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The Man

Finding Napoleon in London

Bert & Margaret kayaking on the Thames Sept 2014 

Part 1: Napoleon Bonaparte at Wellington’s House

When I traveled to London earlier this month, it wasn’t difficult to find traces of Napoleon Bonaparte. After all, he was arguably the British Empire’s greatest foe until the World Wars of the twentieth century. What I found is that, at least in some quarters, Napoleon was admired during his lifetime and continues to be of interest today. 

Apsley House, LondonBefore leaving on this trip, I queried my colleagues at the Napoleonic Historical Society for recommendations with a Napoleonic twist. I’ve been to London several times, yet a historic site I’d never visited topped their list: Apsley House museum, the Duke of Wellington’s home. Located at Hyde Park Corner, its address is nicknamed “No. 1 London” due to its prominent location. Arthur Wellesley, who defeated Napoleon’s forces in Spain and handed him his ultimate defeat at Waterloo, bought the house in 1817 from his older brother. He then enlarged it to befit his status as the Duke of Wellington, England’s greatest hero.

Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington by Francisco de GoyaNapoleon and the Bonapartes can be found throughout the museum. Wellington’s extensive art collection includes portraits of Napoleon and of Josephine, and a huge panorama of Waterloo with Napoleon in the foreground. The Sèvres dessert service that Napoleon gave Josephine on their divorce (and which she refused to accept) and a sword of Napoleon’s are displayed in a room off the entrance foyer. Upstairs, one grand salon features priceless Spanish paintings recovered from Joseph Bonaparte’s lost baggage carts as he fled his throne in Spain with Wellington’s troops hot on his heels. Amusingly, there is a portrait of Napoleon’s scandal-prone sister Pauline in a salon that is designated the “Military Valhalla” or “Hall of Heroes,” because the paintings in there (except hers) are all of generals. I think she would have liked that.

But most striking is the 12-foot-tall nude statue of Napoleon as Mars.

Napoleon as Mars by Antonio Canova, at Apsley House, LondonIn 1806, Antonio Canova, then considered one of the greatest living artists, sculpted it from a single block of marble (except the raised arm). The head is magnificent, but I think most of us today have the same reaction to it that Napoleon Bonaparte himself had. He deemed it “too athletic” and banished it to a hidden corner of the Louvre where the public would never see it. After Waterloo, the British government bought it from the French and presented it to Wellington.

It’s difficult for me to imagine a modern victor surrounding himself with portraits of his vanquished foe.  Yet, in his time, Napoleon’s genius was widely admired by military men on all sides of the conflicts.  On hearing of Napoleon’s death in St Helena, the Duke of Wellington reportedly said, “Now I can safely say I am the most successful general alive.”

No photography is allowed in the Apsley House so some of the photos in this blog were sourced on the Internet. But not, of course, the one of my husband and me kayaking on the Thames. That one is here to show that I don’t spend all my time looking for Napoleon.

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