Born on This Day: Napoleon Bonaparte

This day in 1769 saw the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Relief portrait of Napoleon, wax on slate, Benedetto Pistrucci, France (Paris) or England (London), 1815. Bequeathed by Miss A.F. Long. V&A A.3-1940

Relief portrait of Napoleon, wax on slate, Benedetto Pistrucci, France (Paris) or England (London), 1815. Bequeathed by Miss A.F. Long. V&A A.3-1940

Born in Corsica to a family with Italian noble ancestry, Napoleon went on to make his name one of the most famous in European history. In France he took power in a coup d’état of 1799, installing himself as First Consul and later had himself crowned emperor in 1804.

Like Louis XIV, Napoleon made the decorative and fine arts central to his new image of emperor. Patronage from the imperial court revived French manufacturing, and the production of luxury goods became an expression of French supremacy.

This armchair was part of a set of seat furniture made for the French  hero, Maréchal Ney (1769-1815). Ney was one of the Emperor  Napoleon’s military leaders, and he came to be known in France as  ‘the bravest of the brave’. In 1805, after his marriage, Napoleon helped  him to buy a house in Paris, the Hôtel de Saisseval. Ney furnished it  lavishly in the fashionable Empire style. He used many of the firms  who worked in the imperial palaces. The firm of Jacob-Desmalter,  which made these chairs, was the best-known supplier of luxury  furniture.

This armchair was part of a set of seat furniture made for one of the Emperor Napoleon’s military leaders, Maréchal Ney (1769-1815). After Ney’s marriage in 1805, Napoleon helped him to buy a house in Paris, the Hôtel de Saisseval. Ney furnished it lavishly in the fashionable ‘Empire style’ using many of the firms who worked in the imperial palaces. The firm of Jacob-Desmalter, which made these chairs, was the best-known supplier of luxury furniture. V&A W.2C-1987

Empire Style

Napoleon tried to create a link between contemporary France and the great civilisations of the past. The ‘Empire style’ he promoted adapted the symbols and ornament of Imperial Rome and was characterised by simple, bold designs, luxurious materials and rich colours.

This bust copies that of a Roman emperor. The image of the new emperor was at the heart of Napoleonic Europe. Bust of Napoleon I, 1807–9

This bust copies that of a Roman emperor. Marble bust of Napoleon I, after a plaster model by Antoine- Denis Chaudet, Italy (Carrara), 1807-1809. V&A A.17-1948

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Plate, enamelled and gilded hard-paste porcelain, Darte Frères, France, ca. 1810. V&A C.374-1914

‘Egyptomania’

In 1798 Napoleon launched a military expedition to Egypt, aiming to seize Egypt from the Ottoman Empire. Although not a military success, the expedition was promoted in France as a national triumph. Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign triggered a widespread European fashion for all things Egyptian.

Egyptian figure statuette, marble (rosso antico), probably Italy, about 1800. V&A A.4-1974

Egyptian figure statuette, marble (rosso antico), probably Italy, about 1800. V&A A.4-1974

Napoleon was emperor from 1804 to 1815. During that period, French territory extended to cover much of the continent and Empire style was exported to Napoleon’s new courts. France’s prominence as an international power made it a leader of fashion and so Empire style became influential across Europe.

 

Napoleon on Film

Having acknowledged his influential role in the development and spread of the Empire style, perhaps now is an acceptable moment for me to admit that as a child my awareness of Napoleon as an historical figure was coloured (hopefully not indelibly!) by memorable portrayals of him in two ‘decidedly-historically-inaccurate’ film productions.

Namely, Terry Gilliam’s 1981 British fantasy film Time Bandits and the 1989 American sci-fi comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure!

Ian Holm as Napoleon in Time Bandits

Ian Holm as Napoleon in Time Bandits. In this film we learn of Napoleon’s apparent love of Punch & Judy shows. – “More of the funny show, the little puppets hitting each other. That’s what I like! Little things! Hitting each other!”

Time Bandits –  the whole Napoleon sketch

Bill and Ted 'collect' Napoleon from Austria in 1805 and then leave him with Ted’s little brother in 1980s America while they go to collect more historical figures.

In Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Napoleon is ‘collected’ from Austria in 1805 and then left to enjoy the wonders of 1980s America with Ted’s younger brother. Napoleon’s apparent great love of ice-cream is vividly portrayed in this scene!

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure – Napoleon about to conquer a bowl of ice-cream in 1980s America

 

And so I shall leave you with my Napoleon film-fact for the day:

Ian Holm has so far played Napoleon I in three films: Napoleon and Love (1974), Time Bandits (1981) and, most recently The Emperor’s New Clothes (2001).

I’ll abstain from making any comments on which of these performances I think could be most authentic …

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