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Portrait of Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov

George Dawe


Oil on canvas

Mikhail Illarionovich Golenishchev-Kutuzov (1745-1813) was an outstanding Russian military leader, commander-in-chief in the Patriotic War against Napoleon (since August 1812), Prince of Smolensk and field marshal-general. In the portrait painted for the War Gallery of 1812, he is shown in the ordinary general's uniform and greatcoat with the sash and star of the Order of St Andrew the First-Called, the badges of the Russian Orders of St George and St Vladimir (both 1st class) and the Austrian Order of Maria Theresa, as well as a portrait of Alexander I.

Kutuzov was a pupil and comrade-in-arms of the famous Russian military leader Alexander Suvorov and participated in the Russo-Turkish wars of the 18th century. In the 1805 campaign against Napoleon he commanded the Russian forces in Austria and skilfully manoeuvred them away from the threat of encirclement. In the Russo-Turkish War of 180612 he was commander-in-chief of the Moldavian army (181112) and concluded the Bucharest peace treaty.

The invasion of 1812 found Kutuzov in St Petersburg. While the Russian armies to the west were led by Barclay de Tolly and Bagration, Kutuzov was elected head of the St Petersburg militia and then of the Moscow militia as well. After the surrender of Smolensk to the French, Alexander I was forced to concede to public opinion and pressure from the forces by appointing Kutuzov commander-in-chief of both armies. Hailed by the populace along his route, Kutuzov travelled to join his forces on 17 August 1812. Rejecting the suggestion that the Russians should immediately stand and fight the French, he continued to pull the army back for a few more days. On 26 August, near the village of Borodino, the main encounter of the Patriotic War of 1812 took place, when the Russian army of 155,000 men, including the volunteer militia, faced Napoleon's army of some 134,000 men. Kutuzov thwarted all Napoleon's efforts to achieve the decisive upper hand and successfully counter-attacked himself. At the cost of enormous losses the French managed to throw back the Russians on the left flank and in the centre, but having admitted the futility of further efforts Napoleon withdrew his men to their initial positions. In this battle the Russian army lost 44,000 men, while the French about 40,000.

Having learnt of the losses, Kutuzov ordered a withdrawal and, after the council of war in the village of Fili, he assumed responsibility for the decision to abandon Moscow to the enemy. However, by that time the Russian army had begun to swell with the arrival of reserves, while in the French rear a partisan struggle had been underway. By moving his forces to the village of Tarutino, Kutuzov cut off the enemy's route to the south where they might have obtained rations and forage. When Napoleon had realized his crucial situation, he sent an aide-de-camp to Kutuzov to propose peace negotiations, but Kutuzov replied that the war had just begun.

Napoleon left Moscow on 7 October and moved towards Maloyaroslavets, where Kutuzov had blocked his path and in a bloody battle forced the French to withdraw along the Smolensk road that they themselves had already destroyed. Going onto the counter-attack, the Russian army struck blows against the retreating French at Viazma, Liakhovo and Krasny. On 21 December, in his orders of the day, Kutuzov congratulated his forces on expelling the enemy from Russia. For his skilful leadership of the Russian army in 1812 he was awarded the rank of field marshal and the title of Prince of Smolensk. He was also awarded the Order of St George (1st class) and became the first full holder of this Russian military order.

When the Tsar joined his forces, Kutuzov gradually assumed a subsidiary role in the command. His health was failing and on 16 April 1813 he died in the Silesian town of Bunzlau (now Boleslawiec, Poland). His body was brought to St Petersburg where it was interred in the newly constructed Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan.




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