Marshal Ney Supporting the Rear Guard During the Retreat from Moscow, 1856
©Manchester City Galleries
Extreme weather conditions
Adolphe Yvon (1817-1893) was a French artist who was known for his portrayals of the Napoleonic wars of 1803-1815. The wars were between the French Empire, led by Napoleon and opposing coalitions, led by Great Britain.
Yvon’s painting Marshal Ney supporting the Rear Guard during the Retreat from Moscow,1856, will be included in the up and coming display Natural Forces. It is a huge painting of a dramatic, snow-covered war scene which depicts the tragic culmination of Napoleon’s Russian invasion of 1815. 450,000 men were led across the River Nieman and were than forced to turn back at Moscow due to the unbearable weather conditions. The temperatures reached below –25°c and this environment, along with the battles, killed a great proportion of the army and by December only 13,000 men remained. Marshal Ney was their commander. He was a skilled commander and trusted associate of Napoleon who fought in a great number of battles during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, including the battle of Waterloo. After the defeat at Waterloo Ney was arrested and sentenced to death by firing squad on December 7 1815.
In the painting Ney is wearing a bicorn hat and stands to the left of centre touching a wounded soldier’s shoulder. Death and tragedy fill the atmosphere around him. Moscow can be seen on fire in the background; the city was set alight by retreating Russian forces who would rather see it burnt to the ground than robbed by the French army. Dead or dying soldiers litter the foreground, half naked and frozen; dead horses are also visible.
The art of storytelling
Although the painting is based upon true events, the scene depicted is a semi-fabricated one. In reality the weather was not fully to blame for the large number of deaths. Although it played a key part, so did other factors. Within the painting great emphasis is placed upon the climate; it seems that the failure of the expedition is due solely to the snow and sub-zero temperatures. The cold did have a strong impact on the troops but poor preparation played a role too. The soldiers’ clothing wasn’t fit for winter weather and combined with starvation brought on by lack of supplies, a bad situation was made even worse.
Yvon doesn’t exactly give us the whole truth! However the artist’s trying to tell a good story and bring out the heroism and tragedy of the event. He wants to create a dramatic atmosphere and enhance the visual appeal of the painting so he seems to have manipulated the facts to this end.
I like the fact that when viewing art it can be like a story unfolding before your eyes and it is up to you to develop the story for yourself. One of the wonderful things about Marshal Ney supporting the Rear Guard during the Retreat from Moscow, is that there is always something new to discover. It is engaging and full of narrative and it is possible to look at it time and time again and notice little features that you missed before. There are a lot of details; something that I noticed upon closer inspection is the women cradling two, seemingly dying or dead children to the right hand side of the frame. Due to the chaos of the scene it is at times difficult to determine who is dead and who is alive. This makes it an even more memorable painting as you try to work out what is going on.
Lori Symcox: Collections Access Assistant