Tag Archives: Napoleon Bonaparte

The Man

Napoleon Bonaparte: Big Winner, Big Loser

In this election season when Americans are focused on winners and losers, I came across two relevant paintings of Napoleon Bonaparte. The first shows the Emperor in 1807 at the height of his power. The second shows the Emperor seven years later in the midst of failure.

Ernest Meissonier painted them during France’s Second Empire (1852 – 1870) when Napoleon III, the first Napoleon’s nephew, was on the throne. Naturally, interest in Napoleon I was at a peak. Meissonier planned a series of five paintings depicting the entire sweep of Napoleon’s reign, but only completed these two. Was he, like Napoleon, overly ambitious? Apparently so. This first work, which he called “1807, Friedland,” took fifteen years to complete. It measures 4 ½ feet high by 8 feet wide.

 

Meissonier 1807, Friedland NYC Met

This beautiful, meticulous painting shows Napoleon reviewing the cavalry (cuirassiers) after his victory at the Battle of Friedland. On territory then part of East Prussia, now the isolated bit of Russia cradled between Lithuania and Poland, Napoleon’s forces vanquished the Prussian and Russian armies. At the end of the battle, the retreating Russians found themselves fighting with their backs to the Alle River. Thousands drowned trying to escape. Tens of thousands—over 40% of the soldiers on the field—were casualties.

This autumn, I discovered “1807, Friedland” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I took its photo. In truth, I’m generally more interested in Napoleonic art than battle details, no matter how grand a win or devastating a loss. So, a little more about the painting itself.

Intent on historical accuracy, Meissonier created over ninety studies for the men and horses, interviewed eye-witnesses, and collected military artifacts. Legend has it that he hired a carriage to ride alongside a galloping cuirassier so that he could sketch the former cavalry officer in action. In 1875, the painting sold sight-unseen to an American collector for an astonishing $60,000.

Meissonier’s second painting pivots from great victory to the road to ruin.

Meissonier Campagne de France 1814, Musee D'Orsay

In this 20″x 30″ painting, titled “The Campaign of France, 1814,” Napoleon rides at the head of his troops who are fighting for the first time on French soil as overwhelming enemy forces converge on them. The colors are dark, the ground is muddy, and Napoleon himself, no longer surrounded by his generals, is isolated. In ironic juxtaposition to the Battle of Friedland, the French army had just lost the Battle of Leipzig where a river at their backs stymied their retreat and thousands drowned trying to escape.

Let’s hope our American empire doesn’t take such a precipitous fall. For all the election talk about what is wrong with the United States, I view my country as a great bastion of freedom, democracy and ingenuity. Now may be the time to employ some of Napoleon’s mother’s skepticism. When complimented on how well her son had done, she reportedly responded, “If only it lasts.” It’s our job as citizens to make sure that what’s good in our country endures and prospers.

 

 

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

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