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Philippoteaux’ The Battle of Waterloo

This article describes the 1874 painting 'The Battle of Waterloo' by the French artist Félix Philippoteaux.

The Battle of Waterloo was to prove a popular subject for pictorial representation. Many paintings which used it as a subject were produced in the two or three decades after the battle to celebrate the victory of the allies over the French, to mark British and allied heroism and ideas of national greatness. The subject, however, was one of enduring importance, and it was not only victory that was worthy of commemoration.

Félix Philippoteaux (1815–84), a Parisian-born artist, specialised in portraits and historical paintings, including battle scenes. He was known for the range of canvases he produced linked to the Napoleonic wars, from a portrait of Napoleon to impressive and animated paintings of French victories — he was famed for his realism and attention to detail. In early 1871, France had once more suffered military defeat at the hands of the Prussians. The humiliation — along with the terms of the Treaty of Frankfurt, which saw the loss of Alsace-Lorraine — created a nostalgia for the military glories of the French empire under Napoleon Bonaparte. Although the latest of the Bonaparte family — Napoleon III — had been discredited in the war and the Third Republic had been created after his defeat at Sedan, Napoleon Bonaparte remained a potent emblem of France’s glorious imperial past. The passage of time had softened or erased the moral and political significance of his rule.

The Battle of Waterloo, which Philippoteaux painted in 1874, is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The subject is a dramatic one. The British Fifth Division, under the command of Sir Thomas Picton (1758–1815), have formed into squares to receive the attack of the Fifth and Tenth French Cuirassiers. The French cuirassiers in their blue uniforms are shown on the right, charging at a square made up by a Highland regiment, on the left. In the middle of the square are the regimental colours — a Union Jack. The painting was praised by John Ruskin for the skillfulness of its depiction of the battle — but it should also be seen as a nostalgia piece appealing to a tradition of French military prowess.

In choosing the Battle of Waterloo as a subject nearly 60 years after the event, Philippoteaux illustrated its continued importance in European mentalities. The outcome of Waterloo led to a reshaping of Europe, followed by stability. The Franco-Prussian War brought one of the few territorial realignments: even the peace of 1815 had allowed France territory as far as the Rhine, territory that she had now lost. That the French could look back over half a century to recollect imperial glory said a great deal for the enduring influence of Napoleon Bonaparte in France’s present, weakened position.

Pictures of Waterloo have had an enduring popularity. You might like to share links to paintings of the battle which you have appreciated, and to comment on the action they depict. Why did the artist choose these particular scenes? What year were they painted?

© University of Southampton 2015
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