Napoleon Bonaparte is a larger than life figure. In life he aspired to recombine the empire of Charlemagne, something a long line of French kings failed to do. He struck a chord with the French people, in death they enshrined him, as he asked, on the bank of the Seine in a larger than life casket wrapped in the sumptuous Dôme des Invalides. Napoleon left his mark everywhere in France and appropriately in the Château de Versailles. While Napoléon did not reside in the château, apartments were, however, arranged and decorated for the use of the empress Marie-Louise. The emperor chose to reside at the Grand Trianon.
The Coronation of Napoleon in Notre Dame by Jacques-Louis David 1806. The beautiful technique of David shows through in this magnificent painting. For another of his paintings see my post on Lavoisier and his wife. The painting does not depict the coronation of Napoleon himself. Upon close examination, the figure kneeling is not Napoleon, but his wife Josephine. Holding the crown that is about to grace her head is Napoleon. Behind him stand the religious figures who would usually perform the coronation duties and rituals. However, previous to the moment which this painting depicts, Napoleon had reportedly seized the crown from the hands of these clerics and placed it on his own head, signifying his absolute rule and almost god-like claim to power. Now Josephine receives her crown from the hands of the king, once again reinforcing his authority.
David was permitted to watch the event. He had plans of Notre Dame delivered and participants in the coronation came to his studio to pose individually, though never the Emperor (the only time David obtained a sitting from Napoleon had been in 1797). David did manage to get a private sitting with the Empress Josephine and Napoleon’s sister, Caroline Murat, through the intervention of erstwhile art patron, Marshal Joachim Murat, the Emperor’s brother-in-law. For his background, David had the choir of Notre Dame act as his fill-in characters. Pope Pius VII came to sit for the painting, and actually blessed David. Napoleon came to see the painter, stared at the canvas for an hour and said “David, I salute you”.
Napolean was the first Corsican to graduate from the École Militaire in 1785, where he trained as an artillery officer. He had been tested by the famous scientist and mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, whom Napoleon later appointed to the Senate. He spent the early years of the Revolution in Corsica, supporting the revolutionary Jacobin faction, gaining the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Corsican militia in 1792. He was appointed artillery commander of the republican forces at the siege of Toulon in 1793 and upon his victory was promoted to brigadier general at the age of 24. Napoleon’s real rise to fame occurred in October 1795 when he defended the National Convention from a mob of royalists with cannons. The defeat of the Royalist insurrection extinguished the threat to the Convention. In the famous words of Thomas Carlyle, Napoleon had cleared the streets with “a whiff of grapeshot”. Bonaparte became a national hero, and was quickly promoted to Général de Division (Commander of the Interior). Within five months, he was given command of the Armée d’Italie. His orders were to invade northern Italy and occupy Lombardy, a move that the French Directory believed would force the Austrians to move troops south from the Rhine front. Napoleon’s task was essentially diversionary, the main offensive for 1796 was expected to take place on the Rhine. Instead the campaign on the Rhine would soon bog down, while Napoleon’s whirlwind of activity in northern Italy effectively ended the War of the First Coalition.
The Bataille de Fleurus 1784 by Jean Baptiste Mauzaisse depicts the victory of Jean-Baptiste Jourdan in the Austrian Netherlands (current day Belgium) in the war of The First Coalition. The French use of the reconnaissance balloon l’Entreprenant (in the upper right) marked the first military use of an aircraft that had decisive influence on the outcome of the battle. The Allied defeat led to the permanent loss of the Austrian Netherlands and to the destruction of the Dutch Republic. The battle marked a turning point for the French army in the north.
The French Revolution was a time of upheaval, the monarch King Louis XVI was executed, the Catholic Church was all but abolished, a new calendar was created and a new Republican government was established. Understandably the Kings of Europe felt threatened, and mounted a series of six Coalition Wars against France starting in 1792 and culminating in 1813 with Napoleon’s exile to Elba. The military situation after the revolution was not good, France was literally surrounded by enemies. More than half the officers of the pre-revolutionary French army had left the country, many of them joined émigré groups living just beyond the country’s borders, waiting to march home under arms. The surprise victory at Valmy, mainly by the French artillery in 1792, pushed back the Prussians and gave the the infant republic time to draft hundreds of thousands of men, beginning a policy of mass conscription to deploy more of its manpower than the autocratic states could manage to do. Valmy permitted the development of the Revolution and all its resultant ripple effects, and for that it is regarded as one of the most significant battles of all time. It is interesting that no painting in the Hall of Battles depicts this pivotal battle. The famous poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was present at the battle with the Prussian army, later wrote “From this place, and from this day forth begins a new era in the history of the world, and you can all say that you were present at its birth.”
The Battle of Rivoili 1797 by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux in 1845. Napoleon had separated the armies of Sardinia and Austria, defeating each one in turn, and then forced a peace on Sardinia while capturing Milan and besieging Mantua (in the Po valley of northern Italy). He defeated successive Austrian armies sent against him under Wurmser and Alvintzy while continuing the siege. The battle of Rivoli occurred as Austria’s General Alvintzy made his fourth and final attempt to relieve the siege of Mantua, which had trapped his colleague General Wurmser and 30,000 of his men. Advancing with 28,000 men, Alvintzy tried to weaken Napoleon’s force of 10,000 men by launching diversionary attacks, but they failed. At the end of the pursuit that followed the victory the French captured more than half of an Austrian army of 28,000, despite being significantly outnumbered at the start of the campaign. This ended the War of the First Coalition with the Treaty of Campo Formio.
Napoleon’s victories in Italy ended the first coalition war but Britain refused to settle. With only Britain left to fight and not enough of a navy to fight a direct war, Napoleon conceived of an invasion of Egypt in 1798, which satisfied his personal desire for glory and the Directory’s desire to have him far from Paris. Marching to Cairo, he won a great victory at the Battle of the Pyramids, however, his fleet was destroyed by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile, stranding him in Egypt. Napoleon spent the remainder of the year consolidating his position in Egypt. When Napoleon left Egypt to return to Paris, he appointed Jean Baptiste Kléber as commander of the French forces in Egypt. Kléber attempted to negotiate an organized retreat with the British, but failed. Kléber then attacked the Turks at the Battle of Heliopolis. Although he had only 10,000 men against 60,000 Turks, Kléber’s forces utterly defeated the Turks in 1800. He then re-took Cairo, which had revolted against French rule. He was assassinated by a Cairo student later that year. His heart is in an urn in the caveau of the Governors beneath the altar of the Saint Louis Chapel in Les Invalides, Paris.
Through newspapers and dispatches Napoleon heard of troubles in France. The Republic was bankrupt and the ineffective Directory was unpopular with the French population. Napoleon returned, leaving his army behind, and used his popularity and army support to mount a coup (coup of 18 Brumaire) in 1799 that made him First Consul, the head of the French government, replacing the Directory with the Consulate. The new constitution was the Consulate, modeled on the constitution of Ancient Rome, with 3 Consuls. He reorganized the French military and went himself to raise a new reserve army at Dijon positioned to support campaigns either on the Rhine or in Italy. From October 1797 until March 1799, the signatories of the Treaty of Campo Formio avoided armed conflict. Despite their agreement at Campo Formio, the two primary combatants, France and Austria, remained suspicious of each other and several diplomatic incidents undermined the agreement. In December 1798 Great Britain and Russia signed a treaty of alliance against France, thus beginning the War of the Second Coalition. Britain had been fighting France in Egypt and funded the creation of a new army in Austria. Soon Portugal and the Ottoman Empire joined the coalition. The British government paid out large sums of money to other European states, so that they could remain at war with France. These payments are colloquially known as the Golden Cavalry of St George.
This is the famous Napoleon Crossing the Alps 1800 (or Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass) by Jacques-Louis David in 1802. Bonaparte asked David to portray him “calm, mounted on a fiery steed” (Calme sur un cheval fougueux) while in reality the crossing had been made in fine weather and Bonaparte had been led across, mounted on a mule, by a guide. On accepting the commission for the Alpine scene, it appears that David expected that he would be sitting for the study, but Bonaparte refused point blank. The refusal to attend a sitting marked a break in the portraiture of Napoleon in general, with realism abandoned for politically iconic images. By a daring crossing of the Alps with his Army of the Reserve in mid-May 1800 almost before the passes were open, Napoleon had threatened Austria’s lines of communications in northern Italy.
The Death of General Desaix by 1800 by Jean Broc. Surprised by the Austrian advance toward Genoa in mid-April 1800, Napoleon had hastily led his army over the Alps in mid-May and reached Milan by June to confront the Austrians in the rear. The French army then seized Milan, followed by Pavia, Piacenza and Stradella, Lombardy, cutting the main Austrian supply route eastward along the south bank of the Po river. The Battle of Marengo against Austrian Army troops under the command of Lieutenant General Michael Melas was the victory that sealed the success of Napoleon’s Italian campaign of 1800. Napoleon had sent part of his strength away to the north and south in the belief that Melas would attempt to circumvent the approaching French Army. The Austrians attacked and late in the afternoon had the French in full retreat. Fortunately, Louis Charles Antoine Desaix returned with fresh troops and mounted a successful counterattack in which Desaix was killed. Within 24 hours of the battle, the Austrians entered into negotiations (the Convention of Alessandria) which led to the Austrians evacuating northwestern Italy west of the Ticino river, and suspending military operations in Italy. The painting shows Napoleon after the battle with the body of Desaix.
The Battle of Hohenlinden 1800 by Henri-Frédéric Schopin. When Napoleon returned from Egypt, he found General Jean Victor Marie Moreau at Paris, greatly dissatisfied with the French Directory government both as a general and as a republican, and obtained his assistance in the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire. As a reward and to stop a string of French defeats, Napoleon gave Moreau command of the Army of the Rhine. Moreau invaded Bavaria and won a the battle against Austria at Hohenlinden. Moreau continued toward Vienna and the Austrians sued for peace. Although Napoleon won a notable victory against the Austrians at Marengo, the decisive win came on the Rhine at Hohenlinden in this battle. This ended the War of the Second Coalition. The Austrians signed the Treaty of Lunéville in 1801and the British signed the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. This success also made Moreau a possible competitor in Paris. Napoleon downplayed the Battle of Hohenlinden and made a major publicity campaign around his narrow victory at the Battle of Marango. He also had Moreau exiled on trumped up charges.
Battle of Austerlitz (La Bataille d’Austerlitz) 1805 by François Gérard commissioned 1806. The painting is among François Gérard greatest masterpieces and one of the most popular images of the Napoleonic era. The Battle of Austerlitz, also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors, was one of Napoleon’s greatest victories, where the French Empire effectively crushed the Third Coalition of Prussia. He inflicted a total of 25,000 casualties on a numerically superior enemy army while sustaining fewer than 7,000 in his own force. The War of the Third Coalition was a conflict which occurred from 1803 to 1806, for the usual reasons. Austria and France signed the Treaty of Pressburg, which took Austria out of both the war and the Coalition. The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 was a naval engagement fought by the British Royal Navy against the combined fleets of the French Navy and Spanish Navy, during the War of the Third Coalition. The French loss ensured that France would never invade England and that Britain would continue to have the money to fight European wars. The sale of Louisiana in 1803 was an early recognition by Napoleon that the territory was indefensible and of his dire financial condition brought on by the maintenance of his huge army. The great victory was met by sheer amazement and delirium in Paris, where just days earlier the nation was teetering on financial collapse.
The battle of Jena (D’Lena) 1806 by Émile Jean-Horace Vernet 1806, depicts Napoleon reviewing his troops at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt . The twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt were fought on 14 October 1806 on the plateau west of the river Saale in today’s Germany, between the forces of Napoleon I of France and Frederick William III of Prussia. The decisive defeat suffered by the Prussian Army subjugated the Kingdom of Prussia to the French Empire until the Sixth Coalition was formed in 1812. Napoleon built a bridge in Paris which he named after this battle.
Napoleon at the Battle of Friedland 1807 by Émile Jean-Horace Vernet 1807. As the evening draws to a close Napoleon is seen riding amongst his men after their victory at the Battle of Friedland. He is depicted giving instructions to general Nicolas Oudinot. Between them is general Etienne de Nansouty and behind the Emperor, on his right is marshal Michel Ney, duke of Elchingen. In the Battle of Friedland in 1807 Napoleon’s French army decisively defeated Count von Bennigsen’s Russian army about twenty-seven miles southeast of Königsberg. Following the Treaty of Tilsit, which ended the War of the Fourth Coalition at the expense of the Prussian king, the United Kingdom and Sweden remained the only two major coalition members still at war with France.
The Battle of Wagram 1809 by Émile Jean-Horace Vernet 1809, is the final painting in the Galerie des Batailles. While this is a well executed military piece, you can really see the difference between the paintings by David and the one above. Wagram was the first battle in which Napoleon failed to score an uncontested victory with relatively few casualties. The heavy losses suffered, which included many seasoned troops as well as over thirty generals of varying rank, was something that the French would not be able to recover from with ease. This battle ended the Fifth Coalition and with the resulting Peace Treaty of Schönbrunn meant the loss of one sixth of the Austrian Empire’s subjects, along with the loss of significant territories.
I am going to finish with the same artist that I started with, Jacques-Louis David. The Army takes an Oath to the Emperor after the Distribution of Eagles is an 1810 painting by David, begun in 1805, depicting a ceremony arranged by Napoleon after his assumption of power as emperor. In it he sought to revive the military ethos of the Roman Empire.
The final painting depicted the moment when Napoleon blessed the standards being held out towards him. Napoleon has his arm raised in imitation of Roman scenes. David’s composition was heavily influenced by the friezes on Trajan’s column. This was to be the second of four paintings for Napoleon’s coronation but of course Napoleon’s days were numbered. Of course Versailles contains much more memorabilia, but this is what I photographed. I suspect I will be back.
It is often said that Napoleon failed because of his invasion of Russia, much like the failure of Hitler. In truth, his defeat was almost pre-ordained, and much more like the fall of the western Roman Empire than Hitler. The advent of extremely large armies meant that Napoleon had to fight to support them. At the end, his armies were composed of more foreign soldiers than French. His primary enemy was Britain, with seemingly unlimited funds, but with the naval losses he could not invade. Eventually, even Napoleon could not keep the pieces together, and he lost the last battle and hence the war.