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Wrecked on a Reef

III — Alphonse De Neuville — Illustrator of Wrecked on a Reef

page 240

Alphonse De Neuville
Illustrator of Wrecked on a Reef

Alphonse de Neuville (or Deneuville) — born at Saint Omer in 1835, died in Paris in 1885 — was a painter of repute and a book illustrator. A pupil of Picot and of Eugene Delacroix, he first exhibited two scenes from the Siege at Sebastopol in the 1859 Salon and was awarded a prize for one of them entitled "La Batterie Gervais (18 Juin 1855)."

In his 1878 book on Lesjeunes Peintres Militaires, G Goetschy reports that de Neuville worked on his painting throughout winter and submitted it to Delacroix for critical comment before the exhibition. The master invited him to visit his studio again, and to learn from watching him at work. "Remember that to draw movement is far superior to drawing the shape of things;" the master said, "shape is nothing without movement." De Neuville never forgot Delacroix's advice, all the more that it coincided with his own artistic temperament. His interest in motion shows in his lively battle scenes and in his realistic studies of military life.

He painted many scenes of the 1870-71 war and illustrated numerous books on the subject. Through regular exhibitions at the Salon he was known as one of the best military painters in France. Awarded the Legion of Honour in 1881, after his death a statue of him was placed on the Place Wagram in Paris. The statue is no longer there; it was melted down during the Occupation in World War II.

De Neuville had turned to illustration as a job, but preferred painting. However, he illustrated Alexandre Dumas fils: La Dame aux Camelias in 1858, and several famous novels by contemporary French novelists. He also worked for the magazine Le Tour du Monde and contributed 39 woodcuts to Raynal's book in 1869. Around the same time he was also illustrating Jules Verne's Vingt Mille Lieues sous les Mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea) published in 1871.

There is a similar attention to fine detail in both works, as well as an enlightened choice of the episodes best able to kindle the reader's imagination. Considered side by side, these two books reveal the difference of treatment of page 241the maritime elements by the illustrator. In a number of scenes from Wrecked on a Reef de Neuville follows textual descriptions very closely, for he worked from sketches provided by Raynal. There is no mention of Raynal's contribution in the French or in the English editions of the book; however, each illustration in the original text published in the magazine Le Tour du Monde mentions this fact.

In a number of other instances, when de Neuville evokes a ship battling against the storm, or the fabulous undersea world projected in Verne's novel, he lets his romantic imagination take over.

The choice of illustration for the cover of Raynal's book in the English 1880 edition is particularly felicitous as it combines precision of detail in the attitudes of the characters, the surrounding reef, cliff and circling birds, with the suggestion of the swell rocking the boat.

Two years later, in 1873, de Neuville illustrated with L Bennett Round the World in Eighty Days, another well-known novel by Jules Verne. The portrait of Phileas Fogg, the imperturbable English traveller and hero of the story, was drawn by de Neuville.

A street in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, where de Neuville built a fine mansion in 1880, still bears his name. This street was part of the fashionable area of the 17th district where Raynal worked as a commissioner for the City Council. Raynal also lived in the 17th district, about a mile away in the Batignolles area, close to workshops and station, in a rental flat.

A retrospective exhibition of de Neuville's work entitled 'The epic of defeat' was shown in his native town of Saint Omer in 1978 at the Musée de I'Hôtel Sandelin. Part of the above information comes from the exhibition catalogue.