Art History History Painting

History Painting: ‘The Battle of Austerlitz’ by Francois Gerard, 1810.

In the winter of 1805, Napoleon’s Grand Armée marched halfway across Europe to confront their enemy, the allied armies of Austria and Russia, in what would go down in military history as one of great lessons in how to  deceive your enemy. Strategically this showdown between three great armies would take place west of the town of Austerlitz (in modern-day Czech republic). In short, without getting bogged down in the detail, all we need to know here about the battle is that the allies tactically made a huge mistake choosing the Pratzen Plateau as their primary central position. Of course, in their defense, little did they know that Napoleon had deliberately evacuated this same position earlier to create a trap for them. Moreover in a master stroke of deception, Napoleon provided the enemy with fake intelligence that suggested that his right flank was weak.

In essence, Napoleon was using his right flank as bait in the hope to entice Russia and Austria into attacking it. Soon enough, and as Napoleon had hoped, the allies took the bait and attacked Napoleon’s right flank.

And so, as the Russians and Austrians continued to throw large numbers of men to reinforce their attack on Napoleon’s right, their central position on the Pratzen Plateau began to weaken. The trap that had been set by Napoleon, to divert the enemy to his flank, had succeeded in weakening the Russian and Austrian centre. Pleased with the progress, Napoleon unleashed a ferocious attack through the middle of both armies, sending them into a panic, splintering their lines and making it easier for him to defeat them separately. (Interestingly Napoleon gamble also relied upon his famous III Corps, which arrived from Vienna in the nick of time, to deliver the allies an unexpected blow.) In the mayhem that followed, Napoleon’s artillery completed the allies misery by firing cannons into the frozen ponds, breaking the ice beneath the trapped enemy that originally attacked his right flank.

The end result provided Napoleon with a significant victory. Importantly, it also saw the end of the Holy Roman Empire with Napoleon forcing Francis II (of Austria) to break up the empire and reorganize the German states under his protection. Of course, none of this could have been achieved without the loyalty and dedication of his officers and soldiers. It seemed that they were prepared to go to the ends of the earth for him. It could be also said that this was Napoleon’s greatest genius, to make his men feel that he was one of them?

This feeling of camaraderie that I talk about between Napoleon and his Grand Armée is arguably wonderfully illustrated by French painter, Francois Gerard, in his panoramic view of Napoleon’s victory in the battle of Austerlitz. Gerard masterfully captures with his propaganda-fuelled brushstrokes, French General Rapp racing towards the Emperor with the enemy’s standard (flag). The victorious Napoleon of course sits unperturbed on top of his white charger, surrounded by his loyal guard, in front of the battlefields wounded and dead. One could argue that despite the horror of war, the French party seem pleased, especially General Rapp, who happily gestures with his hand towards the seized standard.

This painting appears in the public domain.

1 comment on “History Painting: ‘The Battle of Austerlitz’ by Francois Gerard, 1810.

  1. Fun fact: My partner and I had a bed & breakfast inn in St. Louis from 1995-2011 called “Napoleon’s Retreat B&B”. It was named by the guy we purchased it from, because the address was ‘1815’, the year Napoleon and his army were defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. The house was also French Second-Empire Victorian architecture, common in historic St. Louis neighborhoods. It was a fun theme, and we had all sorts of Napoleonic artwork and bric-a-brac.

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