The fire in their eyes was dying
The divine in Regnault’s fearful horses
Henri Regnault painted this astonishing picture in Rome in 1868 at the age of 25. It shows the two divine horses of Achilles, Xanthos and Balios, with Automedon, Achilles’s muscle-bound groom. Three years later, Regnault was dead.
Regarded by many as France’s most promising young painter, he was killed in battle during the last doomed attempt by Parisian troops to break out of their besieged city in the final days of the Franco-Prussian War. Edmond de Goncourt noted in his journal an “enormous crowd’’ at Regnault’s funeral (telling, because funerals were coming thick and fast in Paris at the time): “Over this young body of dead talent,’’ he wrote, “one wept for the interment of France.’’
The painting was purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts in 1890, by subscription, and for many years was one of the museum’s most popular. It fell out of fashion and was relegated to storage, until curator George Shackelford had it cleaned and put back on display in 1996.
It’s huge, a little more than 10 feet by 10 feet. You feel, in its presence, like nothing so much as a dust mote. Has any painting ever covered so much surface area with descriptions of sheer muscle? If the stirring subject matter (those rampant, glossy manes!) calls to mind the equine masterpieces of the Romantic painters Géricault and Delacroix, there is yet something sturdy and neoclassical about the picture’s lines of force.
Note the mirrored movements of horse and human leg near the center of the composition, the way the diagonal of the hillside at left rhymes with the twisting necks of both Automedon and the chestnut horse (Balios), and the powerful centrality of the rearing horse behind, depicted in perfect profile.
Regnault, like Géricault before him, was a fine horseman. He would have known that no ordinary horse could possibly have a neck so thick, so swollen with alarm, as Xanthos’s. But remember: These horses are divine.
As such, they have the gift of foreknowledge. They know the disastrous fate that awaits their master (hence the portentous, stormy skies). They have already carried Patroclus to his death in battle, and now they must do the same for Achilles. Weepy and torpid in the period after Patroclus’s disgrace, they now succumb to spasms of recoil.
Presumably, when he painted it, Regnault had no such foreknowledge of his own fate, or of France’s. But something about his rendering of these horses — their wild and fearful eyes, their sheens of sweat, their froth-throwing mouths — convinces you that a sense of imminent tragedy was in the air.
Because Regnault’s talents had won him a Prix de Rome bursary, he was exempt from military duty. But he was a patriot, so when war broke out in 1870, he volunteered. The upshot — for Paris, for France, and for Regnault — was ultimate debacle.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.