Jenkins, in France for a summer of language study, rides with a taxi driver, who looks like “a Napoleanic grenadier, an elderly grognard … depicted in some academic canvas of patriotic intent” (QU 108).
To envision this French taxi driver, we tried to understand ‘Napoleanic grenadier,’ ‘grognard,’ and ‘academic canvas of patriotic intent.’
Napoleon’s Grenadiers were his Imperial Guard, his most elite troops, and the Grognards were the Old Guard, creme de la creme. There are abundant paintings and prints of these famous troops, but which qualify as academic?
The French Academy of Beaux Artes could trace its orgins to 1646. Like the Royal Academy in London. it was a bastion of establishment art. In the Napoleonic era it was dominated by the Neoclassicism of artists like Jacques Louis David or Ingres, but more romantic painters like Gericault were also exhibited at the Academy’s Salon.
We can well imagine this Grenadier of the Old Guard, painted by Jean-Baptiste Édouard Detaille (1848 – 1912), spending his older years as a grizzled taxi driver. Detaille had many connections with the French military, growing up in a military family, enlisting during the Franco-Prussian war, painting many realistic portraits of his compatriots, eventually becoming an official painter of battles, and later designing army uniforms. He earned his academic credentials, exhibiting some of his military paintings in the Salon of the Academy. He actually makes a cameo appearance at a party in In Search of Lost Time, where Marcel identifies him as the painter of Le Reve (The Dream), which shows soldiers encamped and asleep (Karpeles, pp 194-5)