Napoleonic paintings
Napoleonic paintings

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Napoleonic paintings

3.5.1 Denon's account of Eylau

Exercise

Now read Denon's account of the subject and consider the following questions. In each case, take as your point of reference other Napoleonic propaganda paintings and, in particular, Gros's Jaffa.

From the Grande Armée 7 March 1807The battle of Eylau is one of those events with which history is sparing, even in our time; for this reason it becomes the patrimony of the arts, especially of painting which alone can convey the harshness of the site and the climate and the rigour of the season during which this memorable battle took place. In the absence of any attempt to depict the subject, the Director General of the Musée Napoléon has considered it his duty to propose it publicly to history painters.

Since all battles resemble each other, he has thought it preferable to choose the moment on the day after that of Eylau and when the Emperor visited the battlefield in order to bring assistance and consolation without discrimination to all the honourable victims of the fighting.

The painter of the hospital of Jaffa could quite naturally have been entrusted with the task of executing this painting, given that he has already so well depicted a subject of this kind; but the Director General believed it would be an injustice to the entire body of painters if he had not given all of them the opportunity to try their hand at so great a theme. He therefore asked His Majesty for permission to invite them all to produce a sketch of the subject which will be judged by the fourth class of the Institute.1 The sketches must be deposited at the secretariat of this class within the space of a month from the publication of the present announcement. The picture will be the same size as that of the hospital of Jaffa and the prize will be 16 000 francs. It will also be executed as a fine tapestry by the Gobelins factory. The two sketches that the class of the Institute judges to merit the position of first and second runner-up will each be honoured with a gold medal and 600 francs.

The Director General includes here a description made on the field of the battle of Eylau at the moment on the day after the battle when the Emperor reviewed the troops which had fought in it.

The EMPEROR visits the field of the battle of Preuss-Eylau, 9 February 1807 The French army, victorious on the 8 February at Preuss-Eylau, had bivouacked during the night on the field of that memorable battle which had been precipitately abandoned during the same night by the routed Russian army. On the 9th, at daybreak, the vanguard of the French army pursued the enemy in all directions, and found the roads of Koenisberg covered with abandoned Russian dead, dying and wounded, together with cannon, cases and baggage.

Towards midday, the EMPEROR mounted his horse. He was accompanied by Princes Murat and Berthier, by Marshals Soult, Davoust and Bessières; by the grand-equerry de Caulincourt; by the general aides-de-camp Mouton, Gardanne and Lebrun and by several other officers of his household, together with a squad of chasseurs of the guard and by princes and officers of the Polish guard of honour. He reviewed several divisions of the troops led by Marshals Soult, Augereau and Davoust, which remained on the battlefield, and visited one by one all of the positions that had been occupied, the previous day, by the various French and Russian units. The countryside was entirely covered with thick snow over which were scattered dead bodies, wounded men and the remnants of arms of all kind; traces of blood contrasted with the whiteness of the snow; the places in which cavalry charges had taken place stood out on account of the numbers of dead, dying and abandoned horses; French detachments and Russian prisoners traversed this vast field of carnage in all directions, and removed the wounded in order to take them to the hospitals set up in the town. Long lines of Russian corpses, wounded soldiers, remnants of arms and abandoned haversacks outlined in a bloody fashion the place of each battalion and squadron. The dead were heaped on top of the dying in the midst of broken or burnt cases and dismantled cannon.

The EMPEROR stopped at every pace in front of the wounded, asking them questions in their own language, ensuring that they were comforted and tended before his eyes. The unfortunate victims of the combats had their wounds dressed in front of him; the chasseurs of the guard transported them on their horses; the officers of his household carried out his benevolent orders. Rather than the death that they had been led to expect by the absurd prejudice they had absorbed, the wretched Russians found a generous conqueror. Astonished, they prostrated themselves in front of him or held out their weak arms in gestures of gratitude. The consoling look of the great man seemed to alleviate the horrors of death, and to spread a gentler light over this scene of carnage. A young Lithuanian hussar, whose knee had been blown off by a bullet, had maintained his courage undiminished in the midst of his expiring comrades. He raised himself up at the sight of the EMPEROR: ‘Caesar,’ he said to him, ‘you desire that I live; well, then! Only let me be healed, and I will serve you faithfully as I have served Alexander.’

Pascal Griener, ‘L’Art de persuader par l’image sous le Premier Empire. A Propos d’un concours officiel pour la représentation de Napoléon sur le champ de bataille d’Eylau’, L’Ecrit-Voir, 1984, 4, pp. 9, 20. Translated for this volume by Emma Barker.

  1. When and where exactly does the scene take place, and how does this contribute to the propaganda function of the proposed picture?

  2. To what extent are the horrific consequences of the battle acknowledged, and how is this done in such a way as to contribute to the propaganda function of the proposed picture?
  3. How is Napoleon himself presented, and how does the scene invoke France's ‘civilizing mission'?

Discussion

  1. The scene is set on the morning after the battle, following other Napoleonic propaganda painting in deflecting attention from the actual violence. Also, by insisting that the scene is set on the battlefield, the text emphasizes that the French remained in possession of the field after the battle and thus are technically without doubt the victors; the reference to the French army having bivouacked there overnight stresses this point. This emphasis on the battlefield thus serves, like the tricolour flag in Jaffa, as a reminder of France's military prowess while avoiding depicting it directly.
  2. The text acknowledges the horrific consequences to a remarkable extent, even referring to ‘this vast field of carnage’. It also notes such grisly details as the way that dead bodies are heaped on top of the dying. Although this is exceptional by the standards of Napoleonic propaganda painting, it nevertheless distracts attention from the French losses by referring only to ‘dead, dying and wounded’ Russians and to ‘long lines of Russian corpses’. The reference to the emperor speaking to the wounded ‘in their own language’ also identifies them as Russian (as well as contributing to the propaganda function of the work by flatteringly suggesting that Napoleon could speak Russian). In this respect, the scene might have been less disturbing to a French viewer than Jaffa, which it resembles in dealing with a military setback, since there the sufferers were actually French.
  3. Napoleon is presented as a noble and compassionate figure, offering consolation to the wounded and making sure that they receive proper care. The text refers to his ‘benevolent orders’ and calls him a ‘great man’. France's ‘civilizing mission’ is invoked by reference to the Russians’ expectation that they will be killed – in accordance with their own ‘barbarous’ values – and their surprise and gratitude at receiving such care. The emphasis on medical care – the text even refers to hospitals – is reminiscent of Jaffa. Also, as in the earlier work, Napoleon appears as a quasi-spiritual figure in the way that he seems ‘to alleviate the horrors of death, and to spread a gentler light over this scene of carnage’. The injured Lithuanian's speech also seems to credit him with almost supernatural powers of healing.
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