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Nikolay Semenovich Samokish (Russia 1860‑1944)
The return of the Russian chevalier guards after the attack on the enemy in Austerlitz 1805

To be sold at Uppsala Auktionskammare’s Important Sale: Classic & Asian 9-11 December 2020

Lot 520. Nikolay Semenovich Samokish (Russia 1860‑1944). The return of the Russian chevalier guards after the attack on the enemy in Austerlitz 1805. Signed in Cyrillic Samokish and dated 1885. Oil on relined canvas, 97 x 151 cm.

Compare with another version of the motif in the collection of the Scientific-Research Museum of the Academy of Arts of Russia, St. Petersburg.


600.000 – 800.000 SEK
€ 59.000 – 78.000


In the collection of Mining engineer Axel Ax:son Johnson (1910-1988), Stockholm.
Thence by descent in the family.


Charlotte Cederström & Emily Norton (ed.), Konversationsstycken / Conversation Pieces, 2011, depicted in the interior on a full page spread and on p. 29.
Klas Schönning, Villagatan 6 – ett Stockholmskvarter med anor, 2012, p. 98.

In context

Nikolay Samokish – “The return of the Russian chevalier guards after the attack on the enemy in Austerlitz 1805”

Nikolay Samokish (ukr. Mykola Samokysha) (1860–1944) was born in Nezhin in the Chernigov Government of the Russian Empire, that is in today’s Nizhyn in Ukraine. He was mainly brought up by his mother’s family, and his grandfather was a cossack.

After graduating from the Nezhin Lyceum he enrolled with the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, with some help from the famous professor of military art Bogdan Pavlovich Willewalde. When admitted, he studied with Mikhail Konstantinovich Klodt and Valeriy Ivanovich Jakobi, as well as with Willewalde himself. He quickly gained respect for his ability to paint horses, and specialized in the so-called animalist and “batalist” (battle-scene) genres. He won several minor gold medals, which gave him the right to try for the grand gold medal as his diploma work in 1885.

One of his early biographers, M. Burachek, gives us the following description of Samokish’s diploma work:

”And once again the academy council decided for the batalists a theme from the napoleon wars, an episode from the battle of Austerlitz in 1805 – The return of the chevalier guards after the attack on the enemy.

Those who had been in Samokish’s studio at the academy during his work with this painting could tell of the scrupulous preparations (studying the epoch, the style, the uniforms, various accessories) with which Samokish took on the assignment. His studio was full of studies, sketches, weapons, uniforms and helmets…

Finally, the painting was almost finished, but no matter how hard he tried with the morning sky, with the rising of the sun – the same sun, of which Pushkin had written ”Go dark, sun of Austerlitz!” – he just could not seem to get it right. At one point he went to the famous landscape painter professor Yulij Yulievich Klever. Klever’s relation to the young painters and students at the academy was always full of respect and love. When he saw that his young guest was in a bad mood, the professor asked him what had happened.

Samokish told him of his troubles.

– My friend, don’t worry. What about this: I scratch your back and you scratch mine?

– What do you mean?

– I will paint the sky for you, and to return the favor you will help me with some figures in one of my landscapes.

They agreed on this. Klever went to Samokish’s studio and with some light brushes he corrected the sky, which immediately started to glow and shine…

In 1885 the painting was exhibited and Samokish was awarded the grand gold medal with the right to travel abroad with pension for three years.”

(M. Burachek: M. Samokysha. Kharkiv: Ukrainske Malyarstvo. Rukh. 1930).

After three years abroad, Samokish returned to Russia to start a long and successful carrier as painter, illustrator, war correspondent and Academy professor. He died in Simferopol in Crimea in January 1944. He is considered the pride of his hometown Nizhyn, and this very autumn both Nizhyn and Simferopol celebrate his 160th anniversary.

The painting, of which one of the versions is kept in the museum of the Russian Academy of Art in St. Petersburg, renders the scene when the exhausted and badly beaten remains of the chevalier guards return to camp from the battlefield of Austerlitz, where the anti-Napoleon alliance was badly defeated. They are met by their commander, the emperor’s younger brother Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich. Although Austerlitz was one of the greatest victories for Napoleon’s Grande Armée, the encounter between the Russian chevalier guards and the French 4th line regiment caused great losses to both sides, and this was the first time one of Napoleon’s famous Imperial Eagle standards was lost to the enemy – it was seized by the Russian chevalier guards from a battalion of the 4th line regiment. To lose an Imperial Eagle was the greatest possible embarrassment to a French unit, and it would not get a new one until it had deserved it by winning a remarkable victory.

Russian history manuals relate the seizure of the Imperial Eagle in the following way. It was when the French regiment within the corpus, commanded by marshal Soult, moved forward to the Pratzen heights that the Russian guards made their counterattack, causing a great turmoil, during which the lieutenant Aleksey Petrovich Khmelyov lead the 3rd platoon of the 2nd squadron to attack the enemy’s standard carrier group and killed the standard carrier. His comrade Gavrila Ivanovich Gavrilyuk jumped down from his horse to pick up the standard, but got several lethal wounds from bayonet thrusts. Ilya Fyodorovich Omelchenko hurried to help him, but could only grab the standard pole with the Imperial Eagle from the loosening grip of his dying comrade. The French tried desperately to recapture their standard, and during the fight the sergeant Saint-Cyr (nephew of the marshal Saint-Cyr) got no less than 12 sabre wounds while trying to get hold of the standard. Nevertheless, the Russian chevalier guards could retreat to their positions and present the trophy to their commander.

The struggle for the Imperial Eagle standard was depicted by Willewalde in a famous picture from 1884, and Samokish’s painting can be seen also as a commentary on his master’s work (although the subject was an assignment, as shown above).

Samokish himself used to explain his specialization in battle scenes not by any fascination with war, but, on the contrary, by his hatred for war as such. It is thus tempting to read ”The return of the Russian chevlier guards after the attack on the enemy in Austerlitz 1805” precisely as a commentary on war in itself, its terrible sufferings and futile gains, such as the seized French standard, carried barely above the lowered heads of the tired soldiers, and borne not so much as a trophy, but rather as a burden, as a heavy cross.


From the collection of Axel Ax:son Johnson

The interior of the library in the family home at Villagatan in Stockholm. Photo by Jean Baptiste Béranger.
The interior of the library in the family home at Villagatan in Stockholm. Photo by Jean Baptiste Béranger.

This painting belonged to the Mining engineer Axel Ax:son Johnson and was inherited by his daughter Antonia Ax:son Johnson. For many years it has been displayed as the central painting in the library in the head office of Axel Johnson Group at Villagatan 6. The unique book collection housed in the library has mainly been focused on older literature covering the subjects of Travels to Russia or Travels within Russia.

The painting represents an important part of Axel Johnson Group’s business. The trading company A. Johnson & Co, as the company was called when it was founded in 1873, was the first Western company to do business with the young Soviet state in 1918. The business relationships developed and at times deals by the Axel Johnson Group made up for around half of the trade between Sweden and the Soviet Union. Axel Ax:son Johnson was a true friend of Russia and was one of the founders of the Swedish-Russian Chamber of Commerce and was its first chairman. His collection of Russian books and art reflects his personal interest and knowledge of both business and people in the East.

Stockholm, 22 November 2020

Antonia Ax:son Johnson

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