Algerian Guerrilla War I : Auguste Raffet & Horace Vernet – Pictures of Dynamized Masses and the Art of Reconstruction

Pictorial Reports from the Algerian Guerrilla War  I

The occupation of Algeria was initiated by Charles X in June 1830 with the capture of Algiers, just a few weeks before the collapse of the Bourbon Restoration regime. At first, the bourgeois July Monarchy under Louis-Philippe had a bit of a hard time warming to this legacy, but it quickly turned out that the colonial raid was not only highly attractive in financial terms, but that it also offered the so-called Citizen King and his two sons the opportunity to establish their dynasty with a grand imperial gesture. In the opinion of French political scientist Alexis de Toqueville, France had no other option after the colonial debacle in North America but to uncompromisingly stick to the Algerian adventure if it didn’t want to “indicate to the world its certain decline.”1

 Charles X and the Dey of Algier, Magasin de caricatures, Paris 1830 (MePri-Coll.)

A loss of face had been imminent when from the ruins of the shattered Ottoman predominance over Algeria an Arab resistance movement began to organize itself, which under the leadership of the Berber prince and marabout Abd el-Kader2 from 1832 on entangled the French invaders in a prolonged guerrilla war involving heavy losses. Abd el-Kader’s uprising was shaped by the vision of a nation-state unity and autonomy and was therefore fundamentally different than other autochthonous resistance movements such as those of the indigenous people in North America. In this respect it marked an initial phase of modern anti-colonialism. Correspondingly, it was not the images of French military men that dominated the appearance of this fifteen-year war in the international illustrated press but the icon Abd el-Kader. Even before Giuseppe Garibaldi, the picture of this Algerian freedom fighter, who was simultaneously a religious leader, shaped the schema of the mystically overglorified guerrilla leader that in the twentieth century found its most popular expression in the photo icon of Chesu Christo.3

Abd-el Kader, Illustrated London News 1842 (MePri-Coll.)

Abd el-Kader, Le Monde Illustree, 1879 (MePri-Coll.)

Only as late as 1847 did the French military machinery gain the upper hand. The methods that it developed and the genocidal measures it took went on to make a career. Its marks can be traced to the French war in Indochina and the North American wars in Vietnam and Latin America. But the first Algerian War also had a huge impact on domestic politics, for it contributed to a considerable brutalization and radicalization of socio-political conflicts throughout Europe.4

The political implications of this war can hardly be underestimated. What has not been sufficiently grasped, however, is its media-historical relevance. Illustrating this marginal colonial conflict seemed too insignificant compared to the seminal descriptions of the Napoleonic Wars by a Jacques Louis David or Antoine-Jean Gros, and its Oriental magic was rather negligible in comparison to the romantic glamour that the Greek War of Independence had emanated. Only the multinational war that was waged a decade later on the Crimean peninsula was to again receive more intensive media-historical response. In the past years, this Crimean War has been discovered as the first modern media war, as the conflict in which independent press reporting emerged and graphic modes of documentation began to compete with photography.5 What was disregarded in this context was that the basic features of this new pictorial journalism revealed here had already been developed in the descriptions of the French Algeria campaign. For they marked the start of the modern, post-classicist image of war as an informal manifestation of dynamized masses.

The capture of Algiers had already been accompanied by a whole army of pictorial reporters who were supposed to glorify the expedition in the mode of Napoleonic campaigns.6 The official reasons for the war were also Bonapartist – it was about the non-recognition of Napoleonic war debts owed to the Sublime Porte – and not only that: the entire expansive politics of Charles X and his successor Louis-Philippe stood under a fatal Bonapartist pressure of legitimisation that had a corresponding effect on the picture propaganda of the Algerian War. The two most popular illustrators of the North African campaign, draughtsman and lithographer Auguste Raffet and historical painter Horace Vernet, also ranked among the best-known proponents of the artistic transfiguration of Napoleon at the time.

Horace Vernet was the scion of a well-known painter dynasty. His father, Carle, had already distinguished himself by particularly true-to-detail depictions of Napoleonic battles, but Horace furnished the Napoleon legend with a degree of naturalistic representation that was unequalled both in the field of historical painting and in the art of illustration. The Historie de l´ Emperor Napoleon from 1838, which he illustrated, was the model that young lithographer Adolph Menzel used as orientation for his meticulously researched illustrations of the history of Frederick the Great. In his paintings of the Algerian War, Vernet himself developed, parallel to the rise of daguerreotype, a photographic realism that influenced an entire generation of historical painters.

Atelier de Horace Vernet, L´Illustration 1863 (MePri-Coll.)

Shortly after the central Algerian city of Constantine was captured in 1837, something which marked a turning point in the course of the war, Vernet was commissioned by Louis Philippe to render the event in an episodic series of monumental paintings for the newly founded Galerie des batailles in the Palace of Versailles. With this state commission, the king also intended to have evidence provided of his second eldest son’s leading role in the siege of Constantine. He is depicted in a dimly Napoleonic pose on the right half of the turbulent first painting. Although Vernet does make concessions to the hierarchical pattern of the classical battle scene here and in other pictures, his main focus is on the ordinary soldiers whom he rendered with the same obsession for details as the higher ranks. In his chaotic swarm-images, critics saw the incursion of journalism into the sphere of heroic battlefield painting, and even a Republican reviewer such as Charles Baudelaire, who deeply despised Vernet on account of his obsessive militarism, criticized him mainly for his passion for details, which had a levelling effect, and his breaking of classical compositional rules.7

Horace Vernet : La prise de Constantine. 13 octobre 1837, 1838 (Musée national du Château de Versailles)

While in later depictions of the Algerian War and the Crimean War one could also fall back on daguerreotypes as an aid, when reconstructing the capture of Constantine, Vernet predominantly relied on the sketches made by military draughtsmen on site. An excursion to the scene of the events, which took place a short while later, offered him the opportunity to take in topographic details that were supplemented by the work with body models in his studio in Versailles. When the huge views of the Constantine triptych were shown in the Parisian Salon in spring of 1839, however, the audience was already visually familiar with the course of events from a popular series of lithographs by draughtsman Auguste Raffet, which contained quite similar motifs.

Auguste Raffet: Prise De Constantine. Paris 1838 (MePri-Coll.)

Auguste Raffet was fifteen years his junior and a student of Nicolas Toussaint Charlet, a pioneer of crayon lithography. Raffet had become established as a draughtsman in the context of Antoine-Jean Gros’ circle of students, from which the caricature movement of Charles Philipon also emerged.8 For a short period, Raffet had also worked in cooperation with Grandville, who was the same age, for Philipon’s magazine La Caricature, but he then left it because he was suspicious of the anti-monarchical tendency that the magazine increasingly took. Instead, he concentrated on the genre of the illustrated Napoleon legend, which his teacher Charlet had building up with growing success.

Since 1830 he had been supplying this market with the edition of an annual lithography album. One of the most widespread examples of this series was the six-sheet cycle Retraite de Constantine, published in spring of 1837 by Gilhaut Freres and giving an account of the first failed attempts at conquering the Algerian fortress. The ignominious retreat of the French army in November 1836 was mainly blamed on the Siberian weather conditions of the winter setting in. Raffet, who, as opposed to Horace Vernet, never set foot on Algerian ground, mainly reverted to topoi of the Napoleonic Russia campaign and in doing so decidedly placed the colonial adventure in a continuum of Bonapartist mythification.

Auguste Raffet: Retraite De Constantine. Paris 1837 (MePri-Coll.)

The main subjects of Retraite de Constantine are the French Africa militias and the dynamism of their troop movements in the spirit of the Grande Armée. Topographical details are missing almost completely. In the characterization of the French soldiers, Raffet was oriented towards the differentiated burlesque style of his teacher Charlet, while for the depiction of the Arab militias he fell back on rough, racist stereotypes. This changed when in his subsequent reconstruction work he felt increasingly obliged to a journalistic ethos of realism, which revealed similarities to the methods of early literary realism. With his graphical verism, he anticipated methods of press illustration that in the early 1840s only gradually started evolving from their caricatural beginnings.

In October 1837, after fights with the defenders that caused an extremely high number of casualties, Constantine was finally captured. The fact that Raffet’s lithographic cycle, La Prise de Constantine, which was published the following spring with the double number of pages, is far more differentiated and authentic than the preceding album in regard to the characterization of persons and staffage also owes to a longer journey to the Orient which he had meanwhile taken upon the invitation of the big Russian industrialist and art collector, Anatole Demidoff. He had studied in an especially intensive way the conditions on the Crimean peninsula, where Demidoff had planned a longer stay to inspect his coal mines.9 In this manner, an afterimage of the Crimea entered into the reconstructions of the Algerian War, while pictorial reports from the Algerian War, in turn, became the starting point for the reports on the Crimean War. In Crimea, the Western allies encountered not only similar geographical conditions but also the same picturesque uniforms of the native auxiliary troops in the Algerian War. The Berber tribe of the zouaves, which had been recruited in the highlands of Constantine to reinforce the French troops and was every bit as brutal and defiant of death as the Foreign Legion founded by Louis-Philippe, dominated not only the appearance of the subsequent Crimean War but later also lent a bizarre Oriental air to the distant scenes of the American Civil War and the Prussian-French War.

Leon Galibert, Histoire de l’Algérie ancienne et moderne. Paris 1843 (MePri-Coll.)

While Horace Vernet delivered the Algerian War in cinemascope format with his monumental panoramic paintings, Raffet presented the action-laden home cinema version. Alongside Francisco Goya’s Desastres de la Guerra, the album La Prise de Constantine counts as one of the earliest and most impressive pictorial documentations of guerrilla warfare.10 It is difficult to prove that there was an influence of the war prints of the Spaniard, who had been living in France since the mid 1820s, on the concept of Raffet’s portfolio. Although the Desastres were only published as late as 1863, individual sheets must have circulated in the Parisian artists’ circles that were associated with Philipon’s caricature movement. The most prominent example suggesting this assumption is Daumier’s famous lithography, Rue Transnonain, le 15 Avril 1834. The depiction of the victims of the military massacre of Parisian civilians during a workers’ uprising reveals a striking similarity to a sheet of Goya’s cycle.11 What is more concrete than this artistic affinity connecting the Parisian event to occurrences of the Spanish Civil War, however, are the historical relations, for the person who was regarded as responsible for the unscrupulous way in which an example was made of the residents in the Rue Transnonain, Thomas Robert Bugeaud, had learnt his “business” as a battalion commander during the Spanish War of Independence, among others, at the siege of Saragossa, of which there are numerous illustrations by Goya.12 In 1836, two years after the massacre in Paris, Bugeaud, who became known as L’homme de la rue Transnonain, was sent to Algeria as a guerrilla specialist, where he became governor-general in 1840. With his unconventional military strategies, in which he placed his stakes foremost on mobile terror units and a policy of scorched earth, he finally succeeded in halting Abd el-Kader’s series of triumphs and turning the tide in favour of France.

Honoré Daumier, Rue Transnonain, le 15 Avril 1834, 1834

Francisco Goya: Esragos de la guerra (desastres # 30), ca. 1815

While Goya more or less treated the occurrences of the people’s uprising in Spain as a background foil against which the bestiality of war was allegorically depicted, Raffet was concerned with reporting as precisely and complexly as possible. He compiled the individual episodes of the conquest of Constantine from a large number of illustrated documents and interviews with eyewitnesses. He claimed that this research work and the eidetic efforts reached to the last cartographic detail.13 He attempted to visualize the capture of the city that involved many losses in a filmic manner, in a sequence of wide and medium shots in which the perspectives of the invaders alternated with those of the native defenders. The individual scenes of urban guerrilla warfare which he described, such as sniper attacks, traps with explosives and raids, later turned out to be characteristic of the terror strategies of the liberation wars of the 20th and 21st century. Both in artistic and content-related respect, Raffet’s La Prise de Constantine appears as a prelude to Gillo Pontecorvo’s docudrama on the events of the Algerian War of Independence, La Battiglia di Algeri. Both are path-breaking reconstruction endeavours in the field of documentary realism.

Auguste Raffet: Prise De Constantine. Paris 1838 (MePri-Coll.)

The journalistic impulse based on intensive research work, which Auguste Raffet introduced into the serial event illustrations of the time and which he went on to further intensify,14 distinguishes him as the actual founding figure of the genre of the documentary graphic novel, as the precursor of a Jacques Tardi, Emmanuel Guibert or Joe Sacco. Yet one would underestimate Raffet’s art-historical significance if one limited it solely to this genre-related aspect, for the fundamental and trend-setting element of his graphic depictions consisted in the expressive choreography of human masses. He fell back on Jacques Callot’s pulsating swarm-images, but lent this tradition an entirely new, dynamized content. Thus, Raffet not only had an inspiring impact on the dramaturgy of Horace Vernet’s egalitarian war pictures, he decisively stimulated young Gustave Doré, as well. The latter, in his depictions of the Crimean War and the Sardinian War, as well as in his many descriptions of big cities, had become a specialist in the captivating graphic rendition of mass sceneries and, in this capacity, had a decisive influence on the theatrical pictures of masses in Expressionism.

Raffet’s bibliographer, the draughtsman and engraver Hector Giacomelli, who also collaborated with Gustave Doré, placed special emphasis on these expressive qualities of Raffet’s prints. In Giacomelli’s catalogue raisonné from 1862, it is stated that Raffet “captures the essence of war itself in its vibrating emotionality.”15 In this regard, the penultimate sheet of La Prise de Constantine is one of the most impressive. Like a cataract, the fleeing residents of Constantine flood over the cliffs of the nearby ravine in an act of collective suicide. The tragedy of Kherrata seems to be prefigured in a prophetic way here. In May of 1945, it marked the start of the second Algerian War. During the course of a retaliation operation by the French military, numerous locals were driven to death from the cliffs of a gorge. In an interplay with the last sheet of the portfolio showing a troop inspection of the invaders in front of the gates of Constantine, Raffet succeeds in opening a suggestive prospect to a colonial future in which invaders and locals face each other in relentless and self-destructive hostility. Alexis de Toqueville, who was initially enthusiastic about colonialism, had already formulated this kind of gloomy perspective at the end of the 1840s as follows: “Sooner or later, believe me, Algeria would become an enclosed field, a walled-in arena, where the two peoples would fight without mercy and where one of them must die.” 16

Alexander Roob, 2011

(Translation: Karl Hoffmann)


Auguste Raffet: Prise De Constantine. Paris 1838 (MePri-Coll.)



1 From: Alexis de Tocqueville, Travail sur l’Algérie (1841) in: Oeuvres complètes, Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1991, pp 691 – 759.

2 Actually: Abd al-Qadir al-Dschaza’iri

3 > David Kunzle, Chesu Christo, Christian iconography in Korda’s image. In: Tricia Ziff (ed.), Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon. New York 2006

4  In his publication, Coloniser, Exterminer – Sur la guerre et l’Etat colonial from 2005, French political scientist Olivier LeCour Grandmaison deals with the far-reaching consequences of the first Algerian War and its racist strategy of extermination.

5> Ulrich Keller, Images of War, War of images. The Invention of Pictorial Reportage in the course of the Crimean War, MePri-Archiv, 10/22/2007  https://meltonpriorinstitut.org/pages/textarchive.php5?view=text&ID=10&language=English

6 In her account of the capture of Algiers, Assia Djebar mentions the impressive number of four painters, five draughtsmen and around a dozen engravers. (Fantasia, Zurich 1990, p. 16)

7 On Baudelaire’s slating review of Vernet: Dolf Oehler, Pariser Bilder 1 (1830-1848). Frankfurt 1979. p. 100 ff.

8  > Alexander Roob, Against Daumier. A Revision of Early French Caricature and Social Graphics. MePri-Archiv 06/03/2010. (https://meltonpriorinstitut.org/pages/textarchive.php5?view=text&ID=74&language=English)

9 Anatole Demidoff’s travelogue illustrated by Raffet, “Voyage Dans La Russie Méridionale Et La Crimée par la Hongrie, la Valachie et la Moldavie”, was published in Paris when the Crimean War started in 1854.

10 The cycle of etchings, Ruinas de Zaragoza by Juan Galvez and Fernando Brambila, that documents the siege of Saragossa, concentrates more on the picturesque architectural scenery of the destroyed city than on the combat operations.

11 It is sheet 30 titled “Estragos de la guerra” that goes back to an event during the siege of Saragossa.

12 In their publication, “Makers and Defenders of the French Colonial Empire” from 2004,  Barnett Singer and John Langdon draw a rather positive picture of Bugeaud, highlighting his activities in the agricultural reform. They deny that he was responsible for the massacre at Rue Transnonain, which was attributed to him throughout his life, because the sector in question did not belong to his area of responsibility.

13  Pierre Ladoue quotes from letters of Raffet to his publishers, the Gihaut Brothers, mentioning research work in Marseille and Paris that lasted several months. (Un peintre de l’epopee francaise, Raffet. Paris 1946, p. 60 ff.)

14 The high point of Raffet’s graphic documentarism is marked by his reconstruction work of the siege of Mazzini’s Second Roman Republic by troops of Napoleon III. He worked for nine years, from 1850 to 1859, on the portfolio “Expedition et Siege de Rome” consisting of 36 lithographs.

15 In: H. Giacomelli: Raffet. Son Oeuvre Lithographique et Ses Eaux-Fortes, Paris 1862.

16 Cited in: John W. Kiser: Commander of the Faithful. The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader. New York 2010, p. 217


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