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John Tennent, born at Roseyards, Co. Antrim, was one of eight children of the Reverend John Tennent, minister of the Presbyterian Church there. He was educated at home, by his father and was intended for a career in business. His upbringing was according to strict Presbyterian principles and he strongly felt the need for governmental reform and civil and religious liberty. He became friendly with several leaders of the United Irishmen and eventually joined their Society, although he never held any prominent position within their ranks.
By 1799, probably fired by the democratic ideals of the French Revolution, he was on the Continent, fighting for Napoleon against the British, and was holding the rank of Major. In December 1803, he joined Napoleon's special Irish Battalion (led mainly by Irishmen with strong radical political opinions) and distinguished himself, to the extent of representing his unit at Napoleon's Coronation as Emperor of France in December 1804.
He saw much action o the Continent during the Napoleonic Wars and was eventually promoted to Commandant, and Knight of the Legion of Honour. He was killed when a Russian corps of 12,000 men attacked the French forces at Löwenberg, on 19 August 1813. An account of his death states that 'he was completely cut in two; the cannon ball striking a belt in which he carried his money served as a knife to separate the body. The soldiers dug his grave with their bayonets, and when burying him, found several pieces of gold that fell out of his entrails, and part of his gold watch'.
Tennent married a French girl shortly after his arrival in France and had one daughter who married a Dublin merchant in 1821. The Museum also owns portraits of three of his brothers, William, Robert and Samuel, all probably by this same unknown artist.