Miscellany Paris The Man

Finding Napoleon in Abu Dhabi

My last post highlighted the artist Kehinde Wiley’s satiric imitation of Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Napoleon Bonaparte Crosssing the Alps. David painted five versions of this iconic image. It turns out one of these—the one that usually hangs in the Palace of Versailles—is on long-term loan to new Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

 

 

Here’s a link to the full article in The New York Times that explains the museum and its relationship to the Louvre in France.

Abu Dhabi is about 1,500 miles farther southeast than Napoleon Bonaparte himself managed to travel during his Middle Eastern invasion. In 1798, twenty-nine-year-old General Bonaparte set out with 40,000 soldiers, 10,000 sailors and 160 scientists and scholars to conquer Egypt. The primary French objective was to block British access to a shorter route to India. Undoubtedly, Bonaparte saw it as an opportunity to follow in Alexander the Great’s footsteps.

The campaign struggled through a series of wins and losses. Ultimately, British, Ottoman and local forces stymied the French on what is now the coast of Lebanon. Napoleon, hearing of political turmoil in France, returned home in August 1799. On November 18, he seized his first political power in a coup d’etat.

Napoleon might not have been so successful politically if the French had known the truth about the Egyptian Campaign’s failures. Napoleon, however, was able to maintain his aura of invincibility.

Now, more than two hundred years later, the iconic painting of Napoleon Bonaparte the great conquer is, as The New York Times writes, “the rock star” of this incredible Middle Eastern museum. One look at that painting and you can appreciate the power of propaganda. 

 

 

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.”

 

Saint Helena The Man

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte in Baltimore

Napoleon 1814, by Jean-Louis Ernest Meisonnier, Walters Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, photo by Margaret Rodenberg

Last November I posted about Ernest Meissonier’s paintings of Napoleon Bonaparte. This month I came across another of Meissonier’s paintings (shown above) in the Walters Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. It depicts a sad but stoic Napoleon at the end of his reign.

Napoleon III, by Adolphe Yvon, Walters Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, photo by Margaret RodenbergMeissonier painted his images of Napoleon Bonaparte fifty years after the emperor’s defeat. Napoleon I was back in fashion since his nephew Napoleon III was on the French throne. In 1875, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s large Meissonier painting (shown in my November post) sold sight-unseen to an American collector for an astonishing $60,000. An informational placard at the Walters Museum sheds light on the buyer: Alexander Turney Stewart, an American retailer and railroad magnate.

Baltimore’s Walters Museum also featured this fine portrait of Napoleon III, which Adolphe Yvon painted in the mid-19th century.

But best of all, as a final Napoleonic reference, the museum displays a 16th century Italian painting of Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. She’s known for converting the Roman Empire to Christianity. And, of course, she’s the saint whose name was given to the island in the South Atlantic where Napoleon Bonaparte spent his second exile and where he died.

 

Saint Helena, by Francesco Morandini, known as Il Poppi, ca. 1575, Walters Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, photo by Margaret Rodenberg

Miscellany

Finding a Bonaparte in Panama

Whenever I travel, I’m on the lookout for signs of Napoleon Bonaparte’s influence. I didn’t expect to find any on a recent trip to Costa Rica and Panama, but there’s a statue of his great-nephew in Panama City. In 1877, Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte Wyse, the grandson of Emperor Napoleon’s brother Lucien, obtained the first agreement from the Columbian government to build a canal across its territory which then included the isthmus of Panama.

Young Lieutenant Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte-Wyse must have had a bit of his great-uncle’s spirit in him. In 1798, Napoleon himself, then General Bonaparte, set off on his Egyptian Expedition. In this grand scheme, the thirty-year-old general planned to conquer Egypt and perhaps continue on to India in Alexander the Great’s footsteps. Like ancient pharaohs before him, Napoleon contemplated a canal connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Only erroneous measurements predicting engineering feats beyond the era’s capability dissuaded Napoleon from attempting the project.

Seventy years after Napoleon’s expedition, another Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps, completed the Suez Canal. Less than ten years later, Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte-Wyse was exploring Panama’s isthmus on de Lesseps’ behalf. Satisfied that a canal was feasible, Bonaparte-Wyse and a French lawyer, Louis Verbrugghe, rode an arduous four hundred miles on horseback to Columbia’s capital of Bogotá. There they negotiated the territory acquisition and revenue-sharing contract called “the Wyse Concession,” which made the future Panama Canal possible.

However, the subsequent French attempt to build the canal ended disastrously. It was left to the Americans to finish it with the first ships traversing its forty-eight mile length in 1914. In 1977, one hundred years after Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte-Wyse negotiated the Wyse Concession, President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty that would return the canal to Panama.

Miscellany The Man

My favorite Novel about Napoleon Bonaparte (sort of)

Battle of Waterloo 1815, William Sadler II, Pyms Gallery, London

When I recently rediscovered Georgette Heyer’s historical novel, AN INFAMOUS ARMY, I realized it was the first Napoleonic novel I had ever read. I was thirteen when my mother introduced me to Heyer’s famous Regency novels. Most of them are love stories in the mode of Jane Austin. AN INFAMOUS ARMY is a strange mixture: half romance, half detailed description of the Battle of Waterloo. It’s told from the British point of view, definitely not Napoleon Bonaparte’s.

Written in 1937, AN INFAMOUS ARMY is the third book of a trilogy so Heyer fans will have had plenty of time to become enchanted with its main characters. It takes place in Brussels, where English society is enjoying the peaceful continent during Napoleon Bonaparte’s confinement on Elba. That is, until Napoleon escapes his exile and reclaims his crown. Then Europe’s armies quickly gather to confront the Emperor’s Grande Armée in nearby Waterloo.

The book’s first 270 pages fly by with romantic stories that are a shade darker than Heyer’s usual delightful heroine-has-greater-than-expected-depth-and-snares-worldly-hero fare. Instead, in preparation for the great battle, she introduces the reader to much more complex characters and relationships. For the following 200 pages, the high-society women tend to the wounded and dying. Many of the men heroically die or lose limbs on the battlefield.

Heyer places her male antagonist, Colonel Charles Audley, on the British General Wellington’s staff. We see the battle through his eyes as, under cannon fire, he couriers orders from Wellington across the battlefield to his troops. Always a sticker for historical detail, Heyer’s battle descriptions are so accurate and inspiring that she lectured at Sandhurst, the British Royal Military Academy. Apparently, for some years, AN INFAMOUS ARMY was required reading there. Here’s a sample from the moment that the battle swung irretrievably to British victory:

‘The [French] Chasseur column, advancing steadily, was met by a frontal fire of over eighteen hundred muskets from the 95th Rifles and the 71st Highlanders, and as it staggered, the Fighting 52nd, the men in third and fourth line loading and passing muskets forward to the first two lines, riddled its flank. It broke, and fell into hideous disorder, almost decimated by a fire it could not, from its clumsy formation, return. A cry of horror arose, taken up by battalion after battalion down the French lines: La Guard recule! [The Guard is retreating!]”

As you see, this novel goes well beyond its charming love story.

In AN INFAMOUS ARMY, Napoleon Bonaparte only has cameo appearances as a distant figure rallying his troops. At one point, a young British officer informs Wellington that he could order cannon fire onto Napoleon and his senior officers to which the noble Wellington responds, “No, no, I won’t have it. It is not the business of general officers to be firing upon one another.” War was fought under more aristocratic rules back then.

Rereading the novel, I was amused to see that it must have provided my first exposure to Napoleon Bonaparte’s adversary on St Helena Island, Sir Hudson Lowe. Ironically, when Wellington arrived at Brussels before the battle, he dismissed Sir Hudson who was quartermaster, replacing him with someone whom he “could trust to do his work without forever wishing to copy Prussian methods.” In other words, in Wellington’s opinion, the worse sort of bureaucrat.

Since this novel is told from a British perspective, you might think that “an infamous army” refers to Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces. It’s actually a quote from Wellington describing his own disorganized, green troops: “I have got an infamous army, very weak, and ill-equipped, and a very inexperienced staff.” Napoleon might have said the same of his army, but when the day was over, Wellington had the decisive victory that changed the course of European history.

I highly recommend this book. It delights on so many levels.

 

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.

 

 

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