GROS, Antoine-Jean
(b. 1771, Paris, d. 1835, Meudon)

Napoleon Bonaparte on the Battlefield of Eylau, 1807

Oil on canvas, 521 x 784 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

The battle of Eylau (8 February 1807) in Poland, in which the Russian army was defeated by the French during the fourth coalition, was an extremely bloody engagement, resulting in 25,000 dead and wounded. Napoleon wished to commemorate the victory, and had it made the subject of a competition; but he wanted his humanity to be emphasized, rather than his war-like qualities. The day after the battle, he had toured the battlefield, and was struck with pity at the sight of so much carnage. 'If all the kings on earth could see this sight', he said, 'they would be less greedy for wars and conquests.' This was the moment selected to appear on the official programme of the competition by Vivant-Denon, the Director of the Musée Napoleon. Gros, who only competed because he was pressed to do so by Vivant-Denon, was chosen in preference to twenty-five other painters. He received 16,000 francs for the picture, which was exhibited in the Salon of 1808.

The Emperor, advancing towards the right, is mounted on a light bay horse, and surrounded by his staff; the cloak and hat which he wore at Eylau were handed to Gros, who kept them till his death. Napoleon is speaking to a wounded Lithuanian, who is moved by the humanity of the victor, and is credited with saying: 'Caesar has granted me life; I will serve you faithfully, as I have served Alexander.' Opposite Napoleon, on a prancing charger, is Murat, whose epic charges transformed an undecided battle into victory; between Murat and Napoleon can be seen Marshal Berthier, Marshal Bessières and General Caulaincourt; the young Lithuanian soldier who stretches his arms towards Napoleon is supported by Baron Percy, Surgeon-in-Chief to the Grande Armée.

In this work, Gros has entirely forsaken classical composition; he has grouped his figures in masses and put striking close-ups of bleeding corpses in the foreground. Although he had never been far east, he has successfully rendered the melancholy of the great wintry plain, the sky leaden with smoke from the burning village.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.