Tag Archives: Margaret Rodenberg

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.

 

Corsica Miscellany The Man

Napoleon Bonaparte Still Hiding Out in Corsica?

Apparently, the French census bureau thought so!

Excerpt from the Telegraph's webpage; article dated December 11, 2013

The Man

Finding Napoleon in Portland, Oregon Part 2

Jim Riswold (American, born 1957), Le Retraite de Napoléon, 2005, Ultrachrome inkjet print on Epson photo rag paper, Gift of the Artist, © Jim Riswold, 2005.80.1

The Portland Art Museum was one of those rare museums where I couldn’t find a work representing Napoleon Bonaparte or any aspect of his reign. An internet search through their collection, however, revealed this piece. It’s a photograph called Le Retraite de Napoléon (Napoleon’s Retreat). The artist Jim Riswold must have a dark sense of humor to create such a charming depiction of Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia. It’s not currently on display in the museum.

Miscellany

Finding Napoleon in Portland, Oregon

 

Portland, Oregon June 2017 by Margaret Rodenberg

I actually was in Oregon because of Napoleon Bonaparte. You see, that’s where the Historical Novel Society held this year’s conference. It’s a historical novelist’s dream: a hotel full of five hundred people, all fascinated with previous eras. It’s a joyous celebration of camaraderie, craft and commerce. It’s a chance for would-be authors to pitch manuscripts to agents and publishers. But most of all, it’s a chance for them—and for me—to step away from the computer screen to share a love of writing about the past.

HNS 2017 Gordon Frye Session on Historical FirearmsReaders of historical fiction demand accuracy, not in the plot or characters, but in the historical details. A conference like this reminds writers that Vikings don’t zip up their pants any more than they call Uber on their cell phones. Many of the sessions were steeped in historical detail: Underwear from Medieval to Victorian Ages! Hooch through History! How Far Can A Horse Walk In A Day and Other Questions of Accurate Historical Travel!

I was particularly interested in the lecture, “Things that go “Bang” in the night: Firearms for Novelists—Writing It Right.” Gordon Frye who hosts the internet show Gordon’s Gun Closet is an expert on historical weapons and advises historical re-enactors. He led an excellent session, pointing out the most common errors writers, who are often unfamiliar with firearms, tend to make. A couple of years ago, I’d decidedMargaret Rodenberg at the shooting range to fill in that gap in my own education. I took a firearms safety course that culminated in the shooting range experience seen on the right. That helped me get the feel of shooting a gun. Gordon helped me understand more about historical weapons. My writing doesn’t include a lot of gun battles, but he gave me confidence in the few scenes I’ve written.

Portland made a fitting location for a writers conference since Powell’s New and Used Books is located there. The largest independent bookstore in the U.S, Powell’s takes up most of three stories of a city block. Our plane landed at 8:05 pm and I was in Powell’s before 10 pm. That’s where I “found Napoleon Bonaparte” in Portland—or at least a few shelves of Napoleonic history books, one of which is shown below.

On a final note, if you love—or want to write—historical fiction, be sure to join the Historical Novel Society’s Facebook page.

One of the Napoleon Shelves at Powell's New & Used Books in Portland

Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

Finding Napoleon (and Shakespeare) on St Helena Day

 

 

May 21st is St Helena Day, when the local population celebrates the remote island’s discovery in 1502. For the 4,500 residents, it’s a big holiday with speeches, parades and picnics. I haven’t found any historical record of Napoleon Bonaparte joining in the festivities during his exile there. In all likelihood, he preferred that the place had never been found. Napoleon called his exile there “the anguish of death.” He wondered why instead “they did not put a few musket balls in my heart.”

St James Church, Jamestown, St Helena Island, Photo by Margaret Rodenberg 2011But in 1502, its fresh-water stream would have been a welcome sight to Admiral João da Nova and his Portuguese sailors. As was the custom, they claimed the deserted island for their king. Before leaving, they built a small timber chapel on the spot where, in 1774, the British constructed today’s St James Church. That history gives St Helena bragging rights to the oldest continually operating church in the Southern Hemisphere.

While St Helena’s fame rests on Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile, a Portuguese named Fernão Lopes ranks as the island’s strangest inhabitant. In 1512, in India, Lopes (also known as Don Fernando) converted to Islam and joined in a rebellion against Goa’s Portuguese rulers. He received a grisly punishment: the loss of his ears, his nose, his right hand and left thumb. On the way home to Portugal, he jumped ship in uninhabited St Helena, where he survived as a hermit for several years. Eventually, he returned to Portugal. Fearing for his soul, he traveled to Rome to beg forgiveness from Pope Clement VII. Afterward, poor mutilated Lopes returned voluntarily to St Helena. He died there in 1545 (or 1546, depending on your sources).

In his book Shakespeare’s Island: St Helena and The Tempest, author David J. Jeremiah makes the case that St Helena is the island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Furthermore, he claims the play’s savage character Caliban is Fernão Lopes. As befits someone who served as the island’s attorney general, Jeremiah lays out convincing, although circumstantial, evidence. Of course, Shakespeare himself never visited St Helena. Instead, Jeremiah says the playwright met people who had and had access to journals of their voyages. If you are fascinated with both William Shakespeare and Napoleon Bonaparte (as I am), you’ll enjoy Jeremiah’s book.

In St Helena 500: A Chronological History of the Island, the authors speculate that Daniel Defoe based his 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe on Fernão Lopes. If both these stories are true, St Helena Island inspired one of the most famous plays in the English language as well as one of the first novels in English.

We’ll never know for certain, but as Napoleon Bonaparte himself said, “What is the truth of history? A fable we have all agreed upon.”

 

Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte on the Moon

For your amusement, a comic strip “honoring” Napoleon Bonaparte on the anniversary of man’s July 20, 1969 landing on the moon:

Napoleon Bonaparte: it’s hard to keep a determined man in check.   🙂

Thank you, XKCD.com.

Miscellany The Man

Finding Napoleon in Berlin – Part 2

Margaret Rodenberg at Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin February 2016

On October 27, 1806, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte marched his Grande Armée into Berlin. He spent the night at the Charlottenburg Palace, home to the Prussian King Frederick William III and his queen, Louise. His hosts weren’t at home—following the Prussian army’s disastrous losses at Jena and Auderstädt, the monarchs had taken refuge in the eastern corner of their realm.

Princesses Louise and Fredricka statue by Johanne Gottfried Schadow in the Alte Museum, Berlin. Photo by Margaret RodenbergNapoleon Bonaparte is often blamed for every battle and every war of his time. In this case, he had spent the year negotiating for peace. Despite those diplomatic efforts, England and Russia were preparing new offensives against him. The Prussian king, egged on by his war-hungry wife, jumped the gun. Without waiting for his allies, he engaged the French army on his own.

Queen Louise had been born in Hanover. She grew up the much admired, beautiful daughter of the Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Johann Gottfried Schadow, the same artist who made the Quadriga on the Brandenburg Gate, sculpted this lovely statue of her and her sister Frederica. The then-king of Prussia, Frederick William II, encouraged Louise’s marriage to his eldest son, while her sister married his younger son.

Queen Louise's bedroom, Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin, Photo by Margaret RodenbergBy all accounts, Frederick William III was an indecisive ruler with voracious personal appetites and little strength of character. Louise, however, was determined to destroy the “Monster Napoleon.” She gathered advisors into a war party and persuaded the king to act. She even accompanied her husband to the battlefront, dressed like an Amazon warrior.

On October 14, in the separate battles of Jena and Auderstädt, the Prussians were soundly defeated. The Prussian king and queen fled, seeking protection from the Russian army. Emperor Napoleon, well aware of Queen Louise’s bluster against him, spent his night in Charlottenburg in her bedroom. She refused to ever sleep in that room again.

napoleon-bonaparte-receiving-queen-louisa-of-prussia-nicolas-louis-francois-gosseNapoleon and Louise didn’t come face-to-face until the following summer. After Napoleon defeated the Russian army at the Battle of Friedland, Queen Louise begged for a meeting with the Emperor. There she petitioned Napoleon to give Prussia generous treatment in the upcoming Treaty of Tilsit. Napoleon didn’t grant any concessions, but reportedly, he did say, she was “the only real man in Prussia.”

Queen Louise didn’t live long enough to enjoy the Prussians’ revenge. In 1814, at the time of Napoleon’s first abdication, the Prussian army overran the Emperor’s chateau at St. Cloud on the outskirts of Paris. Among other booty they took back to Berlin was one of the five original paintings of “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques-Louis David. It continues to hang in the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin where I photographed it.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques Louis David, Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin, Photo by Margaret Rodenberg

 

Miscellany The Man

Finding Napoleon in Berlin

Brandenberg Gate, Berlin, Germany, Photo by Margaret Rodenberg, February 2016

It wasn’t too difficult to find Napoleon Bonaparte on my recent trip to Berlin.

Johann Gottfried Schadow, sculpter, portrait by Julius Hubner, in the Alte NationalGalerie, BerlinThe city’s iconic Brandenburg Gate gained international prominence on October 27, 1806, when Napoleon Bonaparte paraded his victorious Grande Armée through its arches. Napoleon’s power was at its zenith. He had just won the decisive battles of Jena and Auerstädt. His army marched in dress uniform, while Napoleon, in disregard for his personal safety, rode alone, yards in front, in his humble colonel’s attire. Despite the outward modesty, he felt entitled to some regal Prussian spoils.

The Quadriga, a bronze statue of Victory and her four-horse chariot by the artist Johann Gottfried Schadow (1764 – 1850) graced the arcade, as it does now. That day in 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte instructed his cultural minister Vivant Denon to send it home to Paris.

Napoleon carrying off Berlin's QuadrigaDoes that make Napoleon Bonaparte a marauding barbarian? Or a thief as this contemporaneous cartoon depicts him?

As early as his first Italian victories in 1796, Napoleon seized art and treasure from his conquered territories. Some he used to finance his army. The rest he sent home to France to fill the Louvre, the first People’s museum, or to pay the bankrupt country’s bills.

Let’s put his actions into historical context. War was the normal state of affairs in Europe. Those who lost paid not only in lives and land, but in cultural treasure. As one small example, a hundred years before Napoleon, just days before the treaty that ended the Thirty Years War, Queen Christina of Sweden spirited out of occupied Prague about 600 priceless artifacts including the Silver Bible, a 6th century book that remains today in Uppsala, Sweden, despite Czech demands for its return.

Napoleon himself forced an outraged Venice to give up the Four Horses, part of another quadriga (four-horse chariot) that had graced St Mark’s Square ever since the Venetians had stolen it from Constantinople in 1204. The Papal States, too, had to pay him dearly for their losses, but they kept the Egyptian obelisk that still stands in the center of St Peter’s Square in Rome. Augustus Caesar seized that from Egypt.

 

St Peter's Square, photo by David Iliff, License CC-BY-SA 3.0

I doubt there’s a major art museum that doesn’t contain or hasn’t purchased some spoil of war, but certainly, Napoleon stands out for the volume and breadth of his war booty. Perhaps that’s a reflection of his success in conquering a broad swath of Europe rich in art and treasure. He had the opportunity and he operated within the social norms of his time.

Our civilization, however, is improving in its morals. In 1899, the Hague Treaty restricted the wartime plunder of most cultural objects. Even that, however, wasn’t codified into international law with legal remedies until after World War II.

Monument men, photo from World War II

As Americans, we’re understandably proud of the United States Army’s Monument Men who disinterestedly promoted the preservation of our enemies’ cultural heritage. Since this well-known photo shows American soldiers discovering art the Nazis had plundered, I was surprised to see the same painting in the Alte NationalGalerie in Berlin. It turns out that particular painting (The Winter Garden, by Edouard Manet) had been legitimately purchased and donated to the German museum in 1896. Nevertheless, after the war, we Americans brought it and 200 other works we’d confiscated on tour to US museums. We did return them to Germany in 1959.

The Winter Garden by Edouard Manet

By the way, after Napoleon’s fall, Venice got back its Four Horses. And when the Prussians invaded Paris in 1814, they took their Quadriga back to Berlin. That made it possible for Hilter and his storm troopers to march under the gaze of Victory and her four horses. In the war that followed, Allied bombs all but flattened Berlin. In 1958, the Gate was restored and the statue recast from its original molds. When I was there a couple of weeks ago, it was serving as a backdrop to peaceful human rights demonstrations.

Humanity is still a work in process, as it was in Napoleon Bonaparte’s era, but we are moving forward.

Schadow's Quadriga, Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Margaret Rodenberg

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! 

 

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