Finding Napoleon in Washington, DC


National Mall - Smithsonian Castle

On this, the three-year anniversary of this website, I decided to do a post about Finding Napoleon in my own hometown.

Napoleon Banner on the National Mall in DCThankfully, last weekend, we had a break in the nasty winter weather. I headed downtown to “our nation’s front lawn,” the National Mall, to catch a few sightings of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Of course, the National Gallery of Art has Jacques Louis David’s full-length portrait of Emperor Napoleon which I featured in a post on October 12, 2012. This weekend the Gallery had promotional banners flying from lampposts in the National Sculpture Garden. Sure enough, there was the extract of Napoleon’s face from that magnificent painting. 

The next Napoleon sighting was at one of the most popular spots in the Smithsonian complex: the gem exhibit at the Natural History Museum. Most people go there to see the Hope Diamond. That famous blue diamond once belonged to French kings, but the revolutionary government forced Louis XVI to turn over the crown jewels. In 1792, the diamond disappeared, only to resurface in England twenty years later. Napoleon never had the chance to own it.

Empress Marie-Louise's crown 2 Marie-Louise w crown

However, the crown of Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise, is displayed in the same room as the Hope Diamond. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, Marie Louise fled home to Austria, taking the crown with her. Eventually, it ended up in the possession of Marjorie Merriweather Post, who donated it to the Smithsonian. The museum information says that in the mid 20th century, the crown’s emeralds were replaced with the less precious turquoise. Interestingly, this painting shows the Empress Marie Louise wearing a similar crown but set with rubies.

Napoleon's Napkin from ElbaOn a last poignant note, a linen napkin, bearing Napoleon’s imperial “N”, is on display in the Smithsonian’s castle building. The exiled Napoleon used it on Elba. He gave the napkin to a visiting American, William Blake, on February 26, 1815. That same day Napoleon escaped from Elba to begin his short-lived triumphant return to France. 

Like so many items that touched Napoleon Bonaparte’s hands, the napkin became a coveted keepsake.



  • Kathy
    January 6, 2015 - 3:15 pm | Permalink

    This is fascinating! Do you know if the ”Finding Napoleon” flags are still hanging around D.C. today? We live close to DC and it’d be fun to go downtown to see these. If not, do you know where one might purchase one of these flags? I can be reached via the email that I provided above. Thank you!

  • mrodenberg
    January 30, 2015 - 8:17 am | Permalink

    That flag was part of a display put up by the National Gallery where the Napoleon portrait by David hangs. Perhaps you could contact their gift shop or public affairs office to see if they sell them. The flag was hanging in the area of the sculpture garden and ice rink. Good luck!

  • Nicholas
    June 15, 2017 - 1:37 pm | Permalink

    I’m happy to have come across this page! I myself am a Napoleon enthusiast and collector of Napoleon related items. I live outside of Boston and have been to D.C. Multiple times never knowing that these items exsisted there. Do you know if the painting by David Jacques is still on display at the Smithsonian or is it a revolving piece?

  • mrodenberg
    July 3, 2017 - 1:44 pm | Permalink

    The beautiful full-length Napoleon painting is part of the permanent collection at the National Gallery of Art. That museum isn’t actually part of the Smithsonian but it’s right on the Mall (near the Capitol Building) and free like all the Smithsonian museums. Occasionally, the painting tours other locations, but mostly it stays home. The painter’s full name is Jacques-Louis David. If you’re not a member already, I encourage you to join the Napoleonic Historical Society or at least take a look at their Facebook page. All the best, Margaret

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