Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and the 1st empire

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821), France’s greatest ruler and one of history’s finest military leaders, died almost 200 years ago, on 5th May 1821. In the light of that imminent anniversary, art collectors and historians are once more turning their attention to the many social, political and artistic achievements that he instigated. Napoleon was not only a military genius but a man of great intellect with a passion for the arts who commissioned the finest craftsmen of the day to create works that reflected his power and aesthetic sensitivity. Over the years Nicholas Wells Antiques has acquired a number of works that tell of Napoleon’s rise to fame and eventual demise as well as the type of artefacts that he himself admired and inspired. Before we refer to them directly, it is useful to describe who Napoleon was, why he became such an important figure and how he shaped French and indeed European arts and history.

In his book Napoleon the Great, Andrew Roberts refers to Sir Winston Churchill’s description of Bonaparte as the greatest man of action born in Europe since Julius Caesar. Interestingly Napoleon greatly admired Caesar, whose own regime and artistic style he emulated when creating his own empire. Napoleon’s beginnings showed little promise of his later fame when he was born into a minor noble family, on 15th August 1769, on the French owned island of Corsica. As the first Corsican to study at the École Militaire in Paris, he subsequently proved himself as an astute military strategist during the French Revolution, when firstly he played a pivotal role in supressing a royalist uprising in Toulon in 1793 and another in Paris on 5th October 1795. Having been made a general at the early age of 24, within a few years he was regarded as France’s most popular general. 1802 saw his appointment as First Consul, followed in 1804 by him crowning himself as the first Emperor of France. Having successfully restored national peace after the Revolution, Napoleon imposed a series of reforms that united the country, many of which still exist today. For instance, he introduced the first proper accounting system, dramatically reduced inflation and reformed the tax code; he rebuilt much of Paris, including many of its present-day bridges, arches and avenues and also re-established religious tolerance. Having successfully conquered Egypt, Austria, Germany, Poland and Spain, his army then suffered catastrophic losses when invading Russia in 1812. The following year he was defeated at Leipzig; he was then forced to abdicate and was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba. Having returned to France, Napoleon was finally defeated a few months later on 18th June 1815, at the Battle of Waterloo.

Napoleon’s rise to power came at a time when France’s political position was in chaos – when Louis XVI and the ancien régime was overthrown, and the French Revolution began. A pivotal point in the latter was the storming of the Bastille on 14th July 1789. That event is shown to great effect in an intricate collage in our collection.

Dating from c.1820, it is composed of carefully rolled pieces of paper, based on an original print by the lithographer Napoleon Thomas (b. 1810). Exactly ten years after the storming of the Bastille, during the French campaign in Egypt, Napoleon defeated Mustafa Pasha’s Ottoman army at the Battle of Abukir, where a magnificent mother of pearl flintlock rifle, identical to one in our collection (Click here to View)

, was seized from the Mamluk chieftain. During his Egyptian campaigns (1798-99), Napoleon was keen to record Egypt’s wonders and thus took with him a group of scholars and scientists as well as the artist Baron Dominique-Vivant Denon. In particular, Denon’s subsequent published drawings encouraged a renewed interest in the arts for the Egyptian taste during the Directoire and Empire periods. However, the main artistic influence at that time was derived from classical Graeco-Roman art, which is perfectly exemplified by an imposing marble tazza with entwined serpentine handles by Lorenzo Bartolini (1777-1850) (Click here to view).

Believed to have once stood in the sculpture gallery at Chatsworth House. As one of his favourite sculptors, Napoleon appointed Bartolini as professor of sculpture at the Italian Accademia di Belle Arti in Carrara, where he also headed the Carrara workshops. The marble workshops were strongly supported by the Emperor’s sister Eliza and became an important centre for creating high quality carved marble likenesses of the Emperor and his family. Most of those Napoleonic portraits were faithful copies or variations of original models by such celebrated sculptors as Canova as well as Antoine Denis Chaudet (1763-1810), of which our gallery has a very fine example.

Portrait bust of Napoleon by Antoine Denis Chaudet 1763–1810

In addition to sculptors, Napoleon commissioned the finest painters, goldsmiths, bronziers and ébénistes who each created works that reflected the grandeur of the Empire style, as typified by the superb ormolu mounted burr elm commode and matching secrétaire à abattant, attributed to Bernard Molitor (1755-1833), which is among one of our recent discoveries.

Following France’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon surrendered to the British who escorted him on HMS Bellerophon to England where he learnt that he was to be exiled to the remote volcanic island of St. Helena, in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. The last six years of his life were spent on St. Helena, on the Longwood estate, firstly in an existing residence and then at New Longwood House, designed in the Grecian style by William Atkinson (c. 1773-1839), which is shown on the front of an intricately carved Chinese ivory cardcase.

The fact that the cardcase was made in Canton, China and after the Emperor’s death, shows how far his influence reached. Likewise, earlier pieces of furniture were subsequently adapted to reflect the Napoleonic interest, such as a North Italian walnut bureau cabinet from circa 1750 which has later ring handles, each showing a profile of Bonaparte as a young general.

Most of the furniture, curtains, wall and floor coverings, as well as household utensils for New Longwood House on St. Helena were supplied by George Bullock (1782/3-1818), an acclaimed furniture maker and designer whose patrons included the British royal family. Among those items was a French Grecian style mahogany and ebony pedestal library desk, which Bullock supplied in 1816. Interestingly our gallery has recently acquired a Carlton House desk, attributed to Bullock which ranks alongside many of the finest pieces of the period.

The reverse of the aforementioned cardcase is as significant as the front since it portrays Napoleon’s tomb on St. Helena. On 9th May 1821, four days after his death and as per his wishes, France’s first Emperor was buried beside a glade of willow trees and a spring in the Sane Valley. He himself called it the Vallée du Géranium owing to the profusion of geraniums, which he often passed when visiting Richard Torbett, a shopkeeper and Longwood’s main supplier, and also Dr Kay, a doctor for the East India Company. Nineteen years later, Louis-Philippe of France obtained permission from Britain to exhume Napoleon’s body and return it to France for a burial befitting of the nation’s hero. Thus, on 2nd December 1840, over a million people lined the streets of Paris to watch Napoleon’s funeral entourage make its way to the Dôme des Invalides where his remains still rest today beneath a gigantic sarcophagus. Such was Napoleon’s fame, that even after his death and second burial, likenesses of the man continued to be made. Among them were a series of bronze statuettes by and after the French sculptor Émile Coriolan Hippolyte Guillemin (1841-1907), of which some examples can be seen here.

We hope that this brief introduction to Napoleon and the Empire period will whet your appetite to look at each of the items in more detail. In so doing, one can gain a greater insight into Napoleon’s life and the remarkable legacy that he left behind. He was a man who established much of the present French political, social and judicial system; who created many of the glories of Paris; who was the subject of over 3000 biographies; who inspired Beethoven and gave rise to the Empire style that defined a wealth of the decorative arts.