October 28, 2011


Napoleon crops up a lot in my Art History and Paris Salon classes. The 19th-century French exalted him and then seemed cringingly embarrassed by him. Hindsight is 20/20. Byron seemed to prefer that Napoleon just fall on his sword, so distraught was he that Napoleon had been defeated and sent into exile. Despite the death of millions of Europeans after 17 years of war, Napoleon manages to remain a cultural icon. Many towns, streets and ships, even a pastry are named after Napoleon and his victories. Napoleon was just under 5 ft 7. (1.686m) Nelson was known to be 5 ft 6 and regarded as average in height. Heck, the average Frenchmen today is just 5'8". What gives?

Years ago, back in the days when I used to have fun, I was at a meeting of the Ontario Archaeological Society. The speaker was promoting the idea that Napoleon had been poisoned by arsenic which was evidenced, apparently, in his hair. So I was able to  hold a ziploc bag of Napoleon's reddish-brown hair in my hands. Talk about six-degrees of separation.

Note the differences in the pictures below. 

Napoleon Crossing the Alps J.L David, 1800.
Bonaparte Crossing the Alps, Delaroche, 1850

Napoleon on His Imperial Throne, Ingres 1806
Napoleon on His Imperial Throne, OOOPS,  
Napoleon at Fontainebleau, Delaroche, 1840

Here's one I couldn't resist. He must be Napoleon Bone-Apart.



There's a very enjoyable 2001 film called The Emperor's New Clothes starring Ian Holm as Napoleon. During Napoleon's exile on St. Helena, loyalists hire a doppelganger to swap places with him. While the imposter lives in luxury on the island, the real Napoleon returns to Paris in order to retake the throne. During Napoleon's journey back to France, the imposter dies. When Napoleon, Ian Holm, sets foot on French soil France is in mourning for him but he can't make anybody believe he is the real Napoleon. Antics ensue. Napoleon lodges with a widowed pumpkin seller and shows her little boy magic lantern slides of his exploits. I recommend this film if you have the chance.


Hels said...

I agree. Understanding how the French regarded Napoleon is like trying to pin mercury to the wall with a pin - it just oozes away under your hands.

From comments I have read from French writers, it seems that Napoleonic France adored him; once he came back from exile in Alba millions of Frenchmen cheered him en route to Paris; when he lost at Waterloo, the French were indeed cringingly embarrassed by him; decades later his dead body was brought back to Paris as a hero again.

Now the feeling in French circles seems to be "yes he was excessive and heavy handed across Europe, but he was our winningest general and a very proud moment in French history".

Life, Laughter and Paris said...

Great post! Thanks for the tip on the film with Ian Holm. Will try to get a copy.

Nancy said...

That's a great and warmhearted movie = We got it by accident and wound up loving it. Thanks for the variations on a theme pictures of Napoleon - it's fun to see the turn of the tide.

Diane said...

You must be loving your art history course!

Very cool about holding Napoleon's hair.....