Alexandre Jean Dubois-Drahonet (French, 1791-1834), Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde, 1817, Oil on canvas, 59 x 39.6 in. Clark Art Institute, 2017.2.
“This beautiful painting enhances the Clark’s collection of early nineteenth-century portraiture,” said Olivier Meslay, Felda and Dena Hardymon Director. “It invites a close comparison to the Jacques-Louis David portrait Comte Henri-Amédée-Mercure de Turenne-d’Aynac (1816) that is in our collection, and provides a poignant juxtaposition between a Napoleonic war hero and a child honoring one who was lost on the battlefield.”
Dubois-Drahonet primarily worked as a portraitist but also produced a number of studies of military uniforms. His work was notable for its clean lines and a command of light similar to that of his contemporary Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Drahonet exhibited at the Salon from 1812 to 1834 and was awarded a medal in 1827. The portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde combines Drahonet’s talent for portraiture with his detailed knowledge of military uniform and accoutrements.
“The Dubois-Drahonet and David portraits were created within one year of each other, and both represent bold statements of Napoleonic support in a time of staunch anti-imperial sentiment,” said Esther Bell, Robert and Martha Berman Lipp Senior Curator. “David was living in exile when he painted comte de Turenne. In painting such a daring portrait memorializing a soldier with a distinguished military career under Napoleon, Dubois-Drahonet and his patrons were taking a political risk.”
Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde is as much a memorial to the sitter’s father as it is a portrait of a young boy. Eight-year-old Achille Deban de Laborde is dressed in the highly embellished uniform of a First Empire Hussar (cavalryman). Surrounding him are objects that tell the story of his late father’s military service.
Achille leans on a ceremonial sword, which was awarded to his father for his bravery and victory as the Chef d’escadron (squadron leader) in the 1800 Battle of Marengo. Jean-Baptiste’s Légion d’honneur medal, awarded in 1804, hangs in the upper left of the painting. The number 8 on the plumed shako cap and sabretache, or flat pouch that hung from a cavalryman’s belt, indicate that Jean-Baptiste was part of the Eighth Hussar Regiment. In 1805 he rose to the level of colonel. In the lower right of the portrait, Jean-Baptiste’s sabre and scabbard rest on the floor.
Given the strong sentiment of this portrait, it is not surprising that Achille followed in his father’s footsteps and pursued a military career. He rose to the rank of colonel of the Fourth Cuirassiers Regiment in 1861. During the Second Empire, Achille also inherited his father’s baronetcy after his brother, Edouard Cesar de Laborde, died childless in 1851.