NAPOLEONIC ART

 A PICTURE PAINTS A THOUSAND WORDS

BY JOHN TARTTELIN, FINS

Dedicated to Cameron Reilly and David Markham hosts of superb Napoleon Podcasts

 

Meissonier- Campaign of 1814

It is the winter of 1814 and an Empire is dying – besieged by the baying hounds that the divine right monarchies have unleashed upon Napoleon. That same year a baby is being nurtured in a French womb. Jean-Louis Meissonier would be born on February 21st 1815, two months before the catastrophic Tamboran explosion that would rock the world and help the Allies defeat the Emperor at Waterloo in the following June.

Meissonier’s painting is small yet it brilliantly encapsulates and reflects the epic events that were taking place at the time of his birth. Napoleonic France was in its death throes as privilege and reaction prevailed in the courts of Europe. The self-appointed ‘elites’ of the Continent were determined to destroy the one man who had welcomed ability wherever he found it and instituted the careers open to talent that he made manifest in his own Army and Government.

Behind Napoleon in this famous painting rides red-headed and hot-blooded Ney. The Marshal was the hero of 1812, the man of whom Napoleon had said he would give up all the gold in the Tuileries just to see him again after news arrived that Ney had been cut-off with his men behind the Russian lines.

He is not a man he is a lion, Napoleon declared when Ney reappeared, but the Marshal was not very forgiving, thinking that he had been abandoned in the Russian snows. Perhaps it was a result of that feeling and the subsequent brooding it led to that would lead Ney to betray his Emperor shortly after that winter of 1814?

He would not be the first man to betray Napoleon. Talleyrand was a past master at it and Fouché was a fellow ingrate along with Marshal Bernadotte. The daggers were well and truly out that treacherous winter. Even Marshal Marmont, Napoleon’s oldest friend, would succumb to the temptation to betray his master – the only thing he failed to do was to kiss the Emperor’s cheek en passant. Heroes are rare and singular: traitors are two a penny.

In the English Civil War it was the Earl of Strafford who was sacrificed on the altar of reaction and envy. When he died in 1641, Charles Ist lost the one man who could have saved his King. In 1815 it was Napoleon who was to be sacrificed by the Kings because he was the one man who had dared stand up to them on the field of battle. Much worse in their eyes, he had a tendency to win those battles no matter how many times they declared war on him in 1803, 1805, 1806, 1807, 1809, 1814 and 1815.

The British had earlier failed to assassinate Napoleon, but it wasn’t through lack of trying. Pitt had found plenty of gold to pay for the secret agents of the Chevalier de la Foi (Knight of the Faith) who worked for the loathsome Comte d’Artois, brother of Louis XVIII. The British Navy had ferried them across the Channel often enough – there were plenty of tars with the same brush. But they couldn’t sweep Napoleon from power with Infernal Machines or those daggers in the hands of maniacs.

Napoleon treated these acts of nefarious ‘diplomacy’ with the contempt they deserved and he would not retaliate in kind. He is often accused of being little more than a Corsican bandit, but it was Pitt who sunk to the depths of infamy, not Napoleon. It was the British Cabinet that behaved like brigands – to them there was always an ‘open season’ on the ruler of France.

In the Bowes Museum in Northern England there is a portrait of the Comte’ d’Artois, the future Charles X of France. His air of consummate self-importance is clearly shown in this portrait. He behaved as if everything Napoleon earned by dint of genius and hard work should have been his by divine right. His implacable and adamantine hatred of Napoleon was perversely reflected when he had himself crowned in the very robes Napoleon had worn when he was made Emperor. Wellington made do with bedding some of Napoleon’s former mistresses. It seems that even Napoleon’s worst enemies wanted to be him at heart.

This painting of d’Artois by Gérard was displayed at the Salon in 1825, four years after the death of Napoleon on Saint Helena.

Comte D’Artois – Bowes Museum, England - arrogance personified

The Bowes states that: “his strong belief in aristocratic rights and privileges made him a particularly hated figure by revolutionaries… he became king aged 67. From his coronation onwards, Charles’ attempts to reverse the ideals of the revolution made him deeply unpopular and in July 1830, public revolts forced him to abdicate.”

Louis XVIII had been brought back in the baggage train of the Allies, courtesy of m’lud Wellington – no one deigned to ask the French people who they wanted as their Head of State. In effect, it was also that Irish-Englishman who bequeathed D’Artois to the reluctant French nation. The pair of them seemed to believe that what mattered was what they wanted, not the lives of millions of people who would suffer by their arbitrary whims and penchants.

If having the last vain peacock of the ancien regime restored to preen and coo from the Tuileries Palace wasn’t bad enough for the ordinary French citizen, D’Artois was an enthusiastic supporter of Prime Minister Liverpool’s bloodthirsty purges against former soldiers of the Emperor – the White Terror. Liverpool didn’t just believe in kicking a man when he was down, he saw it as a moral duty to grind him into the earth and finish him off tout de suite.

As David Hamilton-Williams has written: “In 1813-15, the French army was closer to its civilian roots than at any time since the Revolution. The police reports showed that nearly 80 per cent of the population supported Napoleon and didn’t want the Bourbons.” 1 But what did Wellington, Liverpool or D’Artois care about that?

1814 Meissonier

While Wellington saw to the important task of massaging his ego at grand receptions and balls in Paris, and bedding the former mistresses of Napoleon, “D’Artois used both the police force and his agents to terrorize and murder Bonapartist officers and supporters as requested by British Prime Minister Lord Liverpool.” 2

On what bliss was it to be alive at the renaissance of Bourbon Monarchy – but some did not live long enough to appreciate the fact.

The above painting, entitled 1814 was commissioned by Prince Napoleon, the Emperor’s nephew in 1862. It shows a dour Napoleon after the battle of Arcis-sur-Aube when the French were truly at bay. Some 80,000 Austrians had fought 28,000 French soldiers and had been unable to defeat them! 3 Field Marshal Schwarzenberg was no Schwarzenegger. In awe of Napoleon’s genius, he allowed Oudinot’s rearguard to keep his overwhelming forces at bay.

But Talleyrand’s machinations in Paris made all the efforts of his glorious and valiant countrymen useless – he told the Allies to march on the capital and Napoleon was not able to get back to Paris in time to save either the city or his throne.

Murat c.1808 by Gérard

In 1795 the future Marshal Joachim Murat had brought the cannons that enabled a wiry and threadbare Napoleon to put down the royalist insurrection of Vendémaire. Dashing and handsome, he was the epitome of a resourceful cavalry officer and only a few others like Lasalles came anywhere near him. But Murat was also incredibly vain, designing his own uniforms and ever ready to strut his stuff. The ladies fell for him like Autumn leaves. Napoleon once said of him that Murat needed women like other men needed bread. He was a Casanova on horseback.

In 1812 Murat was observed alone at the head of the Grand Army surrounded by Cossacks. His staff flocked to the rescue only to find the Marshal being admired by those denizens of the Steppes. Murat was adored by most of the cavalrymen in Europe and the Russians retreating before their beloved Moscow lamented that they wished they had a commander like him. However, he was notoriously negligent of his horses and men.

It was as a result of his crass incompetence that the reinvigorated Russians caught him off guard at Winkovo in 1812 and only his own brilliant rallying charges saved his troops from annihilation. Coignet sent on a mission to the Marshal saw some of his soldiers escaping from the trap by riding bareback. The Great Retreat had begun.

Lasalles like every good officer led from the front. Napoleon said in 1814 that the bullet that would kill him had not been moulded as he personally organized his cannon close to the enemy. Men such as these could look death in the face without flinching. Lasalles died at Wagram in 1809 and was sorely missed. Such superb leaders of men were always in short supply but so were their potential mounts after the huge losses of horses in Russia in 1812. Without a strong cavalry arm in 1813 and onwards, Napoleon was always fighting at a great disadvantage.

At Waterloo, although he had a revitalised cavalry, Napoleon could have done with an experienced cavalry commander. Almost inexplicably Napoleon appointed Ney his battlefield commander despite his uncharacteristically timid and poor showing at Quatre Bras. As the Prussian menace grew off to the east of Placenoit on June 18th, Ney found himself bereft of reserves. Thus it was that he decided to use some of the still uncommitted cavalry arm.

Lasalles by Detaille, a pupil of Meissonier

To attack the unbroken British squares with mounted troops alone was against one of the basic tenets of military command. Because of the torrential downpours consequent upon the distant volcanic eruption of Tambora back in April of that year which had changed weather patterns across the world, the battle had been delayed and the ground was still sodden. The French cavalry were able to do little more than trot towards their enemy. There were also so many riders crammed together that some horses were lifted completely off the ground! Similarly the French cannon had not been as effective that day as the balls sank into the clinging earth rather than bouncing as they would normally have done, causing many more casualties thereby.

Anxious to join in the fray, more and more French cavalry joined the attack, many without orders to do so, until the finest cavalry in Europe was moiling around some of the finest infantry – both sides unable to deal a crippling blow. Murat and Lasalles would never have committed such a jejeune error. When Ney finally brought up some horse artillery he began to do serious damage to Wellington’s Army, but by then the Prussians were debouching from the woods in force before Placenoit and all the French reserves had to be sent by Napoleon to keep them at bay.

Philippoteaux - Waterloo

The fact remains - Napoleon knew that Ney was unable to command more than 20,000 men as he had shown, unfortunately for the French, in 1813 and 1814. So why did he leave him in charge on that fateful day? As both political and military head of the Army and as Emperor as well, perhaps Napoleon hoped by publicly ‘forgiving’ Ney for his treachery and his infamous “I’ll bring him back in an iron cage” remark the previous year, all types of men, including former aristocrats and erstwhile enemies might return to the fold. Whatever the reason, it was a bad mistake.

Murat had offered his services to the Emperor after his return from Elba, but as he had betrayed him as well in 1814, Napoleon did not reply. Ironically, Murat would have known the exact moment at which to strike against Wellington and had he been able to, he might have repeated his glorious exploits at Eylau when he led a cavalry charge against overwhelming Russian numbers and saved the day.

Gros – Battle of Aboukir July 25th 1799

Years before, in the Egyptian sands, Murat had led another victorious charge at Aboukir. On that occasion he received a wound on his cheek. More than twelve years later in the freezing hell of Russia, Sergeant Bourgogne noticed the residual scar that had been revealed by the exceptional cold.

Above is a portrait of the noblest man of his age – Larrey, surgeon to the Guard and the Emperor himself. Napoleon said he was the most virtuous man he had ever met. And many of the wounded soldiers who owed him their lives would have been happy to concur. Few people realize that it was Napoleon who instituted the first effective medical train in the history of modern warfare. As Coignet repeatedly makes clear in his Memoir, Napoleon was a stickler when it came to proper medical assistance for his troops – and often those of his enemies, abandoned by their own Royal retinues and kinsmen. As he famously said: “After the victory there are no longer enemies, but only men.” 4 Larrey treated both sides after the carnage of Borodino. The Russians had simply left their wounded by the roadside or even burnt the dwellings in which they sheltered to deny them to Napoleon’s troops. Coignet who had seen so much suffering was nevertheless horrified.

Girodet – Baron Dominique Jean Larrey

Larrey was captured after Waterloo and was about to be shot by the vengeful Prussians when a German doctor and former student of his, recognized him and saved his life by begging Blücher for mercy on his behalf. As Larrey had saved the life of the Old Thunderer’s son, 5 even the famous French-hating Prussian Marshal had the grace to spare this one enemy life. 6

Napoleon had ruled his tiny kingdom of Elba well. He was not a prisoner on that small island, he was still a legitimate Emperor who had voluntarily ceded power on the mainland in France. But the Allies reneged on the agreed settlement and Louis XVIII refused to pay Napoleon the 2,000,000 francs that was his due. Not surprisingly, when the so-called Allies began to fall out amongst themselves at the Congress of Vienna, Napoleon planned his return. The Eagle began to flap his wings as he prepared to leave the nest.

Karl Stenben - Napoleon returns from Elba

The Eagles flew from steeple to steeple as Napoleon had predicted and after a slow start, men flocked to the colours. Even Ney swallowed his pride and returned reluctantly to the side of his former master. Napoleon was no fool, but he did allow men who had spurned and betrayed him to return to his Court. He was a far more rational, decent and forgiving monarch than the likes of Tsar Alexander, Francis of Austria, George III of England, or Frederick-William of Prussia. The romantic Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine certainly preferred him to those others: “Heine unconditionally admired Napoleon for his contribution to enlightenment which, for some time, the Frenchman had installed in occupied German areas. All of Heine’s publications in Germany were subject to state censorship…” 7

Further, as Cameron Reilly and David Markham have made clear in their excellent Napoleon Podcast series – whereas Hitler murdered the Jews, Napoleon gave them equal rights. 8 When he fell from power the reactionaries jumped in and made the Jews second-class citizens again. The Dreyfus Affair of 1894 would have been impossible under Napoleon. He was also the first person to suggest that the Jews be given their own territory in the Holy Land.

Yet some mischievous and poor historians still insist in equating the Emperor with Hitler. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so pathetic.

Earnest Crofts - The Evening of the Battle of Waterloo

We shall leave the ever-fascinating events of Napoleon’s life late in the evening of June 18th 1815. In Earnest Crofts’ atmospheric painting some members of the Old Guard stem the tide of terrified refugees as one soldier – in the bottom left of this cropped image – looks over his shoulder at his Emperor. Forced to abandon his carriage, Napoleon is about to vanish from the living pages of history. Ahead there is only Saint Helena and the reptilian Hudson Lowe. A giant is leaving the political stage to the Lilliputian midgets that have brought him down. These non-entities will now re-write history and cast Napoleon as the reincarnation of Lucifer himself.

They have weaved a web of lies, but delve deeply enough and the real light will shine through.

 

 

© John Tarttelin 2010

 

 

Notes and Bibliography

  • 1 David Hamilton-Williams The Fall of Napoleon (London, Arms and Armour Press, 1994) 318
  • 2 Ibid., 308
  • 3 See Wikipedia under Arcis-sur-Aube
  • 4 Go to the International Napoleonic Society Website at www.napoleonicsociety.com and see The Prussian Campaign of 1806 – The War That Napoleon Did Not Want by Jean-Claude Damamme
  • 5 I have called Blücher the Old Thunderer because it seems very apposite for his personality. His men called him Alte Vorwards.
  • 6 See article Dominique-Jean Larrey: Napoleon’s Surgeon from Egypt to Waterloo by Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D. From Journal of the Medical Association of Georgia (JMAG) September 1990 pages 693-695
  • 7 See Wikipedia under Heinrich Heine
  • 8 See http://napoleon.the podcastnetwork.com/