Although Lami’s work is perhaps better known in France, he may be considered very much a pan-European figure, working alongside many of the most notable European dynasties of the 19th Century. Initially he recorded their military exercises before sidestepping with great ease into the depiction of fashionable festivities.
Lami was born in Paris and began his artistic education by receiving lessons from Horace Vernet. It was through Vernet that the young artist received a commission for a series of lithographs of French Military scenes. In 1817, while he was working in the studios of Vernet and Gros, he met Richard Parkes Bonington, who instructed him in the art of watercolour and persuaded him to visit London from 1825-6, where his Souvenirs de Londres were published. In 1832 he was appointed official painter to Louis Philippe for whom he painted large battle scenes in oil.
However from 1837, when he illustrated scenes at the marriage of the duc d’Orléans, he abandoned military scenes and concentrated on those of fashionable life and social gatherings. In 1848 he followed the d’ Orléans family into exile to the fashionable suburb of London, South Kensington, where he remained for four years. He settled easily into London life and was appointed jury member for the Great Exhibition. On his return to Paris he was engaged by Napoleon III and was commissioned by the Emperor to contribute to the album made for Queen Victoria as a souvenir of her visit to Paris. He again found himself in exile during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 when he sought refuge in Switzerland with his patrons, the Rothschilds. He did though return to Paris and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1862 and was a founding member of the Société des Aquarellistes Fran?ais.
There is a large body of his work in the Royal Collection recording the Royal visit to Louis Phillipe by the Queen, state balls at Buckingham Palace, the Opening of the Great Exhibition in May 1851 and watercolours of the Royal visit to Napoleon II, 1855.
Towards the end of his career he executed a series of illustrations to French historical literary fiction. The present watercolour illustrates a scene from chapter XII, of Prosper Mérimée’s Chronique du régne de Charles IX, executed towards the end of his career in 1878. Lemoisne, op.cit., p. 187 mentions a series of illustrations for Gil Blas that were finished in December 1878 and exhibited at the Salon of the same year, along with other works from a series of illustrations for the Chronique du régne de Charles IX (fig. 1).
Chronique du régne de Charles IX, was first published in 1829, reprinted in 1832 and again in 1841. The protagonist, protestant Bernard de Mergy, challenges his rival, Commiges, to a duel over the beautiful Catholic noble woman Diane de Turgis. He kills Commiges, but is himself wounded and retires to convalesce at the house of a friend. One night, unable to sleep he walks in the garden and stumbles upon a witch and a mysterious hooded figure, who is later revealed to be Diane de Turgis herself. The witch begins mixing a love potion and the hooded figure casts a spell beseeching Bernard de Mergy to fall in love with her 'Just as this wax softens and burns with the flame of this stove, so, O Bernard Mergy, may your heart soften and burn with love for me.’ The present watercolour illustrates the moment when 'Speaking thus she turned her head and saw Mergy standing at one of the entrances to the grove’.