Horace Vernet's The Lion Hunt, a 1836 Orientalist painting and souvenir of the artist's first trip to Algeria in 1833, is a dramatic and turbulent vision of imperialism. Vernet's imagined reproduction of a hunt in the Sahara Desert was painted in recollection of the land the French artist visited just three years after the brutal French takeover of Algiers. Indulging in the usual thematic depictions in fashion in the early nineteenth-century; literary and Bible figures and narratives, Orientalist reproductions of North Africa, the Middle East, and the ruins of contemporary Italy, Vernet was also an avid military patriot, painting celebratory canvases of Imperial victories. A great Arab enthusiast, Vernet made a number of journeys to the much-desired worlds quickly falling under European command. Currently housed in the magnificent Wallace Collection in London and typical of the artist's taste for frozen tableaux of violence in motion, The Lion Hunt is more a snapshot of the French colonial imagination as it is a scene of everyday life in Algeria.
Proudly declaring himself a 'painter of history' Vernet's more populist and jingoist approach resulted from his disdain for the stuffiness of French academic painting. His figurative, most often imagined, reproductions of the Oriental world fed an institutional appetite for images of the nation the French wanted to own both politically and cultural. For the French onlookers, the Algerian people appear to prepare for war by hunting – practicing chasing men by hunting lions. Rendering the lions as pitiful, emasculated creatures, Vernet depicts the Bedouin Arabs as mere shapes in a flurry of violence. Yet, the almost celebratory rendering of the figures infers these individuals may be potential recruits for a French-backed home army, assisting in the subjugation of tribes still free from French rule. A technical masterpiece and dramatic narrative, Vernet's work reveals the dark heart of empire.
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