Alis volat propriis – One flies with one’s own wings*
Napoleon on horseback – Vernet
Napoleon’s life was a mixture of romance, myth and reality and sometimes these aspects of his incredible career blur and merge into one another, no more so than in the wealth of paintings depicting his early rise and his later ascendancy in the European scene. Vernet’s equestrian portrait epitomises his military dominion over the other rulers of the Continent and accord with the usual image of the man of military might. But there was much more to Napoleon than the mere aims and ambitions of a soldier.
David – Napoleon crossing the Alps
In David’s famous painting, perhaps the most well-known of all images of Napoleon, there can be no doubts as to his ultimate destiny as leader of men and arbiter of their fate. His very arm is raised, pointing to a future of colossal achievement as if destiny itself beckons. David idolised his hero in a manner similar to the way he was adored by the men of his Guard. If they were his champions on the battlefield, David was determined to conquer in his name with his heroic canvases. As the newspaper proprietor said, if the legend doesn’t accord with the facts – print the legend. To David, Napoleon was a new Achilles, or a new Alexander.
Verashagin – Napoleon 1812
With Verashagin, we once more see a thoughtful, contemplative, perhaps even worried Napoleon. Here he is at Moscow, waiting for a reply from his peace envoy he has sent to Tsar Alexander – a reply that would never come. The silence seems to shout: ‘Where is your destiny now?’ Days later, he would know as a cold and bitter winter destroyed his Grand Army. The ice and snow presaged his rise at Marengo in 1800, so did it foretell his demise after 1812.
Here, hope and ambition seem to shiver, and even the silence can be felt.
This is Tolstoy’s view – the megalomaniac put in his place by the caprice of the weather, as if God favoured the lowly Russian peasant against his would-be conqueror.
Russian history, as told by the Russians treats the invasion of 1812 like a moral parable as if Tsar Alexander was a glorified version of the Prodigal Son. Formerly out of favour with his Court and subjects for signing the Treaty of Tilsit with the Antichrist, he resumes his virtual godhead by refusing to countenance another settlement with the Corsican Ogre. The fact that blond and pretty Alexander’s looks were belied by his acquiescence in the murder of his father Tsar Paul, does not figure in the equation. Neither did Stalin’s murder of six million Kulaks and sundry other millions, count against him when he assumed the role of Hitler’s destroyer in 1945. Stalin killed as many of his own people as the Nazis.
Alexander’s crass dabblings in European politics, at the behest of the English Cabinet and paid for by Bank of England gold, ripped the heart out of Europe in 1805-1807. After Eylau and Friedland, Napoleon could have taken Lithuania and even have threatened Saint Petersburg, yet he took an instant liking to the Tsar and treated him like a brother. It was a bad mistake.
We get a completely different picture, quite literally, when we look at representations of the time Napoleon spent in Egypt. Below, a young warrior squares up to the Sphinx, still buried up to its shoulders in sand. This is a time before the Rosetta Stone, and before Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphics upon it. Napoleon gazes resolutely at 4,000 years of history in the shape of a weathered stone man-lion, as if speculating upon his own place in history.
Guerin – Napoleon pardons the rebels at Cairo
In Guerin’s painting with its sumptuous tones we see not just the wealth of Egypt as represented in exotic robes and vivid colours but Napoleon’s magnanimity. Again and again, throughout his later time as Consul and then Emperor of France, he forgave those who opposed him. He even tried to co-opt Cadoudal into his Army - a man who was to organize the infamous assassination plot against his life. 4 He was hopelessly tolerant of Fouché and Talleyrand, of Bernadotte and Moreau and later, of Murat, Ney and even his sister Caroline who conspired against him. Had he emulated Pasha al Jezzar, “the butcher” who commanded the Ottoman army, and beheaded all his greatest enemies, he would have had an easier time of it all. 5 The British navy supported this illustrious decapitator, but a little less is heard about that fact than is heard of Trafalgar or Aboukir Bay.
Gros – Napoleon visits plague victims at Jaffa 1799
Napoleon attended the plague hospitals to see that care was given to his sick soldiers. As Coignet was later to write, he also always did his best to see that the wounded were cared for after battles. He was not the callous man as portrayed by many British historians. Even Philip Dwyer, whose recent biography is far from even-handed as many English reviewers claim it to be, states: “In Cairo, three military hospitals were established: one in the citadel, and two others at the entry of the European quarters near the Nile. Bonaparte was particularly concerned that the sick were adequately cared for; any functionaries that were caught embezzling or neglecting their duties were severely punished.” 6
Dwyer then says that: “In fact, it seems likely that the Egyptian expedition was never meant to be more than a hit-and-run campaign lasting only a few months.” 7 So why did Napoleon take dozens of scholars and scientists? And anyway, how can something be ‘in fact’ and only ‘likely’ at the same time? He says ‘probably’ so often that it completely undermines his book. He castigates ‘Bonaparte’ in Egypt by saying: “As for Bonaparte, it is impossible to say whether his lack of humanity was an inherent, latent trait that had now come to the fore – had the realization that Josephine was unfaithful made him even more callous and unfeeling towards those around him? – or whether he had simply become immune to suffering. There was now a ruthlessness about him that was taking on alarming dimensions.” 8 And this is supposed to be ‘even-handed’ according to the Sunday Times of London! 9
It is obvious Dwyer has not read Coignet’s memoirs – for if he has, he has totally ignored Coignet’s eye-witness accounts of the Emperor’s behaviour. Similarly, he has ignored the fact that Napoleon abdicated in 1815 specifically to avoid further bloodshed in France. And he utterly ignores all the treachery of the individuals mentioned above and how Napoleon deliberately stayed his own hand when people had been trying to assassinate him. There is also no mention whatsoever of Pitt and the British Cabinet bankrolling many of these attempts upon Napoleon’s life. Dwyer’s book is about as balanced as a one-legged stool.
British gold caused the war of 1805 when Russia and Austria were bribed to attack France. Napoleon bent over backwards to avoid war with Prussia in 1806 and was extremely lenient after Frederick William’s duplicity with regard to Spain. 10 He could have annexed the whole of the country had he so wished. The Prussians then prevailed upon Tsar Alexander to help them and thus prolonged the war into 1807. War was the last thing that Napoleon wanted, particularly in the desolate wastes of a wintry Poland. In Gros’ painting below, we see the hideous conditions faced by the armies on both sides. This was an unnecessary war promoted by Queen Louise of Prussia and the war party. Her feeble-minded husband went along with her warlike behaviour. In this case, beauty was a beast, and hundreds of men were forced to die at Eylau and Friedland.
Gros – the battle of Eylau 1807
Napoleon was also incredibly lenient to Tsar Alexander despite his backing for Prussia. He treated him as an equal not as a vanquished enemy. In Boilly’s painting ‘The Departure of the Conscripts’ we see the direct result of all the Prussian machinations. Had the Prussians not declared war on France, these young men would not have been needed in the field – and many of them would not have been left in makeshift graves in the frozen Polish soil. Yet even today, it is Napoleon who is blamed for all the wars of this period.
On the Der Befreiungskriege website 11 it speaks of “Napoleonic tyranny” and says that “The spirit of Queen Luise was powerful in those days.” It then quotes the poet Korner who wrote:
“As when an army, gathering up its strength
Goes forth in courage in a righteous war…” 12
Boilly – Departure of the Conscripts 1807
Prussia sowed the wind and deservedly reaped the whirlwind. The website will have none of it. When Queen Louise died at 34 they add: “A post-mortem examination discovered a strange growth upon her heart resembling the initial letter of the great Corsican conqueror.” 13 Next to it, probably, as Dwyer might say, there was no doubt inscribed ‘Made in Prussia’ like on a stick of Blackpool rock. 14 One does not have to defend Napoleon from such nonsense as this, for when the mad bay at the moon, they are rightly dubbed lunatics.
Two views of the Rosetta Stone and of Champollion who deciphered it
Napoleon fascinated by the mysterious world of the East
In contrast, we can look at a British cartoon of the Emperor dating from the time he went to Elba after his first abdication. The difference from the real Napoleon is absolute. The British Establishment loved to see him lampooned in this way.
Ingres’s portrait exudes competence and authority, it is the Man of Destiny enthroned. After the chaos, anarchy and bloodshed of the Revolution, Napoleon knew that order and stability had to be restored to France. The peasants, merchants and traders were allowed to keep the land and benefits that had come to them because of social upheaval, while at the same time, the former hierarchy was replaced with new honours and titles earned through merit. Every soldier had a baton in his knapsack and somebody like Coignet, desperately poor as a peasant boy, was able to eventually gain a position on the Emperor’s staff. Such social mobility was unheard of elsewhere in the Europe of his day.
Reading the Bulletin – Boilly
No wonder that the peasants in Boilly’s painting are eagerly following the exploits of the Grand Army. In a phrase of the British Prime Minister Macmillan in 1959, they had ‘never had it so good.’ Napoleon was their protector. When he fell from power many émigrés returned like a horde of locusts, expecting to regain all the power and privileges they had lost during the tumult of the Revolution. And the soldiers suffered the misery of the White Terror and a life on half-pay if they were lucky. France lost its gloire south of the Loire, after Waterloo in 1815, when Davout failed to allow the restored French army to take on Blücher and Wellington’s scattered forces. 16
In place of Napoleon, the French people saw the return of Louis XVIII, all 320 pounds of him. Like a retired sumo wrestle brought out for one last bout, he was carried in the baggage train of Wellington’s army to the gates of Paris. Even the Iron Duke said he had a certain personal odour all of his own. Was this what the French people wanted after twenty-five years of civil strife, wars and external threat? He and his execrable brother d’Artois did not give a damn for ‘the people’. As long as divine right was aided by British might, they had hung on across the Channel, privileged guests of a privileged Establishment, until they could slip across the grey waters and return to France as if nothing had happened during their absence. Is it a wonder that the memory of Napoleon lived on in the hearts and minds of the French nation. The man of the people, for the people and who stood by the people, was and ever would be, their Emperor.
Napoleon at Arcola by Gros
© John Tarttelin, FINS