Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow
At the forefront of the image is a horse-drawn buggy carrying a cannon, which is stuck in the snow. Two horses appear to have been pulling the buggy; however, one of them has fallen over. The other has a man atop its back. Behind this scene is a large caravan of French soldiers. Of these men, none have become stuck in the snow; it appears to be flattened down. Many of the other men are riding horses and have capes over their shoulders. The caravan is distinct and visible in the right of the image, but slowly blends into an indistinct blur as it winds back and to the left. In the distance, where the caravan ends, there are some pine trees, the only visible plant life.
Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
CA 8939 v.3
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The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte volume III (1828) by William Henry Ireland (1777-1835)
William Henry Ireland’s depiction of Napoleonic events emphasize Bonaparte's valor. “On quitting Moscow, he had expressly ordered, that all carriages, without distinction, his own included, should be appropriated for the conveyance of the wounded” (W. Ireland, Life of Napoleon Bonaparte483). In the dead of winter in Russia, Napoleon allegedly exhibited altruism. Despite the mass casualties due to both the war and the climate, Napoleon was
. . . still surrounded by their bravest and steadiest men, while those officers who had been wounded at Mosqua, were seen, one with his arm in a sling, another with his head covered with linen bandages, encouraging the firm, keeping together the doubting, throwing themselves upon the enemy’s batteries, driving them back, and even seizing three of their field-pieces, thus astonishing their adversaries and checking the influence of bad example by a display of the most noble intrepidity. (W. Ireland, Life of Napoleon Bonaparte 486).It was not solely Napoleon who exuded heroism during these rough times; his men also displayed “noble trepidity.” Although there may have been valorous sentiment among Napoleon and his troops during their retreat from Moscow, attitudes soon shifted. As Napoleon’s troops began to lose more and more battles, Napoleon heard a rumor that his adversaries were planning to banish him to a remote island. Even though the French’s early attempts to exile him failed, he was later successfully contained: “Once Napoleon had been safely packed off to Saint Helena, England could turn her attention to domestic matters and, at once, issues which had been kept under the lid during the war began to bubble up more vigorously” (W. Ireland, Life of Napoleon Bonaparte 385).
By exploiting the blinded serf class of Russia, Alexander I was able to turn an entire nation against Napoleon. Serfdom in Russia had exponentially increased during the years surrounding the Napoleonic Wars. In the eighteenth century, serfdom was virtually unrecognizable from slavery. In order to gain the support of the upper classes, Alexander I stripped the serfs of all their power. He also successfully masked his actions, and the deceived serfs blamed their country's problems on the czar’s advisors and even on other countries' negligence. This, in turn, led to the “patriotic fervor” that infused the country (C. Herold, The Age of Napoleon 337-340). Prior to the burning of Moscow and after his divorce from Josephine, Napoleon consulted Alexander I to see if he could marry his sister, Catherine. When Alexander refused to provide him with an immediate answer, Napoleon looked elsewhere. He chose his new wife, Marie Louise, in order to form an alliance with Austria. This decision fueled the Russian’s hatred for him (F. Markham, Napoleon and the Awakening 124).
The Orthodox Church and Evangelical sects exacerbated the Russian hatred of Napoleon. Relying on a loose translation of the Apocalypse of Saint John, religious leaders began to believe that Napoleon was the Antichrist (C. Herold, The Age of Napoleon 336). Furthermore, Napoleon’s choice of second wife did not help his standing in the international community, and the alliance crafted between Russia and France at the Tilsit Conference was cancelled due to this decision (F. Markham, Napoleon and the Awakening 125).
“…The French began to calculate their forces, and found several cannon broken, and four thousand killed or wounded, many soldiers having, also, dispersed. They had preserved their honour, but the chasms in their ranks was immense” (W. Ireland, Life of Napoleon Bonaparte 488).
“Thus the major part of the sufferers conveyed from Moscow, who, agreeably to the orders of the Emperor, had been placed in his own carriages, and those of the army, were saved; among whom was M. de Beauveau, a lieutenant of carabineers, who being accommodated in one of the imperial vehicles, owed his life to that circumstance” (W. Ireland, Life of Napoleon Bonaparte 483).
“Nevertheless, the example of their chiefs, and the hope of finding rest, food, everything, at Smolenski, kept up the men’s spirits. Above all, they were cheered by the sight of a still brilliant sun, which seemed to bely all the scenes of death and horror that surrounded them” (W. Ireland, Life of Napoleon Bonaparte).
Though this image is intended to accurately represent the retreat of Napoleon and his forces from Moscow, the event is fictionalized by the depiction of the troops with an ample supply of clothes and equipment. In reality, the French forces were in poor condition at this point in the Napoleonic Wars.
Color, or, more importantly, a lack thereof, is a predominant motif in this image. Because the landscape is virtually colorless—even the trees are grayish—the eye is drawn to the people. It is interesting to note the color of the horses. Whereas in the earlier images many of the horses were white, now they are nearly all brown. The one horse that seems intended to draw the eye (as it is a bright, brown color) pulls a sleigh with fully bundled men in it. Historical documentation suggests that this depiction is hyperbolic. Hence, where the color is and where the color is not is very important. Additionally, the people in the image only wear the colors of the French flag. Although the retreat from Moscow was by no means a glorious event, it is still designed in this image to arouse patriotism.
This scene invokes the Romantic picturesque. It “was seen as a distinct concept because it was used to describe landscapes which did not necessarily inspire awe or terror, but which were full of variety and interest, appealing to the viewer’s eye. Thus the picturesque could refer to a rural scene which to the viewer took on an idyllic simple beauty, or to the wild and remote” (N. King, Romantics 62). Another quality of the Romantic that this scene invokes is the gothic. The gothic “appealed to the same sentiments as those excited by the sublime in art, dealing as it did with the passionate, mysterious, horrific and supernatural” (N. King, Romantics 73). Death is addressed only casually in the image: although it is extremely prevalent to the soldiers, they are depicted as warm and clothed. The eeriness of the image then arises not from forebodings of death, but from the sheer number of soldiers and the viewer's inability to see where the trail ends.
This image intends to offer a historically accurate depiction of an event in Napoleon’s life. Much like the earlier images in this gallery, this one also fails to do so: Napoleon and his troops’ retreat from Moscow was bleak, and their amount of equipment was scanty. However, this image shows the men warmly clothed and with many supplies.
Herold, Christopher. The Age of Napoleon. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1963.
Ireland, W.H. The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte volume III. London: John Cumberland, 1828.
King, Neil. The Romantics: English literature in its historical, cultural, and social contexts. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2003.
Markham, Felix. Napoleon and the Awakening of Europe. London: The English Universities Press LTD, 1958.
1 leaf, 260 p. : col. plates. ; 25 cm.