Henri Alexandre Georges Régnault's stunning reproduction of a subject of classical tradition, Automedon with the Horses of Achilles was painted in 1868, just two years before the fatal hubris of Emperor Napoleon III would spell the downfall of the Second Empire with his pre-emptive strike on Prussia, leading to the Franco Prussian war, the defeat of the France, and the unification of modern Germany. Visually articulating the tale of Automedon, the chariot rider for the Greek hero Achilles, Régnault depicts the humble figure attempts to restrain the bucking horses Xanthos and Balios, who were said to have had the power of foretelling the future. It was the artist's intention to, as he said, 'give the picture a foretaste of disaster'. When first exhibited, audiences, many schooled in the classical epics, would have known that Automedon met his death at the following battle.
Regnault, entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1860, winning the Grand Prix de Rome some six years later, and consequently travelling to Spain to pursue the works of his favourite artists Velazquez and Goya. In 1869 he moved to Tangier in Morocco, painting the local Jews who were more accepting models that the local Muslims whose adherence to the Islamic codes of modesty forbad the women from sitting for paintings. From that point on Régnault established himself as a truly remarkable painter of Orientalist and Neoclassical subjects.
It seems that the artist's choice of subject was truly apt. His figurative reproduction of the likeness of Automedon, calming his horses whose panic denotes they have foreseen their masters death, came just two years before the fateful day in July 1870, when war was declared against Germany. Called back to France, the artist was incorporated into a marching regiment and struck in the head with a bullet at the Battle of Buzenval on 19 January 1871 and killed.
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