Ernest Meissonier is famous for his military paintings, and he soon attracted a following fascinated by his care for detail and the realism of his uniforms.
And one of his most famous paintings, 1814, the French Campaign, singlehandedly revolutionised the genre of war painting. For there he concentrates not on the action and the fighting but rather on the figures depicted and the emotion. By illustrating the Emperor retreating towards Soissons after the defeat at the battle of Laon (9/10 March) in a modestly sized painting (76.5 cm high, 51.5 cm wide), Meissonier underlines the dramatic intensity of this episode in the French Campaign. The traditional representation of an army on the move - here on the diagonal of the painting - is totally transformed and given a personal and human profundity. The figure of Emperor (whose imminent fall is almost palpable) literally merges into those of his men, from his General Staff (Ney, Berthier and Flahaut at the front, with Ney, Drouot and Gourgaud behind on his left) to the last, almost imperceptible soldier in the long line which stretches out towards the horizon and the vanishing point of the painting. The colours are those of a muddy thaw, matched by the low and threatening sky, all combining to give an atmosphere of heaviness. The audience's viewpoint then becomes that of the historian with an a-posteriori viewpoint. Meissonier, as a man of the 1860s, shows us a demoralised army on a slippery mud-spattered path, and we know that the French Campaign cannot have a positive outcome.
Painted for the fiftieth anniversary of the battle it commemorates, this work was immediately exhibited at the Salon of French artists in 1864. It was so successful that it was then put on show at the Great Exhibition in Paris in 1867. That same year, Ernest Meissonier, officer of the Légion d'Honneur since 1856, was promoted to ‘commandeur' of the Légion d'Honneur.
The fame of 1814, the French Campaign was so immediate that the painting was bought just after the Great Exhibition in 1867. It finally ended up in the collection Alfred Chauchard, a great French art collector from the end of the 19th century. Chauchard was one of the first “friends of the Louvre”, amongst other wealthy figures of the Third Republic, and when he died, he left many works to the national museum, including this famous Meissonier painting, which is now on show at the Musée d'Orsay.
For further reading, see Juliette Glickman's article on this masterpiece of Napoleonic painting (in French).