The paintings of the battlefields are not only commissioned by the Emperor to magnify his victories (even if one finds in Versailles only one battle of Waterloo painted under the Second Empire in a “Quite naughty”, according to the appreciation of Frédéric Lacaille, the curator in charge of paintings from the XIXe century). It is sometimes a little more subtle.
The Battle of Eylau, which took place during the Polish campaign in February 1807 near the village of Preussich-Eylau (now Bagrationovsk, in Russia) is distinguished first by its terrible toll: 5,000 to 7,000 killed on the side. Russian, 2,700 on the French side. A few days later, in the Bulletin of the Grand Army, published in the official press organ of the empire, The monitor, readers could read these lines from Napoleon, quoted by historian Thierry Lentz (1): “A father who loses his children tastes none of the charm of victory. When the heart speaks, glory has no more illusions. “
Very quickly, the Emperor asked his Director General of Museums, Dominique Vivant Denon, to organize a competition to represent ” the slaughter “. A sketch was made to guide the painters who all made similar compositions: Napoleon victorious – since he had remained master of the field – and compassionate; the “father” going into contact with his wounded “children”.
It is Antoine-Jean Gros who won the competition, as often. But the version presented by Charles Meynier is perhaps even more interesting. In the foreground, the corpses are naked. We do not know if they are French or Russian. Death is not euphemized or magnified here. She is portrayed in a direct, raw and strangely contemporary manner. Undoubtedly one of the reasons why Charles Meynier did not win the order.