In 1810, when Vernet executed this portrait of a Mameluke, he was twenty or twenty-one years of age: too old to be considered a prodigy and still in the shadow of the celebrated family of artists from which he came, notably his father, Carle Vernet, and both his grandfathers, Joseph Vernet and Jean-Michel Moreau. In 1809 he had competed unsuccessfully for the Prix de Rome (he may have tried again in 1810), and in 1812 he would debut at the Paris Salon with five paintings featuring the Napoleonic themes that would make his reputation.
This is among the earliest known pictures by Vernet that is securely dated. As a direct likeness, it exhibits all the painterliness and agility for which the artist soon gained renown. Neither the circumstances behind the sitting nor the painting’s early history has come to light. The costume is that of the Mameluke warriors who comprised the military caste in Egypt under the Ottoman Empire; their presence in France is part of Napoleonic lore. Mamelukes were slaves who were taken from European provinces of the Ottoman Empire at a young age to be trained in Egypt as soldiers. Several hundred of them accompanied Napoleon’s army to France following the Egypt campaign of 1798–1801. The most famous of these was Roustam Raza (born about 1781, in Tbilisi, Georgia; died 1845, in Dourdan, France), who was a gift from Cairo’s sheikh El-Bekry to Napoleon; he served as Napoleon’s personal bodyguard until 1814.
The present work is signed and dated by the artist, and signed once again on the stretcher, with the addition of an inscription: "Roustam." The painting has thus traditionally been identified as a portrait of Roustam Raza (e.g. Huillet d’Istria 1981). In fact the sitter does not closely resemble the portrait of Raza by Jacques Nicolas Paillot de Montabert (1771–1849) that was exhibited at the Salon of 1806 (Musée de l’Armée, Paris), which served as the model for all subsequent depictions of him (see Ziesenniss 1989). One possible explanation for the inscription is that it identifies another man named Roustam. The majority of Mamelukes in France were incorporated into the 10th squadron of the Chasseurs de la Garde impériale, whose most indelible image is Théodore Gericault’s early masterpiece The Charging Chasseur (1812; Musée du Louvre). Gericault and the slightly older Vernet became fast friends after the former joined Carle Vernet’s studio in the fall of 1808. In time, Gericault would make a similar portrait to the present one, thought by some scholars to represent his own devoted servant Mustapha (ca. 1822; Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon).
[Asher Ethan Miller 2014]