. On November 7th of 1838 again Fersen wrote to Vernet exclaiming that the Berlin painting had been sold to someone else and he had missed it. The purchaser of the Berlin Le marchand d’esclaves was Consol Joachim Heinrich Wilhelm Wagener, a banker, who in 1861 began donating paintings to the city’s Alte National Gallery. This is the known and documented history of the small painting’s movement to the Berlin Alte Museum.
In Madame Renaudeau’s Thesis, page 371 she lists four paintings bought by Count Fersen, three at 1000 FF and one at 2000 FF. These sums are somewhat less than the 4,500 FF that Jazet paid for the painting he commissioned from Vernet. We do not know how much Consol Wagener paid for the small Berlin painting. Perhaps Count Fersen, as an ardent collector of Vernet, sent his two letters to Vernet in the hopes of having a version of Le marchand d’esclaves painted for him at a preferential price of around 2,500 FF (without the Berlin art dealer’s commission or the extra 2000 FF that Vernet obtained from Jazet for the etching rights of the small Berlin painting).
In 1860 Maison Goupil & C° issued an unsigned aquatint (65 x 54 cm), with the title of Le marché d'esclaves after Horace Vernet. This engraving was copied, drawn and colored by Jean Pierre Marie Jazet from the small Berlin painting of the same size but it was hand colored in different colors from the Berlin painting.
F. Baumann issued an engraving around 1860 that was the mirror image of the Berlin/ Maison Goupil version titled “Der Sklavenhandler”
There is also known a lithograph, “Marchand d’esclaves” published by Francois Seraphin Delpech (1778-1825). This lithograph is derived from a signed drawing by Vernet, which dates from1820 (and is a different image from the other Marchand d’esclaves engraving by Jazet although it depicts a similar subject). It is significant that the 1820 lithograph features a draped woman with Caucasian features just as the present large painting does.
A study of the two paintings:
In a comparative study of the Berlin painting, the Jazet engraving of "Marché d'esclaves" and the present larger painting, one sees that the cloth covering the central figure’s head in the present large painting is far fuller and more detailed than in the Berlin /Jazet versions -- where the covering appears flattened.
However, the main difference between the present large painting and the Berlin/Jazet small versions is seen in the foreground figure to the Marchand's right. The present larger painting, "le Marchand d'esclaves” depicts a voluptuous Caucasian woman with red hair. The Berlin/Jazet versions instead depict a Circassian woman with black hair, totally nude but with a small head (not in good proportion to the voluptuous body). Her head in the nude Berlin/Jazet versions seems too small for the body when one compares the figure to the present larger version.
This female figure in the Berlin/Jazet versions is positioned at an awkward angle when one compares her to the partially draped figure in the present large version. The two cheeks of her buttocks are not realistically painted in the small versions. The two Berlin/Jazet versions also show a dark area under her right thigh and posterior with a very small area of white fabric under her. This small piece of fabric does not connect with any other portion of the draped composition. However in the present larger painting there is a continuation of the fabric that is far more in keeping with the overall composition, flowing over her and under her.
Also in studying the present large version -- the semi-draped figure’s right arm is far more pleasing -- as there is correctness in angle that the Berlin/Jazet versions lack.
Finally the fact that this figure is totally nude in the Berlin/Jazet versions is highly unusual for any painting directly from the hand of Horace Vernet. (There are no other known paintings attributed to Horace Vernet where any of the figures were painted in complete nudity.)
In a side-by-side comparison of the three main figures in each painting, the narrative in the larger painting is far more expressive and powerful and in keeping with a painting by Horace Vernet.
It would seem logical that the present large version of the painting was painted before the smaller Berlin version. (It is well known that Horace Vernet painted many versions of the same work (sometimes more than five) and also used various artists at his atelier to carry out commissions, including Frederic Henri Schopin (1804-1880) who was working for Vernet at this time.) Jazet may have seen the present larger painting in 1835 and possibly he might have ordered a smaller version with some revisions. It is also known that Jazet was a competent copyist and a very shrewd businessman.
Thematically a totally nude Caucasian woman being sold in Middle Eastern slave market was totally unacceptable in a time period of around 1833 -1835. This depiction would have made the larger painting very scandalous and unacceptable in genteel society. The smaller versions would have been more palatable in 1836 as the nude is Circassian, not Caucasian. (There is no record of a painting of the title or similar ever being exhibited at the Paris Salon by Horace Vernet.)
Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre’s method of trapping light was revealed to a joint session of the Académie des Sciences and the Académie des Beaux-Arts on August 19, 1839. Eighty days later, Horace Vernet left Paris and made a daguerreotype of the entrance to the Harem of Muhammad Ali in Alexandria. This Orientalist photography caused a sensation when exhibited in Paris due to its suggestive subject matter. From then on the history of Orientalist photography developed in parallel with that of Orientalist painting.
Horace Vernet was Director of the French Academy in Rome located in the Villa Medici from 1827 to 1835. It is possible the present large "le Marchand d'esclaves" was painted during this period (after Vernet’s first visit to Algeria in 1833) as the Caucasian woman in the foreground with red hair bears a striking resemblance to Vernet’s former mistress and model, Olympe Pélissier ( who was living in Rome at the time). She was described by Honore de Balzac as the most beautiful courtesan in Paris. (Olympe Pélissier met the Italian composer Gioachino Antonio Rossini in the early 1830’s in Italy and they married in 1846.)
Horace Vernet was an odd mixture of an adventure seeker and Court-appointed artist. On many occasions he had to defend his ideas in front of the Academy with drawings he had made on his travels. He was often the target of ferocious artistic attack during his lifetime and even after his death.
It is interesting to note that from the age of just 15 Horace Vernet was able to support himself from the sale of his drawings. (He was considered a child prodigy and at the age of 11 he sold his first painting of a tulip for 24 sous.)
As early as 1810 Horace Vernet kept a livre raison -- a registry of all paintings sold and of the family’s household expenses. This livre vanished -- and its existence is only known through excerpts ending in 1843.