19th century military portraits

The Royal Military Museum possesses an almost encyclopaedic collection of 19th century military portraits. Although they follow tradition and are based on military and artistic conventions the portraits often display surprising versatility.

The young Belgian army observed neighbouring countries for inspiration: uniforms were copied and the first Belgian service men – at least the higher ranks – had more often than not earned their spurs in the French Grande Armée. Painters also drew on French examples. A lot of famous 19th century artists, such as Wiertz, Wappers or Navez pursued the genre of military portraits.

Newspapers often described the 1830 Belgian army as a “parade army”. Many older – and high-ranking – officers had nevertheless participated in numerous famous battles. The soldier not only uses his sabre, rifle or gun to fight, his body can also become a weapon. The solemn poses often hide rigid bodies, as painters skilfully hid the incurred wounds.

Some elements, such as medals, highlight the image the military cultivate in their portraits; they also document changes or adaptations.The stoic facial expressions don’t give anything away about the ruthless competition amongst officers. Revealing and/or concealing? Military portraits are not to be taken at face value only.