The History of the Gallery
"I wanted to give France dominion over the whole world," Napoleon declared in 1814. As he won victory after victory on the Continent, he seemed to be irresistibly approaching his goal. By the time he attacked Russia, Napoleon had reached the apex of his might. On June 12, 1812 his advanced troops forced the Neman. "Russia is being enticed by fate," Bonaparte said in his order on the crossing of the Russian frontier. But the campaign into Russia was ‘fatal’ for the Grande Armee that was nearly wiped out, and the myth of Napoleon’s invicibility was shattered.
In 1814 Petersburg solemnly received the Emperor and his Guards upon their return from the campaigns abroad. The troops passed in ceremonial march through the Narva Triumphal Gates.
The War of 1812 was given the name ‘Patriotic’ and became the most brilliant chapter in Russian history and culture. Its events were commemorated in medals, St George banners and standards given as rewards, the names of new regiments and diverse monuments of architecture, painting and sculpture. In honour of the victory, in the capital of the Russian Empire an Alexander Column was put up on Palace Square and a Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan was built as a monument to the War of 1812 where many of the military trophies were placed. In 1813 Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov was buried in the Cathedral. Later the statues of Mikhail Kutuzov and Mikhail Barclay de Tolly were erected in front of the Cathedral.
Emperor Alexander I ordered a War Gallery of 1812 to be created in the Winter Palace. None of Europe’s palaces had a portrait gallery similar to the one that was to decorate the state residence of the Russian tsars. The ‘Waterloo Memorial Hall’, which was being created in the Windsor Palace in England at the same time, contained 28 portraits of kings, military leaders and diplomats. The War Gallery of 1812 in the Winter Palace was meant to display more than 300 portraits, and in the spring of 1819 the well-known English painter George Dawe was invited to arrive in Petersburg to do the portraits.
The War Gallery of 1812 was created in 1826 according to the project by Carlo Rossi in the main part of the Winter Palace. It comes just before the Grand Throne (St George’s) Hall. The walls of the gallery are decorated with 12 moulded laurel wreaths bearing the names of the most important battles of 1812-1814. More than 300 portraits show the heroes of the war against Napoleon, who lent glory to Russia by their feats.
In the second half of the 1830s, the Gallery received equestrian portraits of the King of Prussia Friedrich Wilhelm III, a work by the Berlin court painter Franz Krüger, and also of the Austrian Emperor Franz I, a work by the Vienna artist Peter Johann Krafft. The portrait of Alexander I done by George Dawe was replaced by Franz Krüger’s work.
The ceremonial portraits placed in the central part of the Gallery show Field Marshals Mikhail Kutuzov and Mikhal Barclay de Tolly, Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich and the Duke of Wellington who had received the title of Field Marshal of Russian armies after the victory at Waterloo in 1815.
The formal opening of the Gallery took place in the reign of Nicholas I, on the anniversary of the expulsion of the French from Russia, on December 25, 1826. The soldiers of the cavalry and infantry divisions solemnly marched through the Gallery beneath the portraits of the military leaders under whose command they valiantly fought in 1812-1814.
The original view of the Gallery was captured by the artist Grigory Chernetsov in a painting of 1827. A fire which broke out in December 1837 destroyed the interior decoration of all rooms and halls. The portraits of the War Gallery of 1812 were rescued by the guardsmen called to put out the fire. In 1838-1839 the Gallery was recreated, as well as all ceremonial halls of the palace, according to the project by Vasily Stasov who had somewhat changed its appearance.
In the Soviet period the Gallery received four portraits of court grenadiers painted by George Dawe in 1828 and two paintings done in the 1840s for the Winter Palace by the well-known battle-field painter Peter von Hess: The Borodino Battle and The Retreat of the French across the Berezina. The War Gallery of 1812 is a unique historical and artistic monument to Russia’s military glory.