The Battle of Borodino

The Battle of Smolensk. Detail from the Borodino Panorama

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The “Borodino Battle” museum-panorama in Moscow is one of the most impressive monuments dedicated to the events of the 1812 war. It is located at the Victory Square between the Poklonnaya Hill, the place where Napoleon was waiting in vain for the keys from Moscow (the prostrated city as he thought), and the Arc of Triumph, which was built to honor the victory of the Russian soldiers over the Conqueror of Europe.

The museum is a large and rather unusual building made of glass, metal and stone, which emerged among other earlier monuments dedicated to the heroes of the 1812 war and became the main component of the architectural ensemble. Designed by architects Korabelnikov, Kuchanov, Kuzmin and designing engineer Avrutin the building was completed in less than 19 months.

Initially the museum was intended for the demonstration of only one exhibit, panorama "The Battle of Borodino", created in 1912 by Franz Roubaut, academician of painting and prominent battle painter. This outstanding masterpiece of battle-painting can be rightfully called a monument to the feat of arms accomplished by Russian warriors who had wiped out the invaders and liberated their Homeland.

Czar Nicolas II commissioned to create the panorama painting by the 100th anniversary of the Patriotic War. The painter was asked to capture the key moment of that war – a historic battle near the village of Borodino, 120 km west of Moscow after which the Chief Commander of the Russian Army field-marshal Mikhail Kutuzov had to make a difficult decision to leave Moscow to the French invaders. Then it seemed that Napoleon’s dream had come true. Before the Battle of Borodino he used to say: 'If I take Kiev, I would bind the legs of the Russian state. If I capture St. Petersburg, I would take it by the head, but only when capturing Moscow I would be able to seize its heart'.

The battle of Borodino lasted for 16 hours. In that battle both armies had an approximately equal number of troops from 100,000 to 150,000, so none of the armies had a significant advantage in numbers. The battle had many dramatic moments and Franz Roubaut depicted the most critical one.

In the museum a winding staircase leads us to the central part of the building. Standing at the viewing platform we can watch a 115 meter long circular painting around us. We see soldiers dressed in unusually bright uniforms. An unusual blueness of the sky which gets rosy on the horizon fills the room around us with an abundance of light. The greenness of the forest and gold colors of the fields create an image of the Motherland the Russian army is fighting for.

Nansouty's heavy cavalry attacks squares of Russian guardsmen to the left of Semyanovskaya (background) to support Ney's attack.
Detail from the Borodino Panorama by Franz Roubaud, 1912.

We witness the critical moment of the battle at 0.30 p.m. when General Dochturov arrives to the battle headquarters near the village of Semyonovskaya to take over General Bagration who is seriously wounded.

The village is burning, the enemy has augmented the fire but General Dochturov remains calm in the confusion of the battle maintaining a strong command over his troops. The soldiers of the Moscow and Astrakhan grenadier regiments are passing him by. In front of him behind the ravin there is a line of French canons which are firing at the Russian positions.

The Russian grenadiers are crossing the brook and attacking the enemies. Trying to break the defense of the Russian troops in the centre Napoleon uses his reserve troops. The combat in a rye-field begins on the southern slopes of the Kurgan Height. Saxon cuirassiers and Polish lancers are fighting against Russian dragoons and cuirassiers. A fierce battle is continuing on the top of the hill behind the clouds of smoke. At a distance on the Semyonovskaya height troops of the Izmailovsky regiment, Lithuanian and Finnish soldiers are repelling fierce attacks of the enemy’s cavalry.

Two field commanders Kutuzov near the village of Gorky and Napoleon near the Shevardino redoubt are watching the course of the battle. We see them on the background of the panorama, opposite one another. Napoleon is nervous, he is rushing. On the contrary Kutuzov is calm and confident. With his top coat on his shoulders, he is watching the combat in the valley of the river Kolomcha, which is to decide the battle’s outcome. Although Napoleon’s soldiers are still attacking we feel the heroic enthusiasm of the Russian soldiers. Rubaut’s painting carries a strong charge of realism. It glorifies the heroism of common Russian soldiers who defended the liberty of their country.

Ney's infantry push Russian grenadiers back from the flèches (which can be seen from the rear in the background). Detail from the Borodino Panorama.

Franz Roubaut worked on "The Battle of Borodino" from 1909 till 1912. By that time he was a well known for his panoramic paintings in Russia and abroad. In particular he painted such panoramas as “Storming of Achulgo” and “Siege of Sevastopol” and also many remarkable battle-paintings of smaller size. “The Battle of Borodino" became a paining of superb artistry, an anthem of glory to the Russian arms in the war against Napoleon.

"The Battle of Borodino" is a circular painting which is 115 meters long and 15 meters high. It weights about 4 tons. It is rightly one of the largest paintings in the world. The painter spent two years only on preparations: he studied the military archives, travelled to the battle field, spoke to people who had witnessed those events. The artistic goal he set for himself was “To awaken the feeling of a battle not a parade”. According to experts, Roubaut accomplished this goal brilliantly, creating a very realistic painting.

Visitors have the same feeling when they see the exhibits in the foreground which supplement the panoramas. There are the remains of a village, half ruined and burnt huts, logs and bricks. They look very authentic but in reality there aren’t any genuine items except for straw and grass. All the items are props, the soil is made of plaster but everything is made with such skill that sometimes it is very difficult to tell the divide between the props and the subjects. Moreover many subjects are present only by half, while the rest are painted on the picture. This creates an illusion of integrity.

For the first time the panorama painting was exhibited in a wooden building which was especially built for it according to the project by the military engineer colonel Pavel Vorontsov on the Chystoprudny Boulevard in the center of Moscow.

The panorama was opened in 1912 marking the 100th anniversary of the Borodino Battle. Franz Roubaut personally attended the opening ceremony. The panorama became enormously popular among Muscovites and visitors to the city. During World War I, the exhibition was temporarily closed. During 5.5 years 143,000 people visited the museum. However the wooden building decayed and was torn down.

After the panorama-museum was closed the enormous canvas was rolled up into a 16 meter roll and remained like that for several decades. When the experts unrolled it many years later they saw a terrible sight. The paints had dimmed, some parts of the canvas were rotten or bitten by rodents. Only the battle part had survived the original painting.

The renovators even thought that it would be better to repaint the whole painting but they decided to restore the original which was the more difficult way. The work began in 1949. A group of Soviet renovators headed by Pavel Korin and Evgeny Kudryavtsev fully replaced the foundation of canvas. Academician Mikhail Avilov was worked on the recreation of the subject in the foreground. In 1961, a group of painters headed by Ivan Evstigneyev was formed, who repainted the lost fragments of the battle scenes - about 1,000 square meters. The sky was also fully repainted. This is how the artists restored the unique artistic monument 50 years after its first exhibition.

On October 18, 1962, the new museum-panorama “The Battle of Borodino”opened for visitors. Since then the museum gets several thousands of visitors daily. That is the best proof of the enormous popularity of this artistic and historic monument glorifying the heroic events of the 1812.

Source & Copyright: The Voice of Russia
13 February, 2012