The French campaign, 1814

The French campaign, 1814

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Title: 1814. Campaign in France.

Author : MEISSONIER Jean-Louis-Ernest (1815 - 1891)

School : Romanticism

Creation date : 1864

Date shown: 1814

Dimensions: Height 51.5 - Width 76.5

Technique and other indications: Oil painting on canvas

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Picture reference: 94DE58708 / RF1862

1814. Campaign in France.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

After the disastrous Russian campaign, the bloodless French army still enjoyed great success during the Saxony campaign in the spring of 1813 (victories at Lützen and Bautzen), but the coalition troops, outnumbered, inflicted a serious defeat at Leipzig in October, and had to fall back on the Rhine. In December 1813, the allies crossed the Rhine, and several columns marching on Paris, the Emperor had to lead a winter campaign which, to be very glorious and marked by victories (Brienne, Montereau, Château-Thierry, Champaubert, Montmirail) , did not prevent the Allied advance, the capture of Paris and the fall of the Empire.

Image Analysis

The first in an unfinished Napoleonic cycle, this painting was exhibited at the Salon of 1864. The artist began with the penultimate subject, and the idea for this cycle seems to have occurred to him very slowly. Only three paintings were made: this one, 1807. Friedland (New York, Metropolitan Museum) and The Morning of Castiglione (Moulins museum, unfinished due to the painter's death). Meissonier would thus have excluded other works like 1805. The cuirassiers before the charge (Chantilly, Condé museum) and 1806. Jena (not localized), which is explained more by the imprecision of its program than by objective reasons. His ambition would have been to show how Napoleon had gradually cut himself off from his army and his people, which would have precipitated his downfall.
Napoleon marches at the head of his troops, followed by Marshals Ney and Berthier, and Generals Drouot, Gourgaud and Flahaut. A second column is formed of grognards. The composition exudes concern, even anguish. They all advance silently through muddy snow, tense for the battle ahead. It is no longer the victory that this painting represents, it is the fatigue of war, and Napoleon himself barely detaches himself from his soldiers. The silhouette is the one made famous by the Napoleonic legend: the Emperor is dressed in his gray frock coat and wearing the famous "little hat".

Meissonier's very meticulous, almost hyper-realistic style helps convey the truth of the matter. The attitudes are real, individualized, but all men are subject to the same fate. We really feel the haunting silence of these columns marching towards a victory that has become hypothetical.


Considered to be Meissonier’s masterpiece, this famous work appears a bit like the symbol of the whole Napoleonic legend as developed by the Bonapartists in the 19th century, in particular the engravers Raffet and Charlet. It is reproduced everywhere, because of its plausibility. Napoleon's determination echoed the fatalism mixed with the confidence of the soldiers who followed him. They walk in his shadow, relying entirely on him, seeming not to doubt victory for a moment. It is the Emperor's aura, what he called his "star," which is painted here. Napoleon thus presents himself as a true god of war, an exceptional man who can do anything. We are here in the purest illustration of this idea born with the notion of progress, according to which man influences events. It is no longer the Napoleonic religion that is painted, but only the superior man mastering fate.

  • army
  • Great Army
  • napoleonic wars
  • Napoleonic legend
  • marshals
  • Bonaparte (Napoleon)


Jérémie BENOIT “The Napoleonic cycle of Meissonier. A painting from the Moulins museum »in The Louvre Review , 1987, n ° 1, p. 43-52.Catal Collectif. expo.Ernest Meissonier , Lyon, Musée des Beaux-ArtsParis, RMN, 1993. Jean TULARD (dir.) Napoleon dictionary Paris, Fayard, 1999.

To cite this article

Jérémie BENOÎT, "The countryside of France, 1814"

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