Category Archives: Paris

Miscellany Paris The Man

Finding Napoleon in Abu Dhabi

My last post highlighted the artist Kehinde Wiley’s satiric imitation of Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Napoleon Bonaparte Crosssing the Alps. David painted five versions of this iconic image. It turns out one of these—the one that usually hangs in the Palace of Versailles—is on long-term loan to new Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.



Here’s a link to the full article in The New York Times that explains the museum and its relationship to the Louvre in France.

Abu Dhabi is about 1,500 miles farther southeast than Napoleon Bonaparte himself managed to travel during his Middle Eastern invasion. In 1798, twenty-nine-year-old General Bonaparte set out with 40,000 soldiers, 10,000 sailors and 160 scientists and scholars to conquer Egypt. The primary French objective was to block British access to a shorter route to India. Undoubtedly, Bonaparte saw it as an opportunity to follow in Alexander the Great’s footsteps.

The campaign struggled through a series of wins and losses. Ultimately, British, Ottoman and local forces stymied the French on what is now the coast of Lebanon. Napoleon, hearing of political turmoil in France, returned home in August 1799. On November 18, he seized his first political power in a coup d’etat.

Napoleon might not have been so successful politically if the French had known the truth about the Egyptian Campaign’s failures. Napoleon, however, was able to maintain his aura of invincibility.

Now, more than two hundred years later, the iconic painting of Napoleon Bonaparte the great conquer is, as The New York Times writes, “the rock star” of this incredible Middle Eastern museum. One look at that painting and you can appreciate the power of propaganda. 



Miscellany Paris The Man

Finding Napoleon with Barak Obama


Of course that’s not Barak Obama on Napoleon’s horse in the artist Kehinde Wiley’s imitation of Jacques-Louis David’s Bonaparte Crossing the Alps. An anonymous black man has taken General Bonaparte’s place. So why bring up Barak Obama? Well, our (deeply missed) ex-president has chosen Wiley to paint his official portrait for the Smithsonian’s Portrait Gallery.

Kehinde Wiley, an American artist born in 1977 who grew up in Los Angeles, has a unique way of inserting Black men into classical historical paintings, imbuing them with the power and glory usually reserved for white Western rulers. In his own words, quoted from the Brooklyn Museum’s website, “Painting is about the world that we live in. Black men live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.” To me, it’s a stunning reminder to broaden my perspective of history and culture.

I’m really curious to see the setting in which Wiley portrays President Obama, who was for eight years “the most powerful man in the world.” Napoleon Bonaparte, a master propagandist, had David paint him in an idealistic pose with the names of the classical heroes Hannibal and Charlemagne carved in the rocks at his feet. To stay in power, Napoleon needed to reinforce his image as the all-conquering hero. President Obama, however, has relinquished his power in our orderly American tradition. Perhaps his portrait, which is to be revealed in 2018, will indicate his future ambitions. I wonder what advice Napoleon would have given him.

Kehinde Wiley’s painting of Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps hangs in the Brooklyn Museum. Here below for your reference is one of the five paintings Jacques-Louis David made for Napoleon of Bonaparte Crosssing the Alps.


Miscellany Paris The Man

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte in Madrid – Part 2

Portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte by Ingres

Prado Museum, Madrid, 2016, photo by Margaret Rodenberg


As I explained in my last post, in general, the Spanish aren’t fans of Napoleon Bonaparte. In fact, I didn’t find a single portrait of Napoleon in the Prado Museum’s huge collection. The Prado was, however, hosting a travelling exhibition of works by the French painter Ingres (1780-1867). There to my delight I found two.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres studied in Paris under Jacques-Louis David whose paintings have been featured in a number of my posts. In 1803, Ingres was one of five artists commissioned to do full-length portraits of thirty-four-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul. That painting (seen below) was given to the city of Liège where it usually hangs in the Curtius Museum.


Napoleon Bonaparte, First Council by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres


The Emperor on his Imperial Throne was the second Napoleon portrait in the Ingres exhibit. Over the years, this stiff, stylized painting has hung in the Louvre and Les Invalides. It now resides in the Musée de L’Armée. One look at Napoleon’s pale, puffy face explains why the critics (and probably Napoleon himself) hated it. Of course, I was excited to see it in Madrid. Two hundred years later, the man’s still ubiquitous even in hostile territory.


The Emperor Napoleon on his Imperial Throne by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres



Paris Saint Helena The Man

Napoleon’s Pastimes on St Helena

Napoleon in Exile on St Helena

How did Napoleon Bonaparte spend the 2,029 days of his exile on St Helena? After all, the Great Man (or Monster, depending on your point of view) jam-packed his previous forty-six years.

Emperor Napoleon Examining AccountsAt sixteen, he rushed through Paris’ École Militaire to graduate after one year instead of the normal two. In 1798, on his way to Egypt, young General Bonaparte conquered Malta, where he removed the corrupt Knights of St. John from power, wrote the island a new constitution, freed the Jews from religious prosecution, reorganized the legal system, and set up a French garrison—all in one week.

Throughout his reign, Emperor Napoleon kept his ministers awake much of the night strategizing campaigns, writing the Napoleonic Code, planning roads and canals, and designing France’s modern education system. He scrutinized budgets, even correcting mistakes in their addition.

No detail was too small, no ambition too large for him to contemplate.

So faced with house arrest on remote St Helena, how did he fill the empty hours? For work, he dictated his memoirs. For his pride, he waged petty wars with the British governor, Sir Hudson Lowe. For his health, he gardened. But for amusement?

Napoleon Bonaparte's Dueling Pistols Musée de l"Armée Paris

Although a prisoner, Napoleon Bonaparte had retained his sword and his dueling pistols. At what must have been a low point for him, he used the pistols to take potshots at rabbits and at a neighbor’s goat that wandered near his vegetable garden. In a happier time, he played at sword-fighting with his young friend, Betsy Balcombe.

When I visited St Helena’s archives, I found this hint of another pastime: a receipt for the repair of “General Buonaparte’s” crossbow. I’ve never come across mention of a bow in the various memoirs from the period, but I like to imagine a bored Napoleon brightening his afternoon with archery practice.

Cross-Bow Invoice, St Helena Archives, copyright Margaret Rodenberg

Napoleon Bonaparte Playing Chess on St HelenaFor more peaceful activity, he played chess with his generals. I’ve read accounts that Napoleon Bonaparte—one of history’s most brilliant military strategists—was a poor chess player and, to appease him, his generals always let him win. Albine de Montholon, the wife of one of those generals, in her memoirs contradicts what she claims was this British propaganda.

She states that, “It was not easy to play with the Emperor. He marched out his pawns quickly and it amused him to begin the match with unusual moves.” She goes on to say that just when it looked as if he had lost, Napoleon would gain the final advantage using strategy his opponent hadn’t foreseen. That seems much more like the Napoleon I’ve come to know.

Corsica Miscellany Paris Saint Helena Sources The Man

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte FACE-to-FACE

During my travels to do research on Napoleon Bonaparte, I’ve taken hundreds of photographs of Napoleonic sites, art, memorabilia, and related objects. I’ve learned a lot about about military campaigns, geopolitics, and daily life in his times. I’ve become fascinated (and distracted by) the countless characters who surrounded Napoleon, from his birth in Corsica through his time in power to his death on St Helena. And I’ve enjoyed new friendships with many people, particularly members of the Napoleonic Historical Society, who share my enthusiasm for The Man and his times. But the biggest challenge has been coming to terms with who that man, Napoleon Bonaparte, really was.

In his time, without photography, video or voice recordings, it was easier that it is today to be opaque. On one hand, Napoleon Bonaparte was the first modern celebrity so everything from the sleeve of a discarded coat to his camp toilet was scrupulously preserved. There must be thousands of images of his face. Until recently, however, I thought those images so varied that it was impossible to know what he really looked like. Then my husband Bert and I gathered together seventy-three photographs into the slide show featured above. Certainly Napoleon’s appearance changes as he ages, but these photos helped me to come face to face with the man I’ve been trying to understand. Bert and I hope you enjoy them! 


Paris Saint Helena The Man

The 193rd Anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death

Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile on remote St Helena Island on May 5, 1821. His body was laid to rest in this modest site in the island’s Valley of Geraniums. The British government, fearing his influence even from the grave, kept the location carefully guarded.

MAR at Les Invalides sarcophagusIn 1840, Queen Victoria allowed the French to return their hero to his adopted homeland. The French king, Louis Philippe I, dispatched his son, the Prince of Joinville, along with two of Napoleon’s generals, to bring the Emperor home. With great ceremony and according to Napoleon’s own wishes, his body was laid to rest near the banks of the Seine.

During my visits, I’ve been surprised how Napoleon’s charisma envelopes both of the gravesites. They are solemn, sacred places.

Paris The Man

What’s with Napoleon putting his hand in his coat?

Napoleon Statue, Musée de l'Armée, Paris

If you want to mimic Napoleon Bonaparte, just stand straight and hide one hand in your jacket. It’s an immediately recognizable pose and unique to Napoleon, right?

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - hand in jacketLike so many Napoleonic myths, there’s more here than meets the eye.

In fact, the one-hand-concealed stance can be traced back to the days of Roman togas and even to Greek statues dating from 350 B.C.E. More than a hundred years before Napoleon’s rise to power, it had returned to fashion and was considered a refined pose for a gentleman’s portrait.

I’ve included here a portrait of young Mozart in 1764 and one of George Washington in 1776, both painted years before Napoleon’s fame made the pose iconic to him.

George Washington in 1776 - hand in jacketIf you search the internet, you can find similar portraits of Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, Simon Bolivar, the Marquis de Lafayette, Hosni Mubarak, and many others, all with one hand slipped inside their jackets.

According to, “in 1738 Francois Nivelon published A Book Of Genteel Behavior describing the ‘hand-in-waistcoat’ posture as signifying ‘manly boldness tempered with modesty.’ ”

I agree that “manly boldness” describes Napoleon Bonaparte, but “tempered with modesty”?

Miscellany Paris The Man

Poem about Napoleon’s general, Marshal Michel Ney

Michel Ney, Marshal of the French Empire, by François GérardNapoleon’s general, and later Marshal of the Empire, Michel Ney was born the son of a cooper (a wooden-barrel maker). Originally a non-commissioned officer, Ney rose through the ranks due to his courageous leadership in battle. Tradition holds that he was the last Frenchman to leave Russian soil during the disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812. For that, Napoleon nicknamed him “the bravest of the brave.” 

His performance in subsequent years is more ambiguous. In 1814, he helped force Napoleon’s first abdication, telling the Emperor that the Army wanted peace and would obey its chiefs rather than the Emperor himself. Napoleon then accepted exile on Elba, and the Bourbon dynasty was restored to power. The new king, Louis XVIII, rewarded Ney with honors.

Ten months later, Napoleon escaped his exile and started his 500-mile march to Paris, gathering soldiers along the way. Ney bragged to Louis XVIII that he would bring “Napoleon to Paris in a iron cage.” However, when Ney encountered Napoleon, Ney’s soldiers deserted him to join the Emperor’s forces. Napoleon, in his typical fashion, forgave Ney and reinstated him as a Marshal of his army.

The Battle of Waterloo took place three months later. Ney is often blamed for Napoleon’s defeat on that day. It’s true that Ney and his forces were not where Napoleon had designated they should be and that Ney diverted other French troops away from the main fighting. That might have been enough to tip the balance against the French in a battle even Wellington called a “near-run thing.”

If Ney contributed to Napoleon’s loss at Waterloo, he ended up paying the ultimate price, as you shall see at the conclusion of this poem:

            To a Young Girl in Washington Square Park*

                        A poem by George Green


            Lolling beneath the Garibaldi statue,

            you look like some pre-Raphaelite Cordelia,

            except you’re tarted up for rock and roll.

            Your beauty is the barrel you’ll go over


           Lord Byron's Foot by George Green the falls in, and you’re copping now, I see—

            I hope it’s only pot. Oh I would row

            you back to Astolat, and swiftly too,

            but that’s just not my job. You’re on your own,


            And while you gambol off to get your buzz,

            the statue tries to pull its damaged sword,

            snapped off by hooligans eons ago.

            That sword reminds me now of Marshal Ney,


            who charged at Waterloo with half a saber

            brandished above his powder-blackened head.

            Five horses fell from under him, before,

            unscathed, he made it out, at last, on foot,


            only to find disaster on the roads,

            and gallantry in short supply; though he

            would tramp along, apparently unshaken,

            to Paris and a Bourbon firing squad.


*Copyright 2012 by George Green. Reproduced with permission, from Mr Green’s poetry volume, Lord Byron’s Foot, published by St Augustine Press: I highly recommend the book.

Miscellany Paris Sources The Man

Jacques-Louis David’s Painting of the Coronation of Napoleon toured the United States in 1826

Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's older brotherI’ve been doing research into Napoleon’s older brother, Joseph Bonaparte―the ex-king of Naples and Spain―and his twenty-year stay in the United States. Along the way, I learned to my surprise that Jacques-Louis David’s grand painting of Napoleon’s coronation (see my recent blog) had visited the United States in 1826. That set me off investigating.

I knew that after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and the Bourbon king’s restoration the painting belonged to the French state. Understandably, Napoleon’s regal competitors didn’t wish to display the glory of the “Upstart Emperor.” It wasn’t until 1838 that the Louvre once again exhibited Napoleon’s coronation painting.

So how was it that the great work traveled to the U.S. in 1826 five years after Napoleon’s death? Who would have risked its loss in such a perilous journey?

Le Sacre de Napoleon book by Sylvain LaveilliereThanks to the purchase of a book devoted to the painting (photo on the right), I found out. Its painter Jacques-Louis David, self-exiled in Brussels after Napoleon’s fall, had crafted a copy! Upset that “the original no longer exists as far as the public is concerned,” he sent his son Eugène to London and beyond to exhibit the copy of his great work. From 1826 to 1827, it traveled to New York, Philadelphia and Boston. 

Did Joseph Bonaparte, who at the time lived in Bordentown, NJ and owned a residence in Philadelphia, view the work in which he and his then-deceased brother played such a glorious role? What memories that painting would have evoked in Joseph’s homesick mind! Indeed, during the momentous coronation, Napoleon had turned to his brother, saying, “If only our father could see us now.”

Yet, I haven’t found any mention that Joseph attended the Philadelphia exhibit. But I will keep looking (and imagining).

The copy of Le Sacre, as the French call David’s Coronation painting, now hangs in Versailles, where you may be sure I will visit it on my next trip to France.

Paris The Man

Napoleon’s Coronation Painting

Jacques-Louis David's Coronation of Napoleon

When I’m at the Louvre Museum, I seek out Jacques-Louis David’s imposing—if not exactly beautiful—painting of Napoleon and Josephine’s coronation. At thirty-two feet long by twenty feet tall, it’s slightly smaller than Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana, the Louvre’s largest painting.

Napoleon's Mother in David's Coronation of Napoleon paintingThe French refer to it as Le Sacre, but its official name is The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and the Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on 2 December 1804.  That captures the historical facts since Napoleon crowned himself and Pope Pius VII “consecrated” the act. Then Napoleon performed Josephine’s less holy “coronation.”

There are enough fascinating stories about Le Sacre to fill a book, much less a single blog post. For example, Napoleon’s mother, who was feuding with him at the time, refused to attend the ceremony. Napoleon had David paint her into a prominent position, anyway. Also, originally, the Jacques-Louis David's painting of La comtesse Darupainting showed Napoleon holding the crown above his own head, but the Emperor had David revise it to the moment of Josephine’s coronation.

My favorite story actually involves a different painting. In 1810, Le Sacre’s painter, David, produced this charming portrait of the Comtesse Daru, after just a few sittings. He painted the portrait free of charge, unveiling it as a surprise gift for Madame Daru’s husband. It seems the Comte Pierre Daru, a top administrator on Napoleon’s staff, had arranged for the French government to pay the long overdue bill owed to David for the Coronation painting.

The comtesse’s portrait now hangs in New York City in the Frick, one of the world’s great private art museums.

Copyright © 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 Margaret Rodenberg