Category Archives: Sources

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! 


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.

Corsica Sources The Man

Bonapartes banished from Corsica and France

As I wrote in an earlier post, the Corsican assembly, in 1793, voted unanimously “to inflict on the individuals making up [the family] Bonaparte an eternal brand that renders their name and their memory detestable to [all Corsican] patriots.” Six years later, however, during a stopover on Napoleon’s return from the Egyptian campaign, the Corsicans welcomed him as a hero.

France, too, banned the Bonaparte clan. In 1815, following the defeat at Waterloo and Napoleon’s second abdication, the French assembly, in support of the restored Bourbon King Louis XVIII, issued the following order:

“The ancestors and descendants of Napoleon Buonaparte, his uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, brothers, their wives and children, his sisters and their husbands are excluded from the Kingdom in perpetuity, and are directed to leave it within a month, under pain of the penalty detailed in article 91 of the Penal Code [which included death].”*

When the French ban went into effect, Napoleon was a captive of the British, his brother Joseph was on his way to America, and his son was in  Austrian hands. Madame Mère and her brother Cardinal Fesch were en route to Rome. The rest of the family scattered across Europe.

But this “perpetual” ban, like Corsica’s “eternal” one, was short-lived.  In fact, its proposer, the Comte de Corbière lived to see Napoleon’s nephew crowned as Emperor Napoleon III in 1852.

* Quoted from Madame Mère Napoleon’s Mother, by Gilbert Martineau, John Murray Publishers, London, 1978

Saint Helena Sources The Man

A BOOK REVIEW: To Befriend an Emperor, Betsy Balcombe’s Memoirs

A BOOK REVIEW:  To Befriend an Emperor: Betsy Balcombe’s Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte on St Helena, edits and introduction by J. David Markham, Ravenhall Books, 2005. (Originally published in 1844 as Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon on the Island of St Helena, by Lucia Elizabeth Balcombe Abell.)

As I covered in my last blog, Napoleon’s first home on St Helena was the one-room summer pavilion at the Briars, the Balcombe family estate. During his six-week stay, he developed an avuncular friendship with the Balcombe children, especially brash thirteen-year-old Betsy, who spoke French.

In 1844, Betsy published Recollections of the Emperor, a detailed account of their time together. In 2005, Ravenhall Press published a “gently modernized” version.  Historians still rely upon the memoir to document the emperor’s St Helena exile. To anyone interested in Napoleon, this light-hearted book provides fascinating insight into his character.

Napoleon loved children, perhaps because his own childhood had been cut short when, at age nine, he was sent to French military school.  During the following six years, he saw his father twice and his mother once.  The strict, almost monastic school left little opportunity for play.  As an adult, however, he loved rough-housing with his nephews, spoiling his toddler son, and teasing his generals’ children.

On St Helena, Betsy Balcombe became his favorite. According to the memoir, the emperor encouraged her pranks. Even when she held him at bay with his own sword, stole his official papers, or accused him of cheating at cards, he forgave her audacity.  Each tale, told in a precocious child’s voice with rich detail, gives the reader a humanizing portrait of a great man whose influence is still felt today.

Sometimes, the book turns to more serious subjects, as when Betsy quizzes Napoleon on the rumor about him becoming a Muslim in Egypt.  “[She asks] ‘Why did you turn Turk?’ He did not understand me, and I was obliged to explain that ‘turned Turk’ meant changing his religion.  He laughed and said, ‘What is that to you? Fighting is a soldier’s religion; I never changed that. The other is the affair of women and priests; as for me, I always adopt the religion of the country I am in.’”

When Napoleon left the Briars for Longwood House, Betsy and her family continued to visit him, but association with the Famous can lead to misfortune. British authorities accused Mr Balcombe of aiding Napoleon with unauthorized communications to Europe.  Stripped of his lucrative position as provisioner to Longwood, the Balcombes experienced an exile in reverse—banishment from remote St Helena.  Despite her family’s upheaval, Betsy saved the precious notes from her days with the emperor, supplying us a front-row seat to Napoleon’s St Helena exile.

The 192-page, hard-cover, 2005 edition, titled To Befriend an Emperor, features charming illustrations and updated spelling.  Noted scholar J. David Markham’s introduction provides excellent historical context.  Alternately, the original Recollections of an Emperor can be downloaded from Google Books for free.  I recommend either version of these sweetly-told stories as captivating summer reading with a Napoleonic twist.

(This review first appeared on the website,

Paris Sources The Man

Not Finding Much Napoleon at the Louvre

Finding Napoleon at the Louvre was harder than I expected.  After unsuccessfully searching their website, I wrote in advance for a list of Napoleon-related paintings: no response.  I queried several agencies for a specialized guide: no luck.  So, when we arrived, we headed straight for the Information Desk.  Did I know about the Coronation painting by David?  Yes, but are there others?  No, I was assured, no other portraits or statues in the Louvre related to Napoleon.  I switched to French to see if the answer changed.  It did not.  Meanwhile, my husband approached the manager.  Oh, yes, she said, one other painting and she put a mark on the Sully wing of our museum map.

We headed to the Denon wing to view the coronation scene.  The second largest painting in the Louvre, it’s both incredible art and a magnificent public relations piece.  Napoleon had his mother prominently positioned in the painting, although she refused to attend, since as a republican and pessimist, she felt he was overstepping his bounds.  Then he had the painter David obscure the fact that he had crowned himself by portraying instead the less notable event of him crowning Josephine as empress.  If you look carefully, you can still see the revision on the canvas. We can only be grateful that, after divorcing Josephine, Napoleon didn’t have David paint his second wife’s face onto the neck of the first empress’s body!  Still, it is a magnificent piece of art and history.

We headed to the Sully wing to find the location the Information manager had marked for us.  The Louvre is huge and even in March crowded with tourist groups, although few Americans.  Fifteen minutes later, at our destination, we entered a gallery with paintings from fifty years after Napoleon’s time.  After a heated discussion, a museum guide flagged down a passing high-level Louvre official.  The gracious curator directed us to the room just beyond the coronation painting.  All the while apologizing that there really isn’t much else Napoleonic in the Louvre, he also marked on our map the site of a small First Empire furniture exhibit.

We rushed back to the Denon wing and found a bit of what I was expecting:

Yet, even after finding these masterpieces and a few pieces of First Empire furniture, I was surprised there was so little of France’s greatest hero at its greatest museum.


Fondation Napoléon

Yesterday, we met with Professor Peter Hicks, historian and international director of the Fondation Napoléon, here in Paris.  He generously gave me many suggestions for books and sources I might pursue, particularly about Napoleon’s youth.  The Fondation maintains an extremely useful website at and Professor Hicks publishes their electronic newsletter.  Both are available in English, and invaluable for Napoleonic research.  The Fondation is also taking the lead on the campaign to raise funds to restore Longwood House where Napoleon lived and died in exile on St Helena.  You can learn more about that at Save Longwood House.  Thank you, Professor Hicks, for your help on my project!




The breadth of Napoleonic material amazes and at times overwhelms me.  Of course, its volume results from the huge impact he had in so many physical, political and cultural areas of the world, but I am grateful to the multitude of scholars who have painstakingly recorded the details, both small and large. I’m not a professional scholar myself, but as I leave this week for a research pilgrimage to Paris and Corsica, I feel my expedition—like Napoleon’s to Egypt—is accompanied by phalanxes of scholars, only mine are virtual.  So, thank you, my scholars Masson, Cronin, Markham, Tulard, Carrington, Abbott, Hicks, de Chair, and many, many others.  In the coming days, I’ll add a Sources page to this website to list the books and materials that have contributed to my knowledge of Napoleon Bonaparte.

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