Catalogue entry: Surrounded by his officers, the commanding figure of Napoleon Bonaparte surveys the carnage after the battle between French troops and the combined Russian and Prussian forces at Eylau in East Prussia (now part of Poland). 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 as bloodied victors by default. The staggering casualties on both sides—some 50,000 out of 150,000 combatants—made this one of the most devastating battles in the Napoleonic Wars to date. It also threatened to undermine Napoleon's narrative of his ability to defend France against external threats through decisive military triumphs. In order to instill the perception of Eylau as a significant French victory, an official government competition for the best painting depicting Napoleon's visit to the battlefield was announced on April 2, 1807. The twenty-six artists who entered were required to consult a detailed "explanatory notice" and a drawing of the battlefield that stipulated what was to be represented. Antoine-Jean Gros, a favorite pupil of Jacques-Louis David (see 1950.308), entered this canvas in the competition and won the commission to execute an immense version, now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. The subject of the emperor visiting the battlefield responded to rumors of enormous French casualties by representing mostly Russian dead and wounded in the care of French medical officers. Like other imperial propaganda, the painting showed Napoleon as the compassionate leader whose destiny was to bring peace and a new order to France and to Europe, but who—to his immense sorrow—was forced to attain this goal through violence. Gros fulfilled the propagandistic goal of the painting, but at the same time presented a horrifically realistic depiction of the bloody costs of war.
Rights: Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey