Napoleon in Art
To his admirers, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) was a hero espousing the radically egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution; to his detractors, he was an empire-building despot. Napoleon redrew the map of Europe, launched battles that cost millions of lives and changed European society forever. Little wonder this epic character was the favorite subject of the artists of his day, and he still inspires the creative spirit.
When Napoleon died, in exile on May 5, 1821, souvenir hunters sought pieces of his clothing, slivers from the trees near his gravesite on the island of St. Helena and even sections of his bowels. One stolen relic that, well, stands out is the emperor’s penis, the essence of a supreme alpha male. An unscrupulous doctor allegedly excised the organ during an autopsy.
Napoleon’s purported penis was never properly preserved. When displayed in the 1920s, at New York’s Museum of French Art, it was described as “something looking like a maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace or a shriveled eel.” While this phallus does not suggest virile glory, Jacques-Louis David’s painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801) certainly does. Bonaparte made the crossing on a mule, but in David’s propagandistic representation, the emperor is mounted confidently astride a spirited steed, evoking power, command and victory.
Both mementoes landed in New Jersey. The penis ended up in a macabre private collection that also included Abraham Lincoln’s bloodstained collar and Hermann Göring’s cyanide vial. David’s painting hung for many years in the mansion where Joseph-Napoleon Bonaparte, the emperor’s older brother, exiled himself after abdicating the Spanish throne in 1813.
Jacques-Louis David studied painting in Rome for five years, filling his sketchbooks with renderings of ruins and statuary. Returning to France in 1780, the artist was soon at the forefront of the neoclassical movement, using classical themes to reflect the political turmoil of his day. In The Oath of the Horatii (1784), he captures French revolutionary fervor in his depiction of a legendary Roman scene showing three brothers pledging to sacrifice themselves for their country. In The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), David preaches reconciliation after the bloodletting of the French Reign of Terror by portraying graceful women attempting to appease their husbands’ warlike impulses.
Named court painter to Napoleon, David found a classical hero in his patron. He depicted him in the robes of a Roman emperor in a 32-foot canvas, The Coronation of Napoleon (Le Sacre de Napoléon, 1807). Napoleon spent a full hour viewing the completed painting and enthused, “David, I salute you.” He had no such praise for sculptor Antonio Canova. In Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, the artist followed neoclassical ideals and depicted him as a finely muscled nude. The subject, soft and pudgy when the statue was displayed in 1811, forbade its exhibition.
Napoleon was the poster boy for neoclassicism. As he swept through Europe in the early 19th century, so did a revival of interest in ancient Greek and Roman culture. Not known for modesty, the emperor compared himself to Julius Caesar, and he followed in the footsteps of another legendary general, Hannibal, when he led an army across the Alps in 1800 and carved a kingdom out of the northern reaches of the Italian peninsula.
Napoleon consolidated his unruly Italian subjects under a flag of green, white and red emblazoned with an eagle, a symbol of the Roman legions and also Napoleon’s personal sign. The tricolor, sans eagle, became the banner of the Risorgimento (the mid-19th-century unification movement), the newly united Kingdom of Italy in 1861 and the present-day Italian republic. For many, the green, white and red fields have come to represent the verdant Italian landscape, the snowy Alps and the blood spilled in the fight for freedom. The colors allegedly also symbolize the virtues of hope, faith and charity. Given that the Italian tricolor still flies after so many tumultuous decades of war and political upheaval, perhaps the flag most symbolizes the classical virtue of perseverance.
Napoleon popularized the bicorne, a broad chapeau with two side points, and the natty habit of tucking one’s hand into one’s jacket. He also appropriated the green, white and red stripes of the short-lived Cispadane Republic’s flag to create the official tricolor standard of his newly united Italian holdings in 1802.
Napoleon’s design flair went beyond tricolors to uniforms, and the emperor ensured his troops were the most soigné army in the history of warfare. He would no doubt have been pleased with the Napoleon scarf issued by Hermès, the well-known French purveyor of scarves and luxury leather goods. The sumptuous silk square depicts the coach that carried Napoleon to his 1804 coronation in Notre-Dame Cathedral, along with classic portraits of the emperor, his hat, swords, imperial eagles and bees, the last an icon of French sovereignty. In 1962 Hermès celebrated 100 years of Italian unification by issuing its “À Propos de Bottes” scarf in green, white and red. The scarf is emblazoned with boots, a sly reference to the phrase’s translation as “speaking of boots,” an idiom interjected in conversation to change the subject, similar to “on a completely unrelated topic.”
By 1804 Napoleon was on a roll. He was first consul of France, had waged campaigns as far afield as Egypt and had routed the Austrians from most of northern Italy and established a republic under the green, white and red Italian tricolor.
Many admirers, German classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven among them, considered Napoleon a hero spreading the democratic ideals of the French Revolution across the continent. Beethoven dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon, titling it the Bonaparte Symphony. But, accounts have it, the composer flew into a rage when word reached him that Napoleon was declaring himself emperor of France. “He will trample all the rights of man and only indulge his ambition…and become a tyrant,” he steamed, scratching out the title so forcefully that he ripped a hole in the page.
Napoleon’s coronation took place in Paris in December 1804. Five months later he was crowned king of Italy in Milan. Disillusioned as Beethoven may have been with these events, he never denied that he wrote the piece with Napoleon in mind; he ultimately dedicated what came to be known as the Eroica (“heroic”) Symphony to “a fallen hero.”
Mary Shelley kept the heart of her drowned husband, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in her desk. Albert Einstein’s ophthalmologist stored his famous patient’s eyeballs in a jar. Galileo’s finger is encased in a glass egg in Florence.
When it comes to mementos of a personal nature, however, Napoleon, in death as in life, is sans pareil. His alleged purloined penis has been showcased on the auction block, displayed to museumgoers and described in unflattering detail. Most ingloriously, the emperor’s manhood has been kept in a box under a collector’s bed. A far more stirring memento is intangible—Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.” Though the composer withdrew the honor of titling the piece for the emperor, on hearing news of Napoleon’s death he allegedly remarked, “I have already composed the proper music for that catastrophe.” He might have been referring to the funeral march in the symphony’s second movement, or he might have been speaking about his dramatic 1823 choral mass, the Missa Solemnis. Two things are certain: The stormy genius composer was almost as much a force of nature as Napoleon, and like Napoleon’s penis, fragments of Beethoven’s ear bones were spirited away during an autopsy.
Anyone who launches decades of bloodshed can expect some bad press. In 18th-century Britain, where Napoleon was public enemy number one, newspapers sniped about his sexual prowess, remarking that his empress, Joséphine, called him “buon pour rien” (“good for nothing”). A doctor at Napoleon’s autopsy ensured the British knew the emperor’s “private parts were seen to be remarkably small, like a boy’s.” Russian author Leo Tolstoy depicts the emperor in War and Peace (1865–1869) as a plump dandy who snorts and grunts while one aide brushes his chest hair and another sprinkles him with eau de cologne.
Almost two centuries after Napoleon’s death, the media was still riding him. In Love and Death, director Woody Allen portrays Bonaparte as a buffoon whose main priority is to name a pastry after himself before his British nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, can invent beef Wellington. “The future of Europe hangs in the balance!” the emperor screams. Allen conjectures reliably when his Napoleon (James Tolkan) tries to whisk Sonja (Diane Keaton) into bed after a single sip of champagne: Bonaparte was infamous for speedily satisfying his amorous urges, as French writer Stendhal observed, “without so much as unbuckling his sword.”
The oversize hat, the hand in the waistcoat, the white breeches, the self-conceit—Napoleon is a figure who invites caricature. In Love and Death, the hapless would-be revolutionary Boris (Woody Allen) confronts the emperor at gunpoint in a botched assassination attempt. “You are a tyrant and a dictator, and you start wars,” he says. To which the emperor replies, “Why is he reciting my credits?” In the teen comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Napoleon time travels to 1980s suburban San Dimas, California, where some slackers keeping an eye on the emperor decide he’s a “dick” and ditch him. He turns up later at (where else?) Waterloo, a water park—which is actually somewhat prescient. A French business consortium recently introduced Napoleonland, a theme park planned for the site of one of Napoleon’s great victories, the 1814 Battle of Montereau, in which the French routed the Austrians. Mock-ups of Russian battlefields are to be littered with frozen “corpses” and used as ski runs; water spectacles will re-create the emperor’s famous sea battles; and beheadings and other Napoleonic-era scenes will be reenacted—all in the name of family fun. Mon Dieu!
The turn of the 19th century was a heady time in Europe. Napoleon turned much of the continent into a battlefield. Age-old regimes fell; borders were remapped. Beethoven captured the era’s Sturm und Drang in his Symphony No. 3, a moody work that evokes heroism, death and a wide range of emotion. A bold departure from his popular, prettier early style, the symphony challenged conventional taste, doing for music what Bonaparte did for society.
Napoleon and Beethoven never met. Napoleon’s opinion of Beethoven is unknown, though his musical interests ran to military marches. The composer alternately thought Napoleon heroic and tyrannical, but late in life he supposedly commented, “I used to detest him, but now I think quite differently.” The two are teamed more than a century later in the film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, when they are transported to the future to help the callow title characters pass a high school history course. Traveling with them is Socrates. It’s beyond the film’s scope to note that the philosopher conceived many of the classical principles Napoleon and Beethoven admired. Instead Napoleon is enraged by his inability to bowl a strike, and Beethoven is enraptured by electronic synthesizers.