This imposing depiction of Napoleon surveying the burning city of Smolensk is a fine example of Albrecht Adam's battle painting. He was uniquely placed as painter to Napoleon's stepson, Eugène de Beauharnais, to observe and document the Russian Campaign of 1812. Despite his apprehension at being separated from his wife, Adam was in no position to refuse his first major commission.
The offered lot is cleverly composed to rob Napoleon of the glory of his victory over the Russians outside Smolensk. A trail of corpses draws the viewer's gaze away from Napoleon, resplendent in the foreground on his white charger, to the city's burning outskirts. Behind the Emperor, his aide's uniform and horse reflect the flames. In the distance the Cathedral of the Assumption stands untouched by the fire and destruction wrought on the Smolensk by Napoleon's invading armies.
For Albrecht Adam, the razing of Smolensk was a visually spectacular occasion. His recollections of the battle's aftermath in his 1886 autobiography give a clue to the delicate light effects he uses:
"On the evening after the battle, one could see an eerily beautiful drama from our encampment; the city was in flames, and the evening sun mixed its glowing rays with the glare of the fire. The undergrowth and the slim birch trunks shimmered as if magically gilded. I never again saw such an enchanting play of light; even the smoke from our campfires took on a reddish hue, and gave the hustle and bustle in the forest a ghostly feel."
Following Napoleon's defeat in 1815, Adam eventually returned to Munich, his place of study, and gained initial recognition for the 83 small battle paintings and 100 lithographs based on his sketches from three years earlier. The offered lot dates from 1837, when he was comfortable and thriving from his commissions, as its grandeur and detail reveal. At the same time, Adam also completed 12 large battle scenes from Napoleon's Russian campaign for Maximilian, Duke of Leuchtenberg's palace in Saint Petersburg.
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