The commanding figure of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) surveys the carnage after the battle between French troops and combined Russian and Prussian forces at Eylau (now in Russia). Fighting in snow and bitter cold on February 7 and 8, 1807, the armies were deadlocked until the Russians retreated during the night, leaving the French victors by default. The staggering number of dead and wounded on both sides—some 50,000—made this one of the most devastating battles of the Napoleonic Wars.
To quell criticism about the number of casualties at Eylau and to maintain Napoleon’s image as a forceful but compassionate leader, the French government sponsored a competition for the best painting depicting Napoleon’s visit to the battlefield. Antoine-Jean Gros entered this canvas and won the commission for the immense 17 x 25 ½ foot version in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Downplaying French casualties, Gros showed mostly Russian dead and wounded being tended by French medical officers. Though it fulfilled its role as state propaganda, the painting also presented a horrifically realistic depiction of the bloody costs of war.