In the spring of 1870, Paris had yellow fever. Not the disease, but the color, which spread as quickly as an epidemic among the most fashionable of the French capital. Ladies strutted the streets in golden gowns; collectors amassed as much yellow porcelain as they could buy; caricaturists thrilled in lampooning one tousle-haired woman. The cause was a gleaming painting named for the biblical John the Baptist-slayer “Salomé” on view at the annual state-sponsored Salon. It was created with layers of luminous yellow by the most promising young painter in the country. His name was Henri Regnault, and just a year later he would be dead.
In The Deaths of Henri Regnault, recently released by University of Chicago Press, author and Williams College art professor Marc Gotlieb exhumes the life and cultish afterlife of Regnault. It’s the first book in English to trace Regnault’s career. While the artist, who died at the age of 27 in the Franco-Prussian War’s 1871 Battle of Buzenval, remained popular for about four decades after a bullet struck his head, the brutality of World War I, and the crush of the academic Salons by Impressionism and Modernism, finally extinguished his long flame.
“The incalculably vast losses of the Great War generated new rituals of remembrance that swept away the particularizing culture of heroic exemplarity that once gave Regnault’s story such resonance,” Gotlieb writes. “Not that this was enough finally to put him in the ground. The artistic, cultural, and political forces that once rallied around the fallen painter did not just desert him but tore him apart.”
Gotlieb opens the book with Regnault’s death, and then retraces his career, before returning again to his posthumous remembrance. Although it’s a thorough, scholarly text, Gotlieb keeps the narrative engaging, accenting the tale with Regnault’s own words from his letters. The artist was the son of famed chemist Henri Victor Regnault, and his career seemed set when he received the 1866 Prix de Rome. The prize secured time for classical study in Rome, and basically assured a Salon career. However, Regnault was quickly bored by the Italian city, experiencing some familiar traveler’s ennui, writing to a friend: “The Arch of Titus seems like a toy compared to the Arch of Titus that one has imagined.” He was equally tired by the rote copies expected by artists at the Villa Medici.
In the summer of 1869, he finally left Rome behind for Spain and Morocco, seeking the light that would flood his most successful paintings, and also harmonized with Europe’s fascination for all things exotic. They remain highlights of their museums, with “Salomé” still enchanting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; “Automedon with the Horses of Achilles” (1868) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where Achilles grasps two wild-eyed horses that will lead him to his battlefield death; and “Summary Execution under the Moorish Kings of Grenada” (1870) at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. That last canvas features Regnault’s other favored theme — violence — with a man’s head dramatically disembodied on a staircase, blood streaming over the steps.
“Where ‘Salomé’ presents variations on a single tone — a ‘symphony in yellow major,’ ‘Execution without Judgment’ puts in place a coloristic overload of complementary contrasts, for example the victim’s severed head, already turning green, in a pool of crimson blood,” Gotlieb writes. He later adds that the blood “operates like a hail of rubies because the larger decor functions as both token and echo.”
That skill for depicting gore later seemed to foretell Regnault’s own grisly battlefield death. Gotlieb includes an account from his friend Georges Clairin who tracked down Regnault’s body amongst the many anonymous soldiers killed in the battle. A death mask taken soon after from this corpse captures the bullet’s entry on his left temple. Monuments, eulogies, and national mourning followed, including an obelisk in the Buzenval woods where Regnault fell. Yet even by then, tastes were shifting away from the Salons, to something even more provocative than Regnault’s seductive “Salomé.”
“By the time [politician Paul] Déroulède and his colleagues gathered around the obelisk where Regnault fell, the artist once tagged as a future chef d’école looked like nothing of the kind,” Gotlieb states. The art world had moved on. If you visit the monument today, you can find it near the 14th hole of a golf course that now rolls over the battlefield.