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Napoleon on the Battlefield at Eylau, February 9, 1807

© 2009 Musée du Louvre / Erich Lessing

Paintings
French painting

Author(s):
François de Vergnette

Antoine-Jean Gros is celebrating Napoleon I's compassion when he visited the battlefield of Eylau the day after the carnage that took place there in February 1807. Although complying with offical instructions, Gros depicts the scene with a degree of realism never attained in any other Napoleonic history painting. The eye is immediately drawn to the enormous corpses in the foreground. Here, Gros breaks with the neoclasssicism of his master David.

The compassionate emperor

The picture depicts Napoleon I visiting the battlefield of Eylau in eastern Prussia on February 9, 1807, the day after the French army's bloody victory over the Prussians. The emperor, on a light-colored horse and surrounded by doctors and marshals, surveys the scene with great compassion, his arm outstretched as if blessing the wounded. A Lithuanian soldier, leaning against the surgeon Percy, has raised himself to say to him, "Caesar, if you want me to live, then heal me. I will serve you faithfully as I did Alexander." Another enemy soldier embraces the emperor's leg. Marshal Murat on his prancing horse at Napoleon's side seems a personification of war. In the foreground is a heap of dead soldiers half-covered in snow and one of the wounded, who was gone mad, struggling. The scene's horror is accentuated by the snowy landscape bathed in a wan light.

War made unpopular

Gros painted this canvas during the winter of 1807-08, after winning the competition for the commission. Vivant Denon, the director of the Musée Napoléon, stipulated most of the painting's content: the moment to be depicted, the number of "extras," the cadavers in the foreground, and the large format. The realism of the figures in the foreground, however, undoubtedly surpassed his recommendations. Gros exhibited the picture at the 1808 Salon. Police spies present at the Salon suspected the painting of rendering the war unpopular. However, Napoleon himself appreciated the work and at the artists' awards ceremony presented the painter with his own cross of the Légion d'honneur.

A realism unequaled in Napoleonic history painting

The canvas's composition is reminiscent of one of Gros's previous paintings, Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa (1804, Louvre). But his realism has greater brutality here, and would be equaled by no other Napoleonic history painting. The cadaver-strewn foreground takes on more importance than in the Jaffa painting and fixes one's attention. The feeling of horror and the sublime instilled in the viewer is partly due to the huge size Gros gave the dead - the faces at the bottom of the picture are twice life-size. Some of the figures are cut off by the edge of the picture, as if the canvas were a fragment of a real-life scene. Gros painted the picture in broad brushstrokes and, as in The Plague-Stricken at Jaffa, broke with the teachings of his neoclassicist master David. The canvas heralds the works of the Romantic painters Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix.

Bibliography

Clay Jean, Le Romantisme, Paris, Hachette, 1980, p. 289.
Gerstein Marc " " Le regard consolateur du grand homme " Le concours pour la bataille d'Eylau ", in Dominique Vivant Denon. L'oeil de Napoléon, Editions de la réunion des musées nationaux, 1999, p. 321-339.
Prendergast Christopher, Napoléon and history painting : Antoine-Jean Gros's la bataille d'Eylau, 1997.

Technical description

  • Baron Antoine-Jean GROS (Paris, 1771 - Meudon (Hauts-de-Seine), 1835)

    Napoleon on the Battlefield at Eylau, February 9, 1807

    1808

  • H. 5.21 m; W. 7.84 m

  • INV. 5067

  • Paintings

    Denon wing
    1st floor
    Mollien
    Room 77

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Additional information about the work

Signed and dated near the left edge: Gros 1808