One of the participants in the Campaigns of Napoleon, Andrzej Niegolewski, recalled the charge in the Somosierra Gorge as an incessant climbing up. The painting by Piotr Michałowski may be considered an illustration of this subjective account of the battlefield.
As early as on the day following the victory of the Polish Light Cavalry in the battle over the Somosierra Gorge (on November 30, 1808), which opened the passage towards Madrid to the entire Napoleon’s army, manipulations of the representation of the battle started.
Napoleon was the first one. In the bulletin of the Napoleon’s army of December 2, the Battle of Somosierra was presented as a joint effort of the Polish and French troops. Only three names of the battle’s heroes were mentioned, including two Frenchmen: General Montbrun, the nominal head of the Polish forces, presented as being in charge of the offensive who, in fact, did not take part in the battle; and Lieutenant de Ségur, the only French soldier who actually participated in the offensive. Names of neither the head of the Cavalry Troop Jan Hipolit, who launched the charge, nor Lieutenant Andrzej Niegolewski, who brought it to a close and seized the last artillery battery, were mentioned. The only commemorated Polish name was that of Captain Jan Nepomucen Dziewanowski, who had been in charge of the major part of the offensive before he died from inflicted wounds.
In spite of the deep admiration for the Emperor, the actual conquerors protested against the content of the bulletin. Nonetheless, the avalanche was triggered. Each of the Polish Light Cavalrymen and their French companions tried to siphon off a bit of the glory covering the soldiers of the 3rd Cavalry Troop. None of the Polish soldiers went as far in their efforts as Lieutenant Wincenty Krasiński. As an originator of the Polish Light Cavalry and the head of their regiment, Krasiński wouldn’t come to terms with the fact that he did not participate in such a historic victory. In his letter to Zygmunt Vogel of December 20, 1808, Krasiński presented himself as the head of the victorious charge as well as the chase after the survivors of the Spanish army (in fact, he participated in it just for three days; the first fights, including the Battle of Somosierra, Krasiński spent next to the Emperor in the convoy, while a disease is said to have prevented him from participating in the subsequent phase of the military operations).
In early 1809, as soon as he got to Paris, Krasiński commissioned a painting depicting the marching out towards Somosierra from a famous painter of battle scenes Horace Vernet (due to his typical servility towards the authorities, he requested the figures of Montbrun and de Ségur to be depicted next to his own, consequently following the Emperor’s version of events). For many years, it was Vernet’s painting that shaped the image of the Battle of Somosierra. Krasiński was also depicted on a large number of works by the most diligent painter of the Battle of Somosierra, January Suchodolski, who was Krasiński’s adjutant in the 1820s.
There was no other painting representation of the battle known to the public until the work by Piotr Michałowski. And "other" in this context does not necessarily mean true. None of the paintings from the Somosierra series by Michałowski features a manipulated version of the events, but also none is, nor was, meant to be their faithful reconstruction. Michałowski already belonged to the next generation reaching maturity in the era of the Kingdom of Poland for which the Napoleonic Wars were a heroic myth rather than a real-life experience. Thus, his paintings related to Napoleonic themes do not provide an account but a legend.
Against the background of his generation, the voice of Michałowski takes on an exceptionally distinct overtone, which results not from the admiration for the Emperor, but from the painter’s unique style of expression. The extremely anti-classical, anti-academic, and to some extent revolutionary form of his paintings in the European context shows respect for the Polish soldiers serving in the Napoleon’s army. Such attitude was uncommon for the painter’s generation, which often expressed dislike for the veterans due to their opportunistic activities in the Kingdom of Poland, or even considered them traitors.
The exceptional character of Michałowski’s works results from his uncommon life experiences, so different from the biographies of other great artists of the Polish Romanticism. While Adam Mickiewicz and Seweryn Goszczyński were calling for revolution denying the order of the Holy Alliance, Michałowski was rebuilding the Polish statehood in cooperation with the generation of the Light Cavalry. While other members of his generation were creating their works, he was busy making a splendid career as a state official. When he was 27 years old, Michałowski took charge of the Polish metallurgy. He was part of the avant-garde of the young technocrats, who under the command of the Duke Drucki-Lubecki aimed at making Poland into a European economic power. The painter belonged to the influential Ostrowski family. The family’s head, Antoni (the former quartermaster of the army of Prince Józef Poniatowski), was both his brother-in-law and father-in-law. After the collapse of the uprising, Michałowski left for Paris together with his father-in-law, who was on a double exile as in the eyes of Poles the commander of Warsaw was found (not without reason) guilty of the failure to defend the capital. There, Michałowski returned to his initial passion, that is painting.
Since the very beginning the painter followed the path of Romanticism ignoring the major academic principles. Hence, such a great primacy of colour over drawing, unusual for those days. In pursuit of the inspiration from the works of his idol, Theodore Gericault, Michałowski studied at the workshop of the painter’s friend, who inherited part of the legacy from the prematurely dead master, Nicolas-Toussaint Charlet. Gericault’s painting style and the courage of his compositions were adopted by Michałowski but expressed in a different technique. Aside the drawing style, the technique of applying colours, typical for watercolours rather than oil painting, probably inspired by Charlet who focused on watercolours, was also exceptional. Some critics believe that the limited colour palette used by the painter resulted from his detachment from any art centre. From 1835 on the artist lived a life of a landowner in the estate of Krzyżtoporzyce and his native Bolestraszyce. Respected by his contemporaries more for his talents as a landholder and for his civic attitude rather than his artistic achievements, Michałowski painted with what was at hand. The limitation became his road to independence, which was more characteristic of the Classics rather than the Romantics.
Yet, the question arises whether the painting by Michałowski presents merely a legend. Certainly, it does not depict a realistic representation of the battle itself. The passage was wider and definitely not as steep and precipitous as the one on the paining. Nonetheless, General Józef Załuski, the most thorough researcher in the field of the battle’s history sent a letter of thanks to the painter. Even though the full reconstruction of the course of the battle by the veterans themselves took place in the 1850s, Załuski had been collecting information from his companions much earlier.
Since the painter was in hold of information from the veterans, why isn’t his work strictly documental? And why did the veterans, so sensitive to the accuracy of the account, considered him to be the chronicler of the battle? It is worth mentioning here the words of Andrzej Niegolewski, who would recall the charge as an incessant climbing up. If one was to illustrate his account, the effect would be similar to that created by the painting. In this context, Michałowski’s work becomes a one of its kind subjective account of the battlefield. It is a record of feelings of the participant in the charge shown in the third person, instead of the first. Above all, however, there are no individual heroes in this mass of attacking soldiers as if merging into one colourful streak. Michałowski returned the glory to the Light Cavalry, which in fact was a collective hero and a collective winner of the Battle of Somosierra.
oil on canvas, 81 x 65,5 cm
The National Museum in Kraków
Author: Konrad Niciński, November 2010.