For the invasion of the Russian Empire in 1812 Napoleon had assembled the largest army European history had seen. The campaign proved to be disastrous both for the Emperor's career and in terms of the sheer loss of life: of the 450,000 French troops that made up the majority of the his army, 300,000 died. With his depiction of a one-armed grenadier struggling to lead a blind cuirassier and his exhausted horse in the middle of an icy plain, Géricault here pays a fitting tribute to this enormous misadventure. The artist undoubtedly felt nostalgic for the Emperor's rule, at a time when the recently restored Louis XVII was persecuting all dissenters.
Published shortly after his return from a year's sojourn in Rome, and only a year before his famous painting The Raft of the Medusa, the present lithograph fuses the drama and rawness of a contemporary event with the timelessness of Classical Art.
Retour de Russie was created at a time when the full possibilities of the lithographic process was only just being realised. Some twenty years after Alois Senefelder's invention of 1798, many artists still considered the technique too difficult. Retour de Russie represents a major advance in the new medium, not least because of the use of different colour stones. The immediacy and looseness of the lithographic line, combined with a stark palette of black, white and grey, produces a quintessentially Romantic image of isolation and vulnerability.