Art History History Painting

History Painting: ‘Napoleon in burning Moscow’ by Albrecht Adam, 1841.

The campaign of Russia in 1812 has often been said to be the beginning of the end for Napoleon. (Two years later Napoleon was forced into exile in 1814.) Though at the beginning of the campaign there were no obvious signs that Napoleon would falter. He was optimistic and bullishly confident that he would once again compel the Czar of Russia to stop trading with the British. But, of course, the Russians refused exacerbating tensions between the France and Russia. Napoleon was left with no choice but to teach the Russians a lesson. He assembled a massive army and entered Russia on 24th June, 1812.

Napoleon was somewhat surprised by the ease his army was allowed to penetrate into Russia. In short, the Russians hoped to lure Napoleon away from his bases, so as to weaken his army, and only then engage them when they were exhausted by famine and their long march deep into Russia.

Eventually, the Russians had to take a stand against Napoleon, in order to protect Moscow. The two great armies met at Borodino in which both suffered heavy losses. Even though Napoleon was able to claim a tactical victory, the Russians were smart enough to still manage an orderly withdrawal to fight another day. This, of course, left the road to Moscow open to the French.

On 14th September, 1812, Napoleon entered Moscow with his army, but found the capital almost entirely deserted and set alight. (A great fire eventually destroyed almost the whole city.) A visual record of the destruction of the city was painted by many artists during the 19th century. One of those artists was German painter Albrecht Adam, who accompanied Napoleon during the Russian campaign. As part of the Bavarian contingent in Napoleon’s Grand Armée, Adam’s was tasked with the job of official war artist. Throughout the 1812 campaign he sketched and painted a visual diary of the campaign all the way to Moscow. In Moscow, he sketched a number of important scenes, before having the good fortune to leave Moscow, prior to the infamous winter retreat of Napoleon.

It was decades later probably in Albrecht Adam’s Munich studio that the memory of Napoleon and Moscow inspired him to paint one more lasting image of the 1812 campaign. In 1841, with a lifelong love for equestrian and battle scenes, Adam’s painted a scene showing Napoleon on his white horse looking out on the destruction of Moscow. Behind him smoke billows drowning the sky but the Kremlin is clearly left visible, which Napoleon occupied for a short time, to help place the painting to the 1812 campaign.

Our history books tell us that Napoleon unceremoniously endured a whole month in Moscow, waiting for the Czar to oblige him, by answering to the peace proposal he had sent him. But the peace proposal he so desperately sort from the Czar would never come and on 19th October, 1812, Napoleon left Moscow with his tail between his legs. In short, Napoleon’s failed gamble to make the Czar comply with his demands would prove fatal to his Grand Armée. During their long retreat back to their starting point in Germany, the Grand Armée was almost completely annihilated by the Russian winter, famine, disease and the Russian counterattack.


This painting is in the public domain.

1 comment on “History Painting: ‘Napoleon in burning Moscow’ by Albrecht Adam, 1841.

  1. The Russian winter and the strength of the Russian people gets them always. It was the same for the Nazis. Great historical post!

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