The University of Arizona Museum of Art and Archive of Visual Arts

ART/WRITE – Horace Vernet

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Horace Vernet (French, 1789-1863)

Vernet, Horace, Portrait of the Marchesa Cunegonda Misciattelli with Her Infant Son and His Nurse, 1830
Gift of Samuel K. Kress Foundation
Oil on canvas, 52″ x 40 1/2″

1. Biography

A descendant of celebrated landscape and genre painters, Horace Vernet received his training in the studio of his father. Theodore Gericault, the leading Romantic painter of the nineteenth century, often visited the studio of Vernet’s father where the two young painters formed a strong bond. This friendship likely influenced a Romantic style within Vernet’s work. Vernet is best known however for his more traditional Academic subjects, especially his realistic military scenes and his exotic paintings of North Africa and the Middle East.

Vernet was a loyal Bonapartist, Napoleon even awarded him the Legion of Honor in 1814 for his brave defense of Paris under enemy attack. He was also commissioned to paint several portraits of Napoleon before the emperor’s ousting. But the artist was also a favorite of the Bourbon monarchy, during which he was appointed director of the French Academy in Rome in 1828. During his widely successful artistic career under the Bourbon monarchy he painted genre scenes as well as portraits of Italian nobility.

Painted while he was at the Academy, Portrait of the Marchesa Cunegonda Misciattelli with Her Infant Son and His Nurse, from 1830, is one of these nobility portraits. Marchesa Cunegonda was married to Marchese Geremia Antonio Misciattelli, whose family was related to the Pope. This touching portrait of mother, child and nurse is purely secular in content, but does display some influence of Rafael’s Renaissance portraits of the Holy Family, not surprising since Vernet lived in Rome where several of Rafael’s paintings were displayed.


Ishikawa, C., Orr, L.F, Shackelford, G.T.M., Steel, D. (1994). A gift to America: Masterpieces of European                painting from the Samuel H. Kress collection. New York: Henry N. Abrams, Incorporated.

2. History

Royal patronage and the Royal Academy in France play significant roles in the production of art during the nineteenth century. The two are intimately linked in fact, in that the Academy was an arm of the monarchy. Those in power always recognized that those who controlled the arts and what it looked like controlled the messages, values and opinions of others. Artists who rebelled against the Academy, were seen as rebels against the monarch and were doomed to receive any Royal commissions. Contrary to today, where thousands of art schools, galleries and museums exist, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, the Royal Academy was the only art institution in Europe.

Since the Academy controlled not only the teaching of art in France, but also the presentation of art by running the only exhibition of art (called the “salon”), the monarch had great power over the style and subject of art as well as who got exhibited at the bi-annual salon. The Academy created a hierarchy of subjects, with history painting (historic moments, Greek/Roman myths, and biblical scenes) seen as the supreme subjects and portraiture as one of the lowest.

Even portrait paintings followed the Academic tradition, especially those of aristocracy and nobility. The Portrait of Marchesa Cunegonda Misciattelli with Her Infant Son and His Nurse exemplifies the traditional pyramidal composition of an intimate family portrait, following in the footsteps Renaissance art, promoted by the Academy. Traditional codes of depicting class are also depicted in the portrait in that the nurse appears to be dressed in richer fashion than the Marchesa. However, it was common among the aristocracy during the Bourbon monarchy to dress in a demur and unrefined manner. The setting with its rich décor such as the fresco with the ornamental pilaster on the right, the piano, the gold gilded side chair , as well the Marchesa’s pale skin, all convey the social status, cultured taste, and wealth of the sitter.


Ishikawa, C., Orr, L.F, Shackelford, G.T.M., Steel, D. (1994). A gift to America: Masterpieces of European                painting from the Samuel H. Kress collection. New York: Henry N. Abrams, Incorporated.

Smarthistory, a multimedia web-book about art: discussing The Academy. (n.d.). Retrieved March 19,   2013, from http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/the-academy.html

3. Writing Exercises

Inquiry- Text to Self Connections

Students reflect and record answers to the following:

  • Have you ever taken a family photograph? What family photo of yours does this painting remind you of? Imagine what it looks like.
  • Who took the picture?
  • Describe all the details you can recall from the image. Where were you? Who was in the picture, not in the picture? How were the people arranged in the picture? What family dynamics went on behind the scene? What were you wearing?
  • What personal connections can you make to this family portrait by Vernet?

Description- Circle Description

This activity works best with students arranged in small groups. One person starts be writing down a brief description of what they see. A second student contributes to the first observation by either using a more creative word or by describing the observation in more detail. The description is added onto again until the entire group has contributed or around until the map is complete. Use the “Descriptive Map” worksheet to document descriptions.

Poetry- Word List

Take your Circle Description and transform it into a word list poem with a minimum of fifty words. Start by circling the most important word from your Circle Description and list words that come to you that continue to describe the painting in more detail and depth. Use nouns, adjectives and verbs in your poem. You may not use conjunctions (and, but, for, etc.) or articles (the, a, some, it, etc.).

Persuasive- Interpretation

  • Who stands out the most in this painting? Why?
  • Where does your eye goes next? How does the artist lead your eye around the painting?
  • Describe all the textures you see.  Do they look expensive or inexpensive?
  • Describe all the colors you see.
  • What is the time and place of this painting? How do you know?
  • What gestures and facial expressions does each figure display? What do these convey?
  • Who is in this painting? How do you know?
  • What is each figure thinking? What makes you say this?
  • What more do you want to know about this painting?
  • Read the historical context about Horace Vernet. Has your interpretation of the work changed? What more do you want to know?

Based on what you see, what do you think the painting is about? What does it mean? What does it communicate? Write a short essay describing your interpretation, stating specific visual evidence from the work to support your conclusions.