London Art Reviews

Magazine of art press and reviews from London

Napoleon finally conquered London: Bonaparte at the British Museum exhibition.

David Franchi – Saturday, 28th March 2015.

The Plumb-pudding in Danger, 1805, James Gillray (1756 - 1815), London, Hand-coloured etching on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Plumb-pudding in Danger, 1805, James Gillray (1756 – 1815), London, Hand-coloured etching on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibitionBonaparte and the British” is worthy of note, at The British Museum, London. The show explores the printed propaganda that either unloved or glorified Napoleon Bonaparte at the turn of the 19th century.

The current year commemorates the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Many are the events ongoing in Europe. Recent is the polemic about Belgian proposal to mint of a €2 coin to honour the victory over Napoleon, but it has been withdrawn after French objections.

Waterloo was the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French general and emperor born in Corsica, but of Italian origins. For 15 years, Napoleon has been THE republican enemy, while he attempted to subvert the monarchic status of the other European states.

From a noble family, Napoleon was born in Ajaccio, in Corsica, on 15th August 1769, just a year after the transfer of the island from the Republic of Genoa to France – for compensation of debts. Thanks to his noble origins, Bonaparte was admitted to the best French military academies, at Brienne-le-Château and then to the elite Ecole Militaire in Paris. At the young age of 16, he was already commissioned as a second lieutenant.

Bonaparte always spoke with a marked Corsican accent and never learned to spell French properly. At school, he was teased by other students for his accent. He initially did not consider himself French. He felt uncomfortable in an environment where his classmates were mostly from the ranks of the highest French aristocracy, and they took him cruelly joking around his name as “le paille au nez = straw for the nose”. The accusation of being a foreigner would haunt him for life.

The young Napoleon kept secretly detesting France and the French. He cultivated the cause of the independence of Corsica, as witnessed significantly from a paper of 1787.

At the outbreak of the revolution in 1789, Napoleon was in his twenties and now official of King Louis XVI. He was

The Gallant Nelson Bringing Home Two Uncommon Fierce French Crocodiles, 1798, Isaac Cruikshank (1764 - 1811), London, Hand-coloured etching on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Gallant Nelson Bringing Home Two Uncommon Fierce French Crocodiles, 1798, Isaac Cruikshank (1764 – 1811), London, Hand-coloured etching on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

able to obtain a long license, went to Corsica, and joined the revolutionary movement. For his constant trips to the island, he risked to be considered a deserter and so returned to Paris. Despite exceeding his leave of absence and leading a riot against the French army in Corsica, he was promoted to captain in the regular army in July 1792.

Meanwhile in Corsica the civil war erupted (1793). Already in 1792, Pasquale Paoli, the Corsican national hero of independence, had returned concerned about the revolutionary excesses of the ‘Terror’. In 1793, Paoli took distance himself from Paris, and appealed directly to the entire population of Corsica to defend their homeland.

The Bonaparte family chose the French cause, despite having supported Paoli at the time of the revolts against Genoa and then against the Armies of Louis XV.

Napoleon commanded an attack to the island of La Maddalena against the Corsican rioters but it failed. The Bonaparte family had to flee to the French mainland.

There, Napoleon organized the siege of Toulon and some military actions against the monarchists and the English in South France that brought him under the spotlights. However, he was suspected of treachery and house arrested in Nice, but was almost immediately freed thanks to his friendship with the Robespierre family and Paul Barras. The latter, on 13th Vendemiaire (5th October 1795) appointed him, suddenly, commander of the square of Paris, with the task of saving the National Convention from the threat of the monarchists.

At this point of his life starts the rise of Napoleon. The exhibition “Bonaparte and the British: prints and propaganda in the age of Napoleon” explores how his impressive career corresponded to the acme of political satire as an art form on both British and French.

The British Museum exhibition is about caricatures. In the UK there were people who supported Napoleon. He was considered a hero and people collected memorabilia.

The exhibition “Bonaparte and the British” is divided in four areas, which are following the life and success of Napoleon. The first area, ‘General to Consul (1796 – 1799)’, is focused on the initial period of the rise to the power of Napoleon, the campaigns in Italy, Egypt and Syria, the Consulate, and the First Coalition of monarchic states against the French republicans.

Maniac Ravings, 1803 James Gillray (1756 - 1815), London, Hand-coloured etching on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Maniac Ravings, 1803 James Gillray (1756 – 1815), London, Hand-coloured etching on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

The second room, ‘Peace, War and Empire (1800-1804)’, considers the beginning of the French Empire, the peace treaties signed with Britain and the Second Coalition, the defeat of Bonaparte internal enemies. In December 1804, Napoleon is crowned Emperor of the French.

The third room is ‘Triumph and disaster. Trafalgar, Austerlitz, Spain and Russia (1805 – 1813)’. Napoleon is crowned King of Italy in 1805, but in the same year he is defeated at the Battle of Trafalgar by the British Royal Navy, commanded by the Admiral Nelson. However, few months later the Third Coalition (Britain, Russia and Austria) with the Battle of Austerlitz is totally destroyed by the French.

In 1806, Napoleon entered in Berlin bringing to an end to the Fourth Coalition (Britain, Prussia, Russian Empire, Sweden, and Kingdom of Sicily) and later the same year he invaded Poland. Britain is repeatedly defeated: in Turkey- French ally against Russia- in Egypt, in Persia, and in South America by the Spanish army. In 1808, Napoleon, unsure about his allies, invaded Spain and Portugal.

In 1810, Europe was finally redesigned according to the will of Napoleon. The territories under direct French control had expanded well beyond the traditional boundaries of pre-1789. The rest of the European states were a French satellite or its ally. However, Russia was not a reliable ally and Napoleon decided to move war in 1812: his first false step. The Russian war was a total disaster and the French are completely defeated during the battle of Leipzig (1813).

The fourth room is “Defeat, exile, transformation: Elba, Waterloo, St. Helena (1814-1815)”. The Sixth Coalition is formed by Russia and joined army of Austria, Prussia and Sweden. It expelled the French army from Germany. Napoleon returned hastily to Paris. He had to experience now the insubordination of all political bodies: the Chambers denounced only now his tyranny, the new nobility created by him turned away, the people tired of war remained cold, the marshals of Empire began to defect.

The allied enemies entered victorious in Paris on 31st March 1814, headed by Tsar Alexander I. Napoleon suffered the tragedy of flight when, through southern France, was forced to wear an Austrian uniform to avoid ending lynched by the crowd. Hastily he embarked at Marseilles on the British frigate HMS Undaunted and, on 4th May 1814, he landed on the island of Elba, where the enemy had decided to exile him, while acknowledging the sovereignty of the island with the rank of prince and retaining the title of emperor.

Napoleon escaped from Elba, on 26th February 1815, with a fleet of seven ships and about a thousand men in tow. The Emperor evaded the surveillance of the English fleet, and on 1st March 1815 landed in France: it is the beginning of the legendary Hundred Days. The people welcomed Napoleon with a surprising enthusiasm and armies sent against him by Luigi of Borbone (the new, but hated, King of France), instead of stopping, joined him.

Quickly reorganized the army, Napoleon proposed the peace to enemies, reunited again in the Seventh Coalition, on the sole condition of maintaining the throne of France, but he was unheard.

To avoid a new invasion of France, Napoleon made the first move coming by surprise in Belgium, where the British and the Prussian armies were deployed. However on 18th June 1815, it is the day of the battle of Waterloo. Napoleon was definitely defeated by the army of teh Seventh Coalition, commanded by the Duke of Wellington.

Cast of the Death Mask of Napoleon, 1830s , Plaster of Paris © The Trustees of the British Museum

Cast of the Death Mask of Napoleon, 1830s , Plaster of Paris © The Trustees of the British Museum

After a long series of twisting situations, Napoleon was finally exiled in the island of St. Helena, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where after few years he died, on 5th May 1821.

The exhibition “Bonaparte and the British” describes the complete rise and fall of Napoleon by using caricatures. At that time these satirical drawings had different prices and some of them were relatively expensive.

Many of works on show at the British Museum are very blunt: the English satire was known for its ferocious approach. They disparagingly called Napoleon, ‘the Corsican’ or ‘Little Boney’, and used the character of John Bull – symbolising the average Englishman – to insult and deride the French Emperor.

English caricaturists, especially the ones in London, were famous. The freedom of speech allowed producing very very rude caricatures, almost blasphemous, that were not possible to be seen in other countries. However, this aggressive propaganda was tempered by the admiration for Napoleon military and administrative talents.

The British Museum exhibition concentrates on works by British satirists who were inspired by political and military tensions to exploit a new visual language, combining caricature and traditional satire with the vigorous narrative introduced by Hogarth earlier in the century.

The works from the British Museum’s own collection are supported by loans from generous lenders such as Sir John Soane’s Museum, the Wellington Collection at Apsley House and others preferring to stay anonymous.

The exhibition begins with portraits of the handsome young general from the mid-1790s and ends with a cast of his death mask and other memorabilia acquired by British admirers. Along the way, the prints examine key moments in the British response to Napoleon – exultation at Nelson’s triumph in the Battle of the Nile in 1798, celebration of the Peace of Amiens in 1802, fear of invasion in 1803, the death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, and happiness at his military defeats from 1812 onwards concluded with his exile to Elba in 1814. The triumphalism after Waterloo and final exile to St Helena (1815), were clouded by doubts about the restoration of the French king Louis XVIII, here reflected by some prints.

Eleven watercolours of the battlefield of Waterloo from a private collection, including three long panoramas, are displayed publicly for the first time. These are the earliest known studies of the battlefield made only two or three days after the fighting concluded.

Through the propagandistic use of versatile medium of caricatures, this exhibition looks at one of the most fundamental period of Europe. Political and social history aspects are illustrated, such as the dichotomy between the Republic of France and the monarchist European countries, where the powerful figure of Napoleon is the catalyst for innovation.

The exhibition “Bonaparte and the British: prints and propaganda in the age of Napoleon” is at The British Museum, Russell Square, London, from 5th February until 16th August 2015.


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