Marcus C. Levitt

The Visual Polemic in Tolstoy’s War and Peace: Icons and Oil Paintings

A picture is worth a thousand words.
– Attributed to Napoleon


The phenomenon of Napoleon and Napoleonism that Tolstoy attacks in War and Peace is not only—arguably, not even primarily—a textual phenomenon. The cult of Napoleon was to a great extent a phenomenon created by the visual arts; portraits of Napoleon and of key moments in his career played a central role in promoting him as a “Great Man.” War and Peace contains numerous direct and indirect references to these images, and Tolstoy uses them to build his narrative. This paper analyzes two key pairs of scenes in which Tolstoy explicitly invokes Napoleonic visual images and undercuts them by juxtaposing them to Russian icons.


Recent critics have drawn attention to various aspects of the visual and visual art in Tolstoy’s works,1E.g., Amy Mandelker, Framing Anna Karenina: Tolstoy, the Woman Question and the Victorian Novel (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1993); Thomas Seifrid, “Gazing on Life’s Page: Perspectival Vision in Tolstoy,” PMLA 113, no. 3 (May 1998): 436–48; Sarah Beth Mohler, The Prosaics of the Mind’s Eye: Reader Visualization, Perspectival Engagement, and the Visual Ethics of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006); Molly Jo Brunson, “The War (and Peace) Between the Verbal and the Visual in Russian Literary and Painterly Realism” PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2009. but the role of paintings as what we may call “visual subtexts” has to the best of my knowledge never been discussed. This paper analyzes two of the most important and explicit of such cases, key scenes in War and Peace in which Tolstoy juxtaposes paintings on the French side with images of icons on the Russian side, explicitly undercutting Napoleonic visual propaganda.2Other works of Napoleonic history painting apart from those discussed in this article that may also be alluded to in War and Peace include those depicting: Tilsit (the meeting of Alexander and Napoleon on the raft, Napoleon awarding the Legion of Honor to a Russian soldier—see Jean Tulard with Alfred Fierro and Jean-Marc Léri, L’Histoire de Napoléon par la peinture [Paris: Belfond, 1991], 107, 109); the invasion (the crossing of the Niehmen by the Polish uhlans that started the war; Napoleon’s men, e.g., Murat “King of Naples”; Napoleon in Moscow and during the retreat: Napoleon’s philanthropy (ibid., 145, 177); the Moscow fire; the Battle of Berezina and the French retreat (ibid., 247). Such an analysis deepens our understanding of War and Peace and its artistic, intellectual, and cultural context, as a response to a long European philosophical and historiographical tradition which portrayed Russia as backward and barbarian and in need of civilization.3See Albert Lortholary, Le Mirage russe en France au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Boivin, 1951); Carolyn H. Wilberger, Voltaire’s Russia: Window on the East. Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century), vol. 164 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1976), 199–273; Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 373–4; Marcus C. Levitt, Early Modern Russian Letters: Texts and Contexts (Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2009), 339–57. It is very possible, even probable, that Tolstoy saw the paintings discussed below during his various visits to France (1857, 1860–61) during which he visited the Louvre, Versailles, and Fontainebleau. In any case, most or all these paintings were famous and widely reproduced. In the case of Gérard’s portrait of Napoleon’s son, there is also the possibility that the description of the painting in War and Peace was based on de Ségur’s memoirs and other descriptions of the painting. It also offers unique insight into the nature of Tolstoy’s “iconological” art.

The phenomenon of Napoleon and Napoleonism that Tolstoy attacks in War and Peace is not only a textual one, although scholars have described the large number of memoirs, diaries, histories, and other written sources which Tolstoy used in writing War and Peace.4Viktor Shklovskii, Mater’ial i stil’ v romane L’va Tolstogo “Voina i mir” (Moscow: Federatsiia, 1928; rpt. The Hague: Mouton, 1970); N. N. Ardens (Nikolai Nikolaevich Apostolov), Tvorcheskii put’ L. N. Tolstogo (Moscow: Akademiia nauk SSSR, 1962); Kathryn B. Feuer, Tolstoy and the Genesis of “War and Peace,” eds. Robin Feuer Miller and Donna Tussing Orwin (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996); Michael A. Pesenson, “Napoleon Bonaparte and Apocalyptic Discourse in Early Nineteenth-Century Russia,” The Russian Review 65, no. 3 (2006): 373–92; here 375; Dan Ungurianu, “The Use of Historical Sources in War and Peace,” in Tolstoy On War: Narrative Art and Historical Truth in “War and Peace,” eds. Rick McPeak and Donna Tussing Orwin (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012), 26–41. In its day, however, and even long after, Napoleon’s celebrity was to a great extent a phenomenon of the visual arts. Portraits of Napoleon played a central role in promoting key moments of his career as he wished to portray them.5Edgar Munhall, “Portraits of Napoleon,” Yale French Studies, no. 26 (1960): 3–20. Napoleon created what Albert Boime has described as a phenomenally successful “propaganda machine,” enlisting the talents of a cohort of painters whom he commissioned to create and spread his public image. The most famous of these were Jacques-Louis David, Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, François Gérard, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and Antoine-Jean Gros.

Prince Andrew, Napoleon, and the Amulet

The first cluster of images under consideration concerns Prince Andrew, whose view of Napoleon is shaped by visual images of him. In War and Peace’s opening scene, at Anna Scherer’s salon, Andrew recalls a series of central moments in the Napoleonic myth as reflected on canvas that shape his own imagination. A heated debate over Napoleon between Pierre and an émigré French vicomte serves as an overture to the work’s larger ideological issues. It focuses on Napoleon’s execution of the Duc d’Enghien and whether this killing may be justified or not. On the one hand, the vicomte describes Bonaparte’s despicable personal motives and dishonorable behavior; Napoleon eliminated a rival for the favors of Mlle. George (who turns up later in War and Peace giving performances that extol the virtues of incest). During the discussion Andrew quotes Napoleon’s words admiringly several times, and then concludes the discussion on a conciliatory note, suggesting the difference between public and private morality. He argues that:

in the actions of a statesman one has to distinguish between his acts as a private person, as a general, and as an emperor. So it seems to me. . . .One must admit . . . that Napoleon as a man was great on the bridge of Arcola, and in the hospital at Jaffa where he gave his hand to the plague-stricken; but . . . but there are other acts which it is difficult to justify. (18; 9: 26)6Page numbers in parentheses refer to: 1) Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace. The Maude Translation, Backgrounds and Sources, Essays in Criticism, ed. George Gibian, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996); and 2) the volume and page from Leo Tolstoy, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1929-1958), hereafter cited as PSS.

The conflict between public and private morality sounded here at the very start of War and Peace, as Ronald Sampson has noted,7Ronald Victor Sampson, Tolstoy: The Discovery of Peace (London: Heinemann, 1973), 140, 144. holds the seed of Tolstoy’s later pacifism and his insistence that there be no separation between the two, or rather, that personal morality is the single viable kind. Here, notably, Andrew defends public morals in the person of Napoleon, and cites two images basic to his myth, both depicted by Antoine-Jean Gros: Napoleon on the Bridge at Arcole, 17 November 1796 (1796–1801) and Napoleon Visits the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa [in the Pest House] (1804). (I say myth because, as we will see, both paintings were imaginative and propagandistic rather than documentary truth).

For Andrew, Arcola (Arcole) and Toulon are code words for individual heroic military action, emblematized by Napoleon on the Bridge at Arcole (fig. 1). Toulon was Napoleon’s first victory in the French revolutionary wars, when a siege forced the Anglo-Spanish fleet’s withdrawal from the city on December 17, 1793, for which he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general; in Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov refers to it as Napoleon’s first step toward greatness. Arcole is a town in Italy through which the French army passed during Napoleon’s Italian campaign of 1796. Apart from its being a portrait, Napoleon on the Bridge at Arcole offers no other documentary information; together with David’s painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps, it is arguably one of the two most famous images glorifying Napoleon as a military hero. The Arcole painting was a triumph for Gros and brought him to Napoleon’s attention; it secured his career. He went on to work as an official painter to Napoleon, accompanying him on his campaigns, and was appointed member of the commission to select works of art from Italy for the Louvre.

The painting associates the heroic both with bridges (crossing bodies of water), and with carrying a flag or banner on a standard into battle; and Tolstoy repeatedly plays with both elements in War and Peace (for example, during Nicholas’ “baptism of fire” on the Bridge at Enns, a debunking of military heroism, or at the slaughter at the Augesd Dam). Prince Andrew recalls Napoleon on the Bridge at Arcole as he repeatedly imagines his own heroic moment leading the troops into battle with a standard in his hands—and this is what he actually does at Austerlitz (229-30; 9: 323-24; cf. 9: 198, 218). In War and Peace, standards are not only the mark of the heroic, but also the mark of death.8Cf. Alyssa W. Dinega, “Bearing the Standard: Transformative Ritual in Gorky’s Mother and the Legacy of Tolstoy,” The Slavic and East European Journal 42, no. 1 (1998): 92. After the Battle of Schon Grabern, for example, when Tushin, the actual savior of the day, is summoned to the command center to account for having abandoned a canon, he symbolically stumbles over a standard. Prince Andrew, who alone appreciated Tushin’s true merit, nevertheless, at Austerlitz “could not look calmly at the standards of the passing battalions. Seeing them he kept thinking, ‘That may be the very standard with which I shall lead the army’” (238; 9: 335). Later that morning, as Andrew and a group of generals peer through the fog with a field glass trying to catch a glimpse of the enemy in the distance, the French suddenly appear right under their noses, charging up the hill at them. Andrew tries to stem the sudden panic this causes and rushes forward to save the day:

Fig. 1 Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon on the Bridge of Arcole (Bonaparte au Pont d’Arcole), 1796, oil on canvas, 130 × 94 cm. Versailles, Château de Versailles (artwork in the public domain; photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“Forward, lads!” he shouted in a voice as piercing as a child’s.

                  “Here it is!” thought he, seizing the staff and hearing with pleasure the whistle of bullets evidently aimed at him. (300; 9: 343)

This is a truly heroic moment—but an ephemeral one, because in Tolstoy’s “real” world (as opposed to heroic imaginings) bullets “meant for” the hero actually do cause suffering and death.

The second image Prince Andrew mentions at the salon—Napoleon Visits the Plague-Stricken at Jaffa (1804, also known as Napoleon in the Pest House at Jaffa)—was Gros’ first state project (fig. 2). While not precisely comparable to Arcole as a model for emulation, it also clearly shapes Prince Andrew’s heroic view of Napoleon. As we saw, Andrew admires Napoleon’s grand gestures, even as he acknowledges his morally questionable acts: “One must admit that Napoleon as a man was great on the bridge of Arcola, and in the hospital at Jaffa where he gave his hand to the plague-stricken; but . . . but there are other acts which it is difficult to justify” (18; 9: 96). Andrew here responds to his wife’s mention of the massacre of prisoners that Napoleon carried out during the Egyptian campaign. In fact, Napoleon Among the Plague-Stricken was a very purposeful propaganda ploy to sway public opinion and to draw attention away from the mass killings that had taken place in March 1799. In Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France, Thomas Crow remarks on the task facing Gros:

The artist’s new commission was both risky and shrewd. The French conquest of the Palestinian city had been followed by a ruthless execution of the surrendering Turkish troops, most of them hacked to death on the beach to save ammunition. The order had been rationalized on grounds of military necessity—many of them, it was said, had been released from earlier captivity on the pledge that they would not fight again—but the massacre remained one of the few atrocities of the Middle Eastern campaign that had never been successfully hidden or explained away. So for murder Gros substituted healing, using the painting to transform the most damaging element of Bonaparte’s reputation into an asset. Exploiting the outbreak of plague which had spread from the city’s Arab defenders to the victorious French . . . he showed the general fearlessly bringing the inspiration of his person to the victims. While an aide anxiously holds a handkerchief to his face, Bonaparte fearlessly extends his hand to touch the sore of one of his suffering soldiers.9Thomas E. Crow, Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 243–4.

Fig. 2 Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon Visits the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa (Bonaparte visitant les pestiférés de Jaffa), 1804, oil on canvas, 532 × 720 cm. Paris, Musée du Louvre (artwork in the public domain; photo: Wikimedia Commons)

There were also rumors that during the plague the French had themselves poisoned the sick so as not to have to deal with them. We know from Tolstoy’s notebooks of 1857 that he was well aware of the Jaffa incident; he notes that 4,000 men were slain.10PSS 47: 205. Crow and other analysts note how Napoleon Among the Plague-Stricken was purposefully aimed not only at spreading the Napoleonic myth (the fearless leader, his Christ-like healing of the sick), but also aimed at reassuring its French audience, including French troops who were themselves sick with the plague.11Albert Boime, Art in an Age of Bonapartism, 1800-1815. Vol. 2 of Social History of Modern Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 86. The painting plays upon the familiar Enlightenment visual discourse of the triumph of science and medicine over barbarian ignorance and fear, and also makes use of the visual language of orientalism.12Crow, Emulation, 245

Although not explicitly mentioned in War and Peace, Jacques-Louis David’s Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Mt. St.-Bernard, May 20, 1800 (1800–01) (fig. 3) was the greatest image of the Napoleonic myth and most famously displayed the Enlightenment theory of the Great Man, which Tolstoy’s novel set out to debunk. There were five versions of David’s monumental equestrian portrait, with differing colorations, of which four survive. Napoleon commissioned this “frankly propagandistic” work13Boime, Art in an Age of Bonapartism, 39. from David and it is generally considered both his “most brilliant and successful” and “uncompromisingly heroic.”14Dorothy Johnson, Jacques-Louis David: Art in Metamorphosis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 179, 183. Four years later, David, by that time the most famous painter in France, was appointed “artistic director to the First Consul” and led a whole cohort of artists to help shape Napoleon’s mythic image.15Johnson, Jacques-Louis David, 175. He not only worked “on demand” and earned large commissions, but also made changes in his completed works as requested by Napoleon and his advisors (e.g., in the case of the coronation painting, although Johnson suggests that David was moving “from homage to subversion”16Ibid., chapter 4.).

Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Mt. St.-Bernard was David’s first and most famous image of Napoleon; the idea for the painting was Napoleon’s own, and it was explicitly meant as an expression of the theory of the Great Man, to which David subscribed.17Ibid., chapter 2. The painting depicts Napoleon’s crossing of the Alps before the victory of Marengo in June 1800, literally and figuratively the high point of his military successes. Boime sees “hybridized tension” between “realistic” and mythical-magical elements in this obviously propagandistic oeuvre.18Boime, Art in an Age of Bonapartism, xxvi, 38. Even in its title, Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Mt. St.-Bernard, May 20, 1800 clearly pretends to be a history painting, yet the story it tells of Napoleon mastering nature and his wild-eyed stallion, representing him as the greatest of Great Men, is largely fictional. Napoleon actually crossed the Alps on a mule with the rear guard and was led by a peasant guide; further, historians attribute the victory of Marengo to a stroke of luck that followed a series of French blunders.19Ibid., 40–1.

Fig. 3 Jacques-Louis David, Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Mt. St.-Bernard, May 20, 1800 (also known as Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass or Bonaparte Crossing the Alps; and as Le Premier Consul franchissant les Alpes au col du Grand Saint-Bernard), 1801, oil on canvas, 261 × 221 cm. Rueil-Malmaison, Château de Malmaison (artwork in the public domain; photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Fig. 4 Jacques-Louis David, Drawing of Falconet’s Peter the Great. Paris, Musée du Louvre (image from Dorothy Johnson, Jacques-Louis David: Art in Metamorphosis [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993])

Curiously, David’s paean to the Great Man theory of history had a Russian source: Etienne Falconet’s famous equestrian statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg (the Bronze Horseman, 1766–68; erected 1782). Falconet was one of the contributors to the philosophical and artistic discourse of the grand homme, and he saw the glorification of great men as the most noble goal of sculpture.20On Falconet’s pursuit of greatness, see Marcus C. Levitt, “O ‘velikosti’ Ekateriny,” Literaturnaia kul’tura Rossii XVIII veka, 6: Petra Philologica; Professoru Petru Evgen’evichu Bukharkinu ko dniu shestidesiatiletiia, eds. N. A. Gus’kov, E. M. Matveev, M. V. Ponomareva (St. Petersburg: Nestor-Istoriia, 2015), 41–56. To appear in English as “On Catherine’s Greatness” in The Enlightened Gaze: Gender, Power, and Visual Culture in Eighteenth-Century Russia, ed. Asen Kirin. Athens, GA: Georgia Museum of Art, forthcoming. According to Dorothy Johnson the Bronze Horseman was the most important model for David’s painting.21Johnson, Jacques-Louis David, 76–7. Although David never visited St. Petersburg, there exists his sketch of Falconet’s work, evidently based on other depictions of the famous monument (fig. 4). The theory of the “Great Man of History” became extremely topical again in 1860s Russia, at the time when Tolstoy was writing War and Peace, as one of the questions that sharply divided Russian thinkers.22For an idiosyncratic recent discussion of the issue in War and Peace, see Jeff Love, “The Great Man in War and Peace,” in Tolstoy On War: Narrative Art and Historical Truth in “War and Peace,” eds. Rick McPeak and Donna Tussing Orwin (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012), 85–97. The issue—briefly—was: is the “Great Man” the creator of morality or subject to an absolute, universal ethical standard? The so-called “radical thinkers” (who laid the ideological foundation for the revolutionary movement) argued that morality is something historically conditioned and relative; one source for this idea was Napoleon III’s Histoire de Jules César, 1865, published in Russian in the same year.23Adele Lindenmeyer, “Raskolnikov’s City and the Napoleonic Plan,” Slavic Review 35, no. 1 (1976): 37–47; reprinted in Robert Louis Jackson, ed., Dostoevsky: New Perspectives (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984). Dostoevsky famously treated this question in Crime and Punishment (1866), in which Raskolnikov, a proto-Nietzschen Übermensch, justifies himself repeatedly as a Napoleon, and tests the possibility of going beyond good and evil by committing murder.24On this and other images of Napoleon in Russian literature, see Robert L. Jackson, “Napoleon in Russian Literature,” Yale French Studies 26 (1960):106–18 and Molly W. Wesling, Napoleon in Russian Cultural Mythology (New York: Peter Lang, 2001); cf. Pesenson, “Napoleon Bonaparte and Apocalyptic Discourse.” Tolstoy goes even further in the same direction and puts the actual historical Napoleon himself under the microscope as one of the major characters in War and Peace.

This brings us back to Prince Andrew, and the moment when he finally meets Napoleon in person. This is probably the most explicit moment when the Great Man theory is “made strange,” to use Viktor Shklovsky’s term, as well as (we may add) made evil. After Andrew falls wounded at the Battle of Austerlitz, we find him half dead, lying beside his coveted standard (described again as a drevko znameni, or flagstaff) now shorn of the banner, which the French have taken as a trophy. Napoleon looks over the Russian dead and wounded. Notably, it is the anniversary of his coronation as emperor, and he wears the same blue cloak that he had worn at Arcole during the Italian campaign (237; 9: 334). He strolls the blood-soaked field:

“Fine men!” remarked Napoleon, looking at a dead Russian grenadier, who, with his face buried in the ground and a blackened nape, lay on his stomach with an already stiffened arm flung wide. . . .[H]aving gone a few steps, he stopped before Prince Andrew, who lay on his back with the flagstaff that had been dropped beside him. (The flag had already been taken by the French as a trophy.)

“That’s a fine death!” said Napoleon as he gazed at Bolkonski.

Prince Andrew understood that this was said of him and that it was Napoleon who said it. He heard the speaker addressed as Sire. But he heard the words as he might have heard the buzzing of a fly. Not only did they not interest him, but he took no notice of them and at once forgot them. His head was burning, he felt himself bleeding to death, and he saw above him the remote, lofty, and everlasting sky. He knew it was Napoleon—his hero—but at that moment Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant creature compared with what was passing between [his soul] and the lofty infinite sky with the clouds flying over it . . . (253; 9: 356–7)

Prince Andrew sees the sky and experiences a paradigmatic Tolstoyan epiphany.25Cf. Richard F. Gustafson, Leo Tolstoy, Resident and Stranger: A Study in Fiction and Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 63–4. The heroic Napoleon of Gros’ depictions and Andrew’s imagination is now contrasted to the “actual” Napoleon (that is, Tolstoy’s Napoleon)—whom Andrew now sees (in the narration’s scathing erlebte Rede) as “that little Napoleon [who] had suddenly appeared with his unsympathizing look of short-sighted delight at the misery of others” (255; 9: 360). To Andrew, Napoleon’s petty, earthly vanity—the vanity of the heroic—is contrasted with the heavens, which alone “promised peace” (ibid.).

Napoleon is thus sharply devalued by Prince Andrew’s new vision, emblematized on the one hand as the sky before which he realizes the insignificance of earthly greatness, and on the other, connected to an icon. After Napoleon visits Andrew, the French soldiers return to him a “little gold icon” (zolotoi obrazok) on a fine gold chain which they had stolen from him as he lay unconscious, thus symbolically reiterating his return to life, and the return, or discovery, of a true (or truer) understanding of existence. Andrew muses:

“It would be good,” thought Prince Andrew, glancing at the icon his sister had hung around his neck with such emotion and tenderness, “it would be good if everything were as clear and simple as it seems to Mary. How good it would be to know where to seek for help in this life, and what to expect beyond the grave! How happy and calm I should be if I could now say, ‘Lord, have mercy on me!’ . . . But to whom should I say that? Either to a Power indefinable, incomprehensible, which I not only cannot address but which I cannot express in words,—the Great All or Nothing—” said he to himself, “or that God who has been sewn into this amulet by Mary! . . .” (255; 9: 359)

Andrew is referring back to the scene when, as he left for war, Princess Mary had given him this icon, which she says their father and grandfather had worn in battle, and which she begs him never to remove. Hence the return of the icon also returns to Andrew his paternal legacy, and his family, which he had been ready to trade away for a moment of glory.

Prince Andrew ironically refers to “that God who has been sewn into this amulet (zashit, v etoi ladonke) by Mary.” Etymologically, an amulet or “little sack” (ladonka, also: ladanke) derives from ladan, incense (labdanum or ladanum in English), used during Orthodox mass, but commonly denotes a small bag used to hold an icon and worn around the neck together with a cross. The practice thus has various specific Orthodox religious associations. In the earlier scene which Prince Andrew recalls, Princess Mary’s gift is described as an “ancient little oval icon of the Savior with a black face in a silver frame on a silver chain of fine work” (91; 9: 131). Curiously, the French steal a silver framed icon on a finely worked silver chain and return a gold icon on a fine gold chain. Perhaps Tolstoy thought of the icon and chain as gold in the second scene to better dramatize the object’s theft and return, or perhaps to underscore Andrew’s epiphany (insofar in the Orthodox tradition gold represents “the absolute metaphor for light” and light is “the absolute metaphor for God”26Iu. A. Fedorov, “Besedy o tserkovnom iuvelirnom iskusstve: Beseda 5. Simvolika zolota i serebra v tserkovnom iuvelirnom iskusstve,” Or perhaps Tolstoy simply dozed. His description of an “ancient little oval icon of the Savior with a black face” does not refer to a specific icon type; the epithet “with a black face” (s chernym likom) is repeated later in War and Peace both in reference to the icon of the Mother of God Natasha later sees in church (585; 11: 70) and to the Smolensk Mother of God paraded before the troops (discussed below). Icons as having dark or black faces are somewhat of a cliché in Russian culture, referring to the fact that, as with the icon Natasha sees in church, they collected soot from the innumerable lamps and candles burned in front of them. The question of which specific icon of Christ the Savior Princess Mary presents to Andrew fades before Mary’s revelation of its divine force and before Mary’s own person as itself transfigured by love.

“Against your will He will save and have mercy on you and bring you to Himself, for in Him alone is truth and peace [istina i uspokoenie],” said she in a voice trembling with emotion, solemnly holding up in both hands before her brother a small, oval, antique, dark-faced icon of the Saviour in a silver setting, on a finely wrought silver chain. She crossed herself, kissed the icon, and handed it to Andrew.
“Please, Andrew, for my sake! . . .”

Rays of gentle light shone from her large, timid eyes. Those eyes lit up the whole of her thin, sickly face and made it beautiful. Her brother would have taken the icon, but she stopped him. Andrew understood, crossed himself and kissed the icon. There was a look of tenderness, for he was touched, but also a gleam of irony on his face. (91; 9: 131)

Princess Mary’s stance, gestures, and especially the gentle rays of light emanating from her eyes clearly suggest an icon, as do her physical features, transformed (transfigured) by the inner spiritual force shining through them, overcoming physical weakness to reveal inner beauty. Similarly, Mary’s statement to Prince Andrew—“Against your will He will save and have mercy on you and bring you to Himself, for in Him alone is truth and peace”—is both saturated with biblical and patristic echoes and traceable to no single source.27For example, Matt. 11:28, 30: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest . . . For my yoke is easy (Priidite ko Mne, vse truzhdajushhiesia i obremenennye, i Ia uspokoiu vas… Ibo igo moe blago, i bremia moe legko)”—by the way, often accompanying icons; and the start of Ephrem the Syrian’s commentary on the Diatessaron: “For our Lord was to be the abode of all blessings . . . so that all people, as if on wings, would ascend to Him and find peace in Him alone (Ibo Gospodu nashemu nadlezhalo byt’ pristanishhem vsekh blag . . . daby vse ljudi, kak by na kryl’iah, voznosilis’ k Nemu i v Nem odnom nahodili uspokoenie),” Furthermore, the theme of peace—uspokoenie (comfort, solace, pacification, calm) clearly reinforces that of peace—mir (the “peace” of the novel’s title, which has multiple meanings and associations) that, as critics have argued, forms the center of the work’s entire conception.28See Gustafson, Leo Tolstoy, Resident and Stranger, 40–1n. for the literature on this question.

The King of Rome and the Mother of God

A second juxtaposition of French and Russian images occurs on the eve of the Battle of Borodino when the Russian army’s veneration of the icon of the Smolensk Mother of God is set against François Gérard’s portrait of Napoleon’s son, the so-called “King of Rome” which is simultaneously displayed before Napoleon’s troops. In Tolstoy’s depiction, the icon procession and the Russian soldiers’ veneration of the icon are seen through Pierre’s naive, defamiliarizing eyes, as he attempts to understand what war is about. In watching the faces of the soldiers at prayer, Pierre learns something special about war and the spirit of the Russian people, something he had begun to realize at Mozhaisk, and which Prince Andrew interprets for him later that night. Andrew explains why one army wins and another loses: despite all calculations, preparations, and rational material advantages, what counts is the men’s inner, spiritual strength (688–91; 11: 207–210; this view is shared by Kutuzov [718; 11: 247]).

The icon in this case is a very specific one, and of very special importance—the “Smolensk little mother” (Smolenskaia matushka, 679; 11: 195) as one soldier calls it, correcting another who calls it the “Iverskaia” (fig. 5). The Smolensk Mother of God is also referred to earlier as “the wonder-working icon of Smolensk” (622; 11: 117) that had been rescued from the city when it fell to the French. It is described here as a “big icon in a frame with a black face” (bol’shuiu, s chernym litson v oklade, ikonu, PSS 11: 194); one French memoirist refers to it as the “Black Virgin,” rescued from the flames of Smolensk.29Paul Britten Austin, 1812: The March on Moscow (London: Greenhill Books; Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1993), 265 As noted, the image of icons as dark-faced was widespread. That the icon was believed to have miraculous salvational power is grounds for French memoirists’ irony regarding Russian “idolatry.” They describe the icon procession and General Kutuzov’s patriotic speech to the troops and use it as opportunity to denounce Russian peasant soldiers as ignorant fanatics and idol-worshippers. For example, the Comte de Ségur remarks deprecatingly that “Heaven is the only country left to the enslaved,30Philippe-Paul de Ségur, Napoleon’s Russian Campaign (Histoire de Napoléon et de la Grand-Armée pendant l’année 1812 [1824]), trans. J. D. Townsend (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1958), 60.” and Napoleon himself is quoted as saying to Rapp: “Good, they’re occupying themselves with tomfoolery and won’t escape us any longer.”31My initial presumption in looking at the contrasts between Western paintings and Russian icons in the text of War and Peace was that Tolstoy was setting up a binary contrast for maximum effect. As in the case of the amulet, he contrasts a profane Western image to a sacred Russian one. On examination of the source materials (French memoirs of 1812), however, I found that the ideological bias manifested itself even more strongly here than in Tolstoy. Clearly, what Tolstoy did was reproduce the basic historiographical opposition but reverse the axiological signs. In the Orthodox tradition, all icons, of course, are holy and thus potentially miraculous, but in the Russian tradition, this specific icon was seen as the protector of the city, and by extension, of Russia. “Little mother” not only refers to Mary but also suggests “mother Russia,” and connects to the novel’s web of references to mothers and to Russia as a feminine principle (on which more below). In Russian church tradition, the Smolensk Mother of God icon is associated not only with the very beginnings of Christianity but also with the origins of icon painting.32T.M. Bogoslovskii, “Tikhvinskaia i Smolenskaia ikony Bozhiei Materi,” Zhurnal Moskovskoi Patriarkhii, no. 1 (1945): 37–40; for more scholarly background, see the many references to the icon in the Pravoslavnaia entsiklopedia (Moscow: Tserkovno-nauchnyi Tsentr “Pravloslavnaia entisklopeidiia”, 2000). The appearance of Bogoslovskii’s article (and the inaugural issue of the journal in which it appeared) were obviously connected to another invasion of Russia. It is of the Byzantine “Hodigitria” type, meaning “she who points the way,” named after the imperial Byzantine monastery of Hodegon. Tradition maintains that it was based on an original portrait of the Virgin by St. Luke which came to be kept there; Luke is supposed to have sent the icon along with the text of his gospel to Antioch, from where it was transferred to Constantinople in the fifth century.33Images of “St. Luke Painting the Virgin” are common in both the Eastern and Western Christian traditions. They are among the most famous of what we may call “meta-icons,” icons that provide confirmation of their divine status. The icon was believed to have been brought to Russia by Anna, daughter of the Byzantine emperor, whose marriage to Grand Prince Vladimir sealed Russia’s conversion to Christianity in 988, or, alternately, as the possession of another Anne, who married Prince Vsevolod of Chernigov in 1046.34Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, trans. G. E. H. Palmer and E. Kadloubovsky, 2nd ed. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983), 81. According to legend, Grand Prince Vladimir Monomakh gave it to the Smolensk cathedral in 1101. However, when we speak of the icon “the Smolensk Mother of God” we are referring to an icon type, or series, not one particular icon: the earliest surviving icon of this sort is dated to the fourteenth century.

Fig. 5 Dionisy (Dionisius), Smolensk Mother of God, 1482, tempera on panel, 135 x 111 cm. Moscow, State Tretyakov Gallery (artwork in the public domain; photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It is a very solemn, imperial image: Mary is standing, holding the baby Jesus in her arms (he is not sitting in her lap); she wears royal clothing, with gold trim and decoration. Her cowl (maphorion) with three stars symbolizes perpetual virginity; baby Jesus is in a himation woven of gold; Archangels Michael and Gabriel are to her right and left. As noted, the icon was considered an historical protector of the city of Smolensk, and by extension, of Russia. This aspect of the icon’s rich associations is illustrated by the well-known late-fifteenth-century Novgorod school icon called “The Battle Between the Men of Novgorod and Suzdal” (fig. 6, fig. 7). The icon symbolizes or personifies the city, so that to attack the icon is equivalent to attacking the city; and as the icon in question is of the Virgin and child, to attack the city is also an assault on God, an act of iconoclasm.

Fig. 6 The Battle Between the Men of Novgorod and Suzdal, 1460s, tempera on panel, 165 x 120 cm. Novgorod, The Museum of History, Architecture and Art (artwork in the public domain; photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Fig. 7 Detail of fig. 6, The Battle Between the Men of Novgorod and Suzdal

In 1812, the Smolensk Mother of God thus became a symbol of national liberation. In French memoirists’ descriptions of the icon being brought before the Russian troops, Kutuzov gives a ferocious and violent speech to the troops; in Tolstoy’s version of the scene Kutuzov is silent, and we hear only a few words of the service intoned by the priest and his subordinates. Through Pierre’s eyes we see the soldiers’ serious concentration; Kutuzov appears among them as one of the prayerful host; the soldiers make way for him but “continued their prayers without looking at him,” nor does Kutuzov pay attention to anything but his devotions (680; 11: 197). He sinks to the ground on his knees before the icon when the service is over and has trouble rising “on account of his weakness and weight” (ibid.). He is thus clearly contrasted to Napoleon in the following scene who pays great attention to his pampered, scented, corpulent body, with false modesty and pretentious attempts at attention-getting.

The veneration of the Smolensk Mother of God also parallels and recalls Natasha’s salvation before another “dark-faced icon of the blessed Virgin” in Moscow. Her seduction and near abduction by the incestuous, Frenchified Anatole Kuragin, followed by an attempted suicide, parallel the fate of Russia: its near seduction by Napoleonism, subsequent invasion and the destruction of Moscow. This reflects both two contrasting female images, one Russian (virginal, chaste, motherly, agapic) and one Western (involving evil sexuality: incest, rape, adultery; or disingenuously sentimentalized),35As in Napoleon’s desire to dedicate charitable institutions in Moscow to his mother or Mlle. Bourienne’s self-serving references to her “pauvre mère.” and the working out of an allegory. Like Natasha, a woman who has lost her virtue but not her chastity, Moscow (Russia) is taken but not violated, and the evil principle is overcome.36My colleague Alik Zholkovsky noted that Tolstoy likens Moscow to a hive abandoned by a queen bee, and that the word for queen bee (matka) may also refer to a human womb or uterus. It may also serve as a colloquial synonym for matushka (“little mother”).

Fig. 8 François Gérard, Portrait of Napoleon II as an Infant (Portrait de Napoléon II, enfant), or Napoleon-François, King of Rome (Napoléon-François, roi de Rome), 1812, oil on canvas, 60 x 49 cm. Versailles, Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles (artwork in the public domain; photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Fig. 9 Charlie Chaplin as a Jewish barber who finds himself taken for the dictator Adenoid Hynkel (i.e. Adolf Hitler) in The Great Dictator, 1940. He does a graceful ballet with the globe until it pops in his face (artwork in the public domain; photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Both French memoirists and Tolstoy juxtapose the veneration of the Smolensk Mother of God to Napoleon and his army’s veneration of another painted image on the eve of Borodino: François Gérard’s Portrait of Napoleon II as an Infant, also known as Napoleon-François, King of Rome (1812) (fig. 8). The memoirist M. de Bausset (also known as Beausset or Baron Louis-François-Joseph de Bausset-Roquefort) has brought this painting to Napoleon all the way from Paris to the headquarters at Valuevo as a present from the Empress Maria Theresa. Shklovsky analyzes the scene in some detail, giving its various sources (Thiers, Bausset, Ségur, Chambray) in parallel columns.37Shklovskii, Mater’ial i stil’, 182. He basically sees it as another example of ostranenie (“making strange”)—Tolstoy depicting Napoleon at his most affected, creating an archly “historic” moment, feigning paternal tenderness. Napoleon then offers the picture for his troops’ admiration; the old guard’s shouts of “Vive l’Empereur!” and “Vive le Roi de Rome!” recall the suicidal Polish Uhlans whose act of insane self-destruction, drowning in the attempt to cross the Niemen in order to impress Napoleon, had signaled the start of the invasion. In contrast to the humble Russians, the symbolism in both cases is that of a false communion around an anti-Christ, an ersatz “King of Rome,” leading to death and perdition. The title apparently refers to the short-lived “Republic of Rome” that Napoleon had established in 1798, but which lasted less than two years. It suggests both papism (insofar as popes had been the kings of Rome for most of the previous several hundred years, and subsequently up through 1870, when Rome became the capital of a united Italy)38The papacy, however, did not acquiesce to this situation until 1929. and a usurpation of spiritual authority, whether by Napoleon or by popes.

Gérard’s painting later hung in Napoleon’s room in the Kremlin but was lost during the retreat; Gérard made several copies, one of which survives at Versailles. This is how Tolstoy describes the picture in War and Peace:

It was a portrait, painted in bright colors by Gérard, of the son borne to Napoleon by the daughter of the Emperor of Austria, the boy whom for some reason everyone called “the king of Rome.” (870; 11, 213)

For some reason underscores the uncertainty of the title, more honorific than real. The portrait was “of the son borne to Napoleon by the daughter of the Emperor of Austria,” that is, from Tolstoy’s perspective, of the illegitimate fruit of Napoleon’s second marriage to “the daughter of the Austrian Emperor” (i.e., not the Empress of France, insofar as Josephine had retained that title). Earlier, Tolstoy noted that on May 29, 1812, Napoleon left Dresden, “having, as his historian tells us, tenderly embraced the Empress Marie Louise—who regarded him as her husband, though he had left another wife in Paris—[and] left her grieved by the parting…” (539; 11, 80). The description of Gérard’s painting continues:

A pretty, curly-headed boy with a look of the Christ in the Sistine Madonna was depicted playing at stick and ball [igraiushchim v bil’boke]. The ball represented the terrestrial globe and the stick in his other hand a scepter.

Though it was not clear what the artist meant to represent by depicting the so-called King of Rome spiking the earth with a stick, the allegory apparently seemed to Napoleon, as it had done to all who had seen it in Paris, quite clear and convincing.
“The King of Rome!” he said, pointing to the portrait with a graceful gesture. “Admirable!” (694-95; 11, 213)

Comparing Gérard’s portrait to Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (1513) underscores the theme of the boy as a pseudo-Christ, suggesting the blasphemy of Napoleonic pretensions. The assertion that the boy is playing at spike and ball (Fr., bilboquet) with the earthly sphere might be taken at first as another example of shrewd Tolstoyan ostranenie, conjuring up the famous scene of Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (fig. 9), but again we find that this reference comes from the French sources. Nevertheless, Tolstoy’s sardonic comment (“Though it was not clear what the artist meant to represent . . . , the allegory apparently seemed to Napoleon, as it had done to all who had seen it in Paris, quite clear and convincing”) drives home the point.

Icons and Oil Paintings

However, Tolstoy seems to draw no stylistic juxtaposition between icons and paintings, apart, perhaps, from the contrast between the “dark faces” of the icons and in the case of Napoléon-François, King of Rome its “bright colors.” Tolstoy, typical for his age, considered icons primarily as symbols or objects of veneration; the “discovery” of icons as aesthetic artifacts only began in the early twentieth century.39On the change in the Russian perception of icons that began in the early twentieth century, see Natalia Murray, “The Role of the ‘Red Commissar’ Nikolai Punin in the Rediscovery of Icons,” in Modernism and the Spiritual in Russian Art: New Perspectives, eds. Louise Hardiman and Nicola Kozicharow (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2017), 213–28; see also Wendy Salmond, “Pavel Tretiakov’s Icons,” in From Realism to the Silver Age. New Studies in Russian Artistic Culture. Essays in Honor of Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier, eds. Rosalind P. Blakesley and Margaret Samu (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2014), 123–40. Hans Belting analyzes the “non-aesthetic” approach to icons, seen in a historical perspective (Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). Andrew Spira traces the interconnection between icons and modern Russian art (Andrew Spira, The Avant-Garde Icon: Russian Avant-Garde Art and the Icon Painting Tradition (Burlington, VT: Lund Humphries, 2008). Tolstoy’s comparison between Gérard’s King of Rome and Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (fig. 10, fig. 11) relates specifically to the boy’s facial expression and serves as criticism of the former work’s ethical vacuity rather than its aesthetic value. As Francis Randall has noted, for nineteenth–century Russians Raphael’s Madonna “represented the greatest and most important painting in the world . . . for most Russians, it stood alone.”40Francis B. Randall, Vissarion Belinskii. Russian Biography Series, 12 (Newtonville: Oriental Research Partners, 1987), 99. Novalis and Hegel had defined it as the zenith of aesthetic perfection and it served as “a kind of icon of Russian romanticism,” the highest achievement and symbol of Renaissance culture.41James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe; An Interpretive History of Russian Culture. New York: Knopf, 1966.), 348, 738; cf. Irene Pearson, “Raphael as Seen by Russian Writers from Zhukovsky to Turgenev,” The Slavonic and East European Review 59, no. 3 (1981): 346–69. Even Belinsky in his later radical left Hegelian phase, while denying the existence of (as he put it) “pure, abstract, unconditional, or, as the philosophers say, absolute art,” was nevertheless prepared to admit that the sixteenth-century Italian school of painting as exemplified by the Sistine Madonna “in some degree approximated the ideal.”42Randall, Vissarion Belinskii, 102. The “radical critics” of the 1860s, however, with their unconditional rejection of “absolute” art, did not spare Raphael, and turned his name into a buzzword for false aesthetic authority. In Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1861), for example, the nihilist Bazarov declares that “Raphael is not worth a brass farthing (mednyi grosh)” and in 1865 Pisarev, the enfant terrible of the radical critics, wrote Raphael off as “lackey of luxury” who “very willingly prostituted his creative thought.”43Pearson, “Raphael,” 363–4.

Fig. 10 Raphael, The Sistine Madonna, 1512–13, oil on canvas, 265 × 196 cm. Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (artwork in the public domain; photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Fig. 11 Detail of Raphael, The Sistine Madonna (fig. 10)

While Tolstoy scorned the radical critics, his comparison between Gérard’s King of Rome and Raphael’s Sistine Madonna does not suggest that he was taking sides in this debate. Yet there was, perhaps, a latent contrast of the type made by Pavel Florensky between the fleshly, material nature of oil painting (epitomized in the Renaissance)44Pavel Florensky, Iconostasis, trans. Donald Sheehan and Olga Andrejev (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000), 101–2. Yet elsewhere in the same essay Florensky discusses Raphael’s “belief that spiritual revelation was the only true ground of icon painting” (i.e. his painting of the Madonna) (76-8). and the immaterial, spiritual art of the icon. In What is Art? (1899), the culminating statement of Tolstoy’s aesthetic views, he names Raphael among the false authorities of Western art, along with Michelangelo, Dante, Shakespeare, Bach, Beethoven, and others (Tolstoy 1982: 113, 158-9; Pearson [1981: 363] notes the similarity to the radical critics). While I have found no statements by Tolstoy in What is Art? or in his other works concerning icons, Amy Mandelker has convincingly argued that Tolstoy’s view of art and his literary output of both the pre- and post-conversion periods embody his “iconological” and “Eucharistic” aesthetics. Tolstoy, she argued, valued

the effectiveness of an art work in conveying and arousing Christian love—its success as a sacrament . . . [A]rt as inhabited by ousia [higher essence, true being] becomes the conveyor of grace, and, by divine guidance, transforms its recipients into communion (koinonia) with one another and through the development of brotherly love, into the body of Christ.45Mandelker, Framing Anna Karenina, 125–6.

In other words, for Tolstoy, “good” works of art function like icons, and in some sense may themselves be seen as icons.

From this perspective, the two scenes involving icons examined in this article—Prince Andrew’s recovery of his “little gold icon” on the field of Austerlitz and the veneration of the Smolensk Mother of God before the battle of Borodino—suggest just such a “conveyance of grace.” In the first case, Prince Andrew’s perception of “the lofty infinite sky” and the possibility of divine mercy from “the God Mary sewed into the amulet” indicate the presence of ousia and the promise of eternal life. In the second, an actual communion of soldiers and their leader enacted before the Smolensk Mother of God displays the spiritual fortitude that allow them to withstand and overcome evil. In sharp contrast, the portraits of Napoleon and his son, however visually striking, are examples of “bad art”46As defined in What is Art?; their moral deficiencies are clear from War and Peace itself. in several respects: they convey wrong, false feelings; they serve selfish, personal pleasure (“Admirable!”); they are examples of exclusive, upper-class art; they require interpretation and do not reflect universally-held values;47E.g., “Though it was not clear what the artist meant to represent . . ., the allegory apparently seemed to Napoleon, as it had done to all who had seen it in Paris, quite clear and convincing.” and they divide rather than unite people. In sum, the scenes we have considered in this paper may serve as both a microcosm of War and Peace and an illustration of Tolstoy’s view of art in both its good and bad manifestations.

About the Author

Marcus C. Levitt is Professor Emeritus, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Southern California. He has written on a broad spectrum of Russian topics from the eighteenth through twentieth centuries. Two main focuses of his work are the genesis of modern Russian literature and the status of the visible in Russian culture.


AUTHOR: Marcus C. Levitt
REVIEW: Peer Review (Double Blind)

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Marcus C. Levitt, “The Visual Polemic in Tolstoy’s War and Peace: Icons and Oil Paintings,” Journal of Icon Studies 3, 2020

Tolstoy, Napoleon, War and Peace, icons, visual propaganda