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A Critical Analysis of ‘The Battle of Austerlitz’ (1810)

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Published: Tue, 31 Jan 2017

Write a critical analysis of The Battle of Austerlitz (1810) by François Gérard.

The painting in the mentioned in the question above, The Battle of Austerlitz (Plate 9.17) was also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors, it depicts a moment in time from Napoleon’s campaign and possibly one of the greatest battles Napoleon fought in. It was against Russia and Austria in the Czech Republic. The artist François Gérard was commissioned to paint this great art piece as a commemoration for the Grande Armée’s very famous battle. One can perhaps argue this was François Gérard’s bid for recognition as a painter of military history. It is a painting of individual command in capturing the composure of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in his moment of unparalleled military victory. It is possible that Napoleon Bonaparte may have commissioned the image and dictated the terms of the subject and its treatment and also controlled its display.

The painting ( Plate 9.17) was exhibited at the Salon in 1810, although originally this large canvas was destined for the ceiling of the chamber in which the Conseil d’état (Counsel of State) met. As mentioned this is a very large canvas, the dimensions are 510 x 958 cm (200.8 x 377.2 in) and consists of oil on canvas. The artist, François Gérard uses both the ‘painterly’ technique and the ‘linear’ technique in this particular painting, which seems to visually display the neo classical style of painting, the softer areas, for example the sun light, indicate the ‘painterly’ technique with bright ‘soft’ tones, and muted colours in dark contrast. Perhaps a short synopsis on the terminology of the techniques used in painting by artists is; the ‘Painterly’ technique is one which depicts shapes by solid masses of colour. Whereas, the ‘linear’ technique is based more around lines and boundaries, although it is hard to differentiate between the two on occasions, they often blend in well together. The hue and colour also play a significant role within this painting, colours of red and gold on both the uniforms and horses tack of the French military, thus giving the appearance of royalty or richness among the French army, whereas the Russian and Austrian are in rather drab, dark colours.

It can be argued that this Napoleonic painting (Plate 9.17) was for general public use rather than personal consumption, and was placed on public display, it is also a propaganda artefact, that retrospectively recorded Napoleon Bonaparte’s great powers which therefore show the French public the power France had within Europe, and also painted a broader picture to the rest of Europe.

However, the composition of the painting The Battle of Austerlitz (Plate 9.17), although rather broad and balanced, is nonetheless complicated with Gérard showing his limits as a history painter. The subject of the painting is a moment of solemn victory against the Russian and Austrian armies in Austerlitz however, it does not show the heat of battle, but rather the moment when news of the victory was brought to Napoleon. One can see Napoleon Bonaparte to the right of the painting. Napoleon is wearing his bicorn hat,serenely and rather proudly sitting upon his white statuesque steed. One must also note too that Napoleon Bonaparte is raised above the rest of the assembly perhaps like an Olympian of Greek/Roman heritage. General Rapp from the French Army is presenting Napoleon Bonaparte with the standards which were taken from the enemy, the Russian Imperial Guard. The standards in the background to the left of the painting are carried by the Marmalukes who fought with Napoleon Bonaparte’s French army. General Rapp has his right arm outstretched presenting these standards to Napoleon Bonaparte. One can argue. Both Napoleon Bonaparte and his horse are as one – stony and without any kind of expression. Thus perhaps a quasi-divine being , beyondhuman emotion.

Ones eye is drawn to the aloofness of Napoleon Bonaparte who is both unscathed and without care Napoleon’s horse can also be included in this description although it is rather wild eyed and pawing at the ground with its right hoof. The colour tones of this painting are rather dark in the foreground and among the soldiers in the background to the right of the painting. One could say this gave Napoleon and his horse a theatrical appearance. In addition, the other soldiers on horseback who are amassed on the right are paying close attention to Napoleon Bonaparte and General Rapp, their eyes focused on the two main characters. The French army seem relatively calm and orderly, whereas, the central space within the painting is bright in a dramatically theatrical sense, which helps capture the audience/viewers thoughts and feelings on this painting. One can perhaps assume the arrangement of the characters within the painting offer a sense of dramatics and heroism on both sides of the campaign.

Furthermore, the soldiers lying either dead or dying upon the ground in the foreground of the painting are either Russian or Austrian, although it is very hard to depict who is who without knowing the uniforms of each country. Armaments lie scattered upon the ground as those still alive but obviously wounded beg for help and/or mercy. One can see the fear in the eyes of the enemy soldiers not only in their eyes but also in the body language, something that perhaps is often shown in paintings of battle scenes.

That being said, the brightness in the left upper corner, contrasts greatly to the dark cloudiness in the top right and centre skies, the latter depicts either dark storm clouds or the lifting of the infamous Austerlitz fog, which was recorded by historians who were either there at the battle or had been passed down over time. It appears to be the sun rising lifting part of the fog in the left hand corner, casting a white bright glow on the standards being brought to Napoleon Bonaparte, thus giving an almost supernatural aura. One could possibly argue the heavens opened and shone a light upon Napoleon Bonaparte that day at The Battle of Austerlitz. Therefore it shows Napoleon Bonaparte the hero of the campaign.

On the other hand, we can compare and contrast a painting by a different French artist, Antoine-Jean Gros, which was dated 1804, Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken of Jaffa (Plate 9.15). The medium of this painting is oil on canvas with the dimensions 532.1 x 720 cm, (209 x 280 in), thus making this painting slightly larger than The Battle of Austerlitz.

The painting depicts the inundation of the plague in the city Jaffa, which affected the citizens of Jaffa, and the French military, it was at a critical period. It was rumoured that Napoleon Bonaparte had commanded poisoning of those who were affected by the plague, thus circumventing any commitment to remove them back to France. The rumour soon reached the people of France, and in order to thwart this hearsay, Bonaparte enlisted Antoine-Jean Gros to paint this specific painting in 1804, however, the scene took place in 1799.

The meeting took place in the courtyard of a mosque, which is easily identifiable by the minaret situated in the back ground. The background is rather smoky or hazy, which could be either from gunpowder or fires. The French flag is flying from a tower which had been possibly broken through.

The left side of the painting is a slightly, somewhat affluently attired gentleman distributing bread, assisted by a probable servant. The absence of light is very perturbing possibly a sign of fear for those who are ill. Bonaparte has physical contact with one of the sick individuals, who was introduced to him. Napoleon is shown here as a Christ like figure with the pose, compassionate, caring and a healer of the sick and those who suffering from the plague. Gros has given Napoleon ‘pride of place’ so to speak as stated in Unit 9: ‘Gros places the most important figure of Bonaparte in the centre of the scene in accordance with the traditions of history painting. Also, since the figure scales is much larger in Jaffa, Bonaparte takes up proportionally more of the picture’. (Unit 9, p. 121). Bonaparte becomes and is the most important part of the painting. He overshadows most of the other figures, resplendent in his uniform drawing the audience’s eyes to the centre of the painting and Napoleon Bonaparte.

It can be noted the light and dark including the shadows of this painting are significant from the viewer’s first glance. With perhaps some ‘linear’ work in the brush strokes, although most of it is ‘painterly’ One can argue this particular painting is significantly similar to The Battle of Austerlitz using propaganda channels, for example the great military leader commander versus the compassionate and caring leader. On the other hand they do differ in their colour and context; Gros’s painting is rather dark and yellowing, barely any sunlight, whereas even though Gérard has some dark areas, there is the ray of sunlight shining on the magnanimous leader and his victory.

Bibliography:

Illustrations Book, (2005), A207, From Enlightenment to Romanticism, c.1780-1830, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

The Open University, (2004), A207, From Enlightenment to Romanticism, c.1780-1830, Unit 9, ‘The Napoleonic Phenomenon’, Milton Keynes, The Open University.


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