Richard Hoover: Antique displays a life in a glance

This portrait shows an officer, with a musket-ball hole in his right shoulder, standing before a burning town. Courtesy photo by Richard Hoover

Oh, the joy of coming to grips with an antique! 

In what may be a post-mortem take,  this officer asks his beholder for that commemoration due a hero who has seen and, very possibly, not survived horrific combat.  He stands before a distant burning town.  With a bloody musket-ball hole to the right shoulder, he cradles his greening gangrenous arm in his left.

National identity — where to begin? At the risk of racial profiling, let me pronounce the face French. Unlike, say, contemporaneous British or German military portraits whose subjects were limned in the style of  presidents carved upon Mt. Rushmore — heroic, granite-like and designed to inspire emulation among the young — our hero’s visage is nearly that of a charming bon vivant, with hints of worldliness, if not merriment in the eyes, about the lips. He seems prepared for a soirée rather than for eternity. More to the point, he faces death casually, with a light heart!

But when? The revolutionary red, white and blue of his uniform and cockade nail it between  1790 and 1815, the year of Waterloo.  French infantry units wore that uniform, with its sculpted lapels, throughout. As far as I can tell, Emperor Napoleon — ever anxious to promote his paradoxical image as a “child of the Revolution” — wore the cockade straight through to Waterloo. Discernible details date the buttons to the revolutionary period — wreaths of acanthus through which a pike soars with the slave’s Liberty Cap fixed upon it (more on Liberty Caps in the future).

What narrowly dates this portrait, however, is the blond hair tied in a queue, and the enormous two-cornered hat, the bicorn, worn by European officers through both the revolutionary and napoleonic periods. See how our hero wears his “athwart,” from side to side.  Around 1800, however, bicorn-wearing radically shifted to “fore and aft” –the illustrious forbear, perhaps, of the  U.S. Army’s (in)famous “c-cap.” Only Napoleon, it seems, continued the old practice of wearing ear to ear; it became his trademark and, together with the cockade, an additional prop to broadcast the old school revolutionary credentials which he found so useful.  

With our hero shown before 1800, the questions remain — exactly when and where? A bullet hole notwithstanding, he doesn’t look hot, sweaty, ragged and beaten down enough to have participated in the Egyptian  debacle — one that the French were trying their best to forget. And the burning town doesn’t look very Egyptian.

So, I thought “Italy!” Bonaparte’s Italian campaign 1796-1797 was a grand victory which laid low the armies of the Holy Roman Empire and its allies, opened up Italy and the Catholic Church to the power of the French Revolution and made predominant a general who was all of 27-28 years! Now, as our young subject  suggests, that was something worth taking a bullet for! 

And, no doubt, the burning walled town with several Frenchmen depicted firing upon it can only represent a siege, the one in which our hero was hit.  The “Siege of Mantua” sprang to mind. I sprang to Google, punched in “Mantua” and came up with photographs of (a) the mid-16th century bell tower of St. Barbara (crowned with a small, distinctive temple) and (b) of 13th century Cage Tower, so-called because caged criminals were left to dangle from it. Both towers are perfect matches for those in the painting. 

With this, I again make my by-now-tiresome case for laying oneself open to the lure and challenge of antiques, of the past.  Color, excitement, investigation and background-building — it is all there, offering  more than  a whole year of TV ever can. This I have learned from sad experience!

Richard Hoover, a retired Foreign Service officer, resides in southern Warren County.