Grey Room

Death from Above in Minard’s Napoleon Map

Richard Taws


Ten months before he fled Paris for Bordeaux in September 1870, fearing advancing Prussian troops, French engineer Charles-Joseph Minard made the image for which he is best known, his Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l’armée française dans la campagne de Russie, 1812–1813 (Figurative map of the successive losses of the French army during the Russian campaign, 1812–1813). Invoked frequently as a milestone in the history of cartography, this image, which shared a page with a less-celebrated map charting the loss of life in Hannibal’s army as it traversed theAlps during the Second Punic War, has since acquired totemic status among statisticians, geographers, and design historians.Edward R. Tufte’s memorable if somewhat hyperbolic suggestion that the map”may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn” has been repeated faithfully by subsequent scholars. Yet despite the acclaim it has received—it assumes a venerable place in a genealogy of political infographics that runs from William Playfair to W.E.B. Du Bois, from Florence Nightingale to Forensic Architecture—Minard’s stark audit of military fatality is rarely considered in relation to contemporary visual practices other than the statistical cartography that preceded it and came after it. Both the subject of the Carte figurative and the context for its production tend to be muted in discussion of its informational economy, while for art history it has been little more than a curiosity.

Yet attention to its historical frame reveals an aspect of Minard’s Napoleon design that the arresting novelty of his statistical presentation obscures. For his map shared many features with existing visual genres—notably military painting and its reproductions—that traded in the representation and calibration of mass death and which had well-developed strategies of their own for presenting documentary evidence with affective immediacy.