A huge column of soldiers advances painfully through a desolate and icy landscape covered in snow, surrounded by dead and wounded comrades. Shades of gray dominate the composition. In this tragic scene, Charlet depicts the end of the Russian campaign, ordered by Napoleon, which set off in 1812 to conquer the gigantic Russian Empire. The enterprise ended in failure and the murderous retreat of the Grande Armée in winter, when more than 300,000 French soldiers died of the cold and attacks by their enemies.
Painted more than twenty years after the historic event, this picture was exhibited at the Salon de Paris, in 1836 where it was enthusiastically received. At that time, a veritable cult was forming around Napoleon and the victories of his armies, revived by the return of his ashes in 1840 for burial at Les Invalides in Paris. Charlet helped create the Napoleonic legend and its dissemination through his paintings and, above all, the numerous lithographs highlighting the virtues of the humble soldiers who served in the Empire’s armies.
In this work, beyond the historical military event itself, the artist expresses his vision of history, no longer depicting the great generals who commanded the battle but the men who fought it, revealing every aspect of their suffering. As Alfred de Musset wrote in his commentary on this picture, “It is the Grande Armée; it is the soldier, or rather, it is mankind; it is human wretchedness alone under a misty sky, on frozen ground, with no guide, no leader, no distinction. It is despair in the desert.” The unleashing of the elements and their wholly romantic inspiration led even the artist’s contemporaries to compare it with another image of human suffering, The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1819, Paris, the Louvre).