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Title: Interview of Napoleon I and Tsar Alexander I of Russia on the Niemen.
Author : VERNET Horace or Emile-Jean-Horace (1789 - 1863)
Creation date : 1807
Date shown: June 25, 1807
Dimensions: Height 35.5 - Width 62.5
Technique and other indications: Sepia ink, gouache
Storage place: National Museum of Malmaison Castle website
Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - M. André
Picture reference: 99-023567 / MM.40.47.6863
Interview of Napoleon I and Tsar Alexander I of Russia on the Niemen.
© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - M. André
Publication date: November 2011
A Franco-Russian thaw on the Niemen river
In 1801, the accession of Alexander I (1777-1825) after the assassination of his father Paul I brought great hope in Russia, and, in fact, the new tsar attempted to carry out major reforms. But the confrontation with Napoleonic France quickly became his priority.
After the defeat of Austerlitz in 1805, the Czar tried in vain to stop the French expansion. During the conflict between France and the Fourth Coalition, the Grand Army once again threatened the Russian borders when it reached the Niemen River on June 19, 1807 after Friedland's victory five days earlier.
Faced with the irresistible advance of a French ruler considered in St. Petersburg as a usurper, even as the Antichrist, Alexander is forced to come to terms with Napoleon. But if their meeting on the Niemen on June 25, 1807 and the ensuing Franco-Russian peace treaty, signed in Tilsit on July 7, redraw the map of Europe, they offer only a truce to the conflict.
Did the young French painter Horace Vernet (1789-1863) witness this encounter on the Niemen? Still, he represents it as early as 1807 with some accuracy.
A raft on the Niemen
On a median forming the foreground, soldiers of the Grande Armée are standing, some near a cannon aimed at the river and the opposite bank. Some discuss, others look down, towards the Niemen and the activity that reigns there.
A raft carrying two cabins is moored in the middle of the river. Boats join it: we can make out the silhouette of Napoleon at the prow of the one coming from the bank in the foreground (left bank); on the other, coming from the Russian shore, we can see that of Alexander.
Beyond this same very flat shore, reliefs appear which form the background of the composition.
The other witnesses to the scene are mainly soldiers from both armies, gathered on both shores.
A short truce
Vernet's drawing is preparatory to an engraving in reverse direction dedicated to Alexander. Debucourt realizes it from "the information [which] was gathered on the spot itself, with the greatest accuracy, and the site was copied from nature". Entitled Raft, the Journal of the Empire announced the sale on October 22, 1807.
In 1807, Horace Vernet was a young eighteen-year-old painter who had not yet started an official career (he did not obtain the Prix de Rome until 1810 and did not exhibit at the Salon du Louvre until 1812). However, he belongs to an illustrious family of artists: his grandfather, the landscape painter Joseph Vernet, was even one of the favorite painters of the Russian aristocracy.
It seems reasonable to think that a witness provided the necessary information to the artist who remained in Paris, which the traditional composition seems to betray, especially in the treatment of the foreground which serves as an introduction to the main scene. Moreover, no drawing of Vernet is preserved from later interviews with Tilsit where the two emperors shared the domination of continental Europe.
But, just as much as the tensions linked to the case of Poland or the Ottoman Empire, the insurmountable problems arising from the establishment in Russia of the blockade organized by Napoleon against England (the main economic partner of the Russian Empire) revived quickly the conflict.
The inevitable confrontation swept the Grand Army into Moscow in a war that was quickly perceived as a conflict of civilizations. After crossing the Niemen on June 24 and 25, 1812 and fighting in vain as far as Moscow, the Grand Army must retreat and, in the most disorderly fashion, cross the river again on December 13, 1812.
Twenty-nine years later, Vernet was invited to Russia by Alexander’s brother and successor, Nicholas I (1796-1855), who notably ordered a Review of the guard at the Tuileries (Hermitage, St. Petersburg), a painting about which he told her: "I will keep it in my study so that I always have the Emperor's guards in front of me, because they could have beaten us. "
- Bonaparte (Napoleon)
- Alexander I (Tsar)
- Great Army
Horace Vernet: 1789-1863, catalog of the exhibition of the Académie de France in Rome, École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, Paris, March-July 1980, Rome-Paris, De Luca-École des beaux-arts, 1980. Marie-Pierre REY, Alexander I, Paris, Flammarion, 2009.Sovereign destinies: Napoleon I, the Tsar and the King of Sweden, catalog of the exhibition at the Musée national du château de Compiègne, 23 September 2011-9 January 2012, Paris, R.M.N., 2011.Sovereign destinies: Josephine, Sweden and Russia, catalog of the exhibition at the Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison and Bois-Préau, September 24, 2011 - January 9, 2012, Paris, R.M.N., 2011.
To cite this article
Guillaume NICOUD, "The meeting of Napoleon and Alexander on the Niemen on June 25, 1807"