Paris The Man

What’s with Napoleon putting his hand in his coat?

Napoleon Statue, Musée de l'Armée, Paris

If you want to mimic Napoleon Bonaparte, just stand straight and hide one hand in your jacket. It’s an immediately recognizable pose and unique to Napoleon, right?

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - hand in jacketLike so many Napoleonic myths, there’s more here than meets the eye.

In fact, the one-hand-concealed stance can be traced back to the days of Roman togas and even to Greek statues dating from 350 B.C.E. More than a hundred years before Napoleon’s rise to power, it had returned to fashion and was considered a refined pose for a gentleman’s portrait.

I’ve included here a portrait of young Mozart in 1764 and one of George Washington in 1776, both painted years before Napoleon’s fame made the pose iconic to him.

George Washington in 1776 - hand in jacketIf you search the internet, you can find similar portraits of Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, Simon Bolivar, the Marquis de Lafayette, Hosni Mubarak, and many others, all with one hand slipped inside their jackets.

According, “in 1738 Francois Nivelon published A Book Of Genteel Behavior describing the ‘hand-in-waistcoat’ posture as signifying ‘manly boldness tempered with modesty.’ ”

I agree that “manly boldness” describes Napoleon Bonaparte, but “tempered with modesty”?

Miscellany The Man

Finding Napoleon in Washington, DC


National Mall - Smithsonian Castle

On this, the three-year anniversary of this website, I decided to do a post about Finding Napoleon in my own hometown.

Napoleon Banner on the National Mall in DCThankfully, last weekend, we had a break in the nasty winter weather. I headed downtown to “our nation’s front lawn,” the National Mall, to catch a few sightings of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Of course, the National Gallery of Art has Jacques Louis David’s full-length portrait of Emperor Napoleon which I featured in a post on October 12, 2012. This weekend the Gallery had promotional banners flying from lampposts in the National Sculpture Garden. Sure enough, there was the extract of Napoleon’s face from that magnificent painting. 

The next Napoleon sighting was at one of the most popular spots in the Smithsonian complex: the gem exhibit at the Natural History Museum. Most people go there to see the Hope Diamond. That famous blue diamond once belonged to French kings, but the revolutionary government forced Louis XVI to turn over the crown jewels. In 1792, the diamond disappeared, only to resurface in England twenty years later. Napoleon never had the chance to own it.

Empress Marie-Louise's crown 2 Marie-Louise w crown

However, the crown of Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise, is displayed in the same room as the Hope Diamond. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, Marie Louise fled home to Austria, taking the crown with her. Eventually, it ended up in the possession of Marjorie Merriweather Post, who donated it to the Smithsonian. The museum information says that in the mid 20th century, the crown’s emeralds were replaced with the less precious turquoise. Interestingly, this painting shows the Empress Marie Louise wearing a similar crown but set with rubies.

Napoleon's Napkin from ElbaOn a last poignant note, a linen napkin, bearing Napoleon’s imperial “N”, is on display in the Smithsonian’s castle building. The exiled Napoleon used it on Elba. He gave the napkin to a visiting American, William Blake, on February 26, 1815. That same day Napoleon escaped from Elba to begin his short-lived triumphant return to France. 

Like so many items that touched Napoleon Bonaparte’s hands, the napkin became a coveted keepsake.


Miscellany The Man

Family Legends about Napoleon


Emperor Maximilian I of MexicoThe most frequent communication I get from readers of this blog goes something like this: 

“I grew up being told that my great-great-great-(grandfather/uncle, etc) was a (close friend/servant/doctor/personal guard) of Napoleon. Have you come across our family name in your research?”

I’m always happy to respond. Sometimes I can point the questioner to a website where they might get help. Occasionally, particularly if the ancestor in question hailed from St Helena, I might put their information in a blog post.

But how much scrutiny can most family legends take? In this holiday season, filled with Santa Clauses, elves, and flying reindeer, it’s appropriate to tell the legend from my own family that comes closest to touching on Napoleon—in this case, Napoleon III, the first emperor’s nephew who ruled France from 1852 – 1870.

One of Napoleon III’s more dubious exploits—and he had several—was the installation of Maximilian of Austria as Emperor of Mexico. Needless to say, many locals weren’t thrilled. A rebellion ensued and the French forces were routed.

Shirt Emperor Maximilian wore at his ExecutionIn 1864, my grandmother’s grandfather, Ferdinand Heinrich Englebert Osthaus, had followed Maximilian to the New World, expecting to make his fortune as “a gentleman farmer.” From here, I’ll quote the document my father left me:

“After the army of Juarez captured Mexico City in 1867, Maximilian and his followers took refuge in Querétaro north of Mexico City. Querétaro, too, was captured and Maximilian tried by court martial and executed in June of that year. Family tradition has it that Maximilian was “shot in Grosspapa’s shirt,” because his clothing was in such disrepair after being in prison that Osthaus lent him a shirt, which he was wearing when he was executed.”

It turns out there was a photographer, François Aubert, who took photos of Maximilian’s body and his effects. In this photo,  Aubert memorialized the very shirt my ancestor claimed as his own. Since the photograph was famous in its time, I do wonder if it prompted my great-great grandfather to claim a little of its gory glory after he fled Mexico to join his brother in Wisconsin.

As a child, this family myth fascinated me. Now it makes me realize how much I wish there had been photography (Video! Audio!) in the Age of Napoleon I. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a candid shot of the Great Man? Think of all we could learn that can’t be discerned from the staged portraits of his day.


Miscellany The Man

Dying Gaul, Once a Guest of Napoleon Bonaparte

Dying Gaul, from 100 AD, seen at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Yesterday when I saw this beautiful, life-sized statue at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, I was surprised to learn of its history with Napoleon Bonaparte.

National Gallery of Art, Washington, DCOriginally crafted about 100 AD, it was rediscovered in 1623 during construction of a Roman villa. Its fame swiftly spread throughout Europe. King Philip IV of Spain and Louis XIV of France had full-sized replicas made. Lord Byron mentioned it in his poem Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage, and painters from Velázquez to David were inspired by it. Thomas Jefferson hoped to acquire a copy for an art gallery he envisioned at Monticello.

Scholars say it depicts a defeated Gallic warrior in the moment before his death. The mortally wounded man, who probably was the sculptor’s enemy, is portrayed with dignity, compassion, and humanity. Although made of marble two thousand years ago, Dying Gaul almost breathes in agony. 

What does this all have to do with Napoleon? It turns out the statue’s trip to DC is only its second voyage ever. The first took place in 1797. While conquering Italy, Napoleon confiscated the Dying Gaul as a war prize and had the statue transported to Paris where it was displayed in the Louvre. In 1816, after Napoleon was ensconced in St Helena, Dying Gaul was repatriated to Rome.

Don’t judge Napoleon too harshly for stealing artworks from his conquered foes. He was following the custom of his time. At least he didn’t destroy them as many other conquerors have done.

The Man

How tall (short) was Napoleon Bonaparte?

BBC Chart- height_world_leadersRecently, a friend of mine said, “The one thing we all know about Napoleon Bonaparte is that he was short.” Thus two-hundred-year-old British propaganda still overrules established fact. 

British cartoon from Napoleon's eraThe truth? Napoleon Bonaparte was between 168 and 170 centimeters, or 5’6” – 5’7” in height. While that’s not imposing—all but five US presidents have been taller—it was above the 5’ 5’’ average for a French male in Napoleon’s era. Coincidently, James Madison, at 5’4″ our shortest president, was in office during six years of Napoleon’s reign. Yet we revere him as a founding father and never mention his height.

So how did Napoleon become characterized as a pint-sized guy in a huge hat?

Convenient circumstances help justify the myth. First, in his time, the French standard for a “foot” was larger than that of the British, so Napoleon’s 5’2” in French feet equated to 5’7” under the British (and American) system. Next, Napoleon surrounded himself with the tall, imposing figures of his Imperial Guard who dwarfed his average stature. Then there was his nickname, “the Little Corporal,” earned while he was a young general who could not resist micromanaging artillery positions during battle. His troops bestowed that title out of fondness for the officer who so intimately shared their danger under fire.

All that fed into the British narrative of a pipsqueak upstart who threatened the aristocratic status quo. What better way to diminish his figurative stature than to mock his physical one? For more than a decade, the British papers were full of cartoons like the two shown here. With no photography or television to correct the impression, the British, and by extension the American public, took it as fact.

British cartoon from Napoleon EraIn the late 19th century, Leo Tolstoy added to the myth. In War and Peace, Tolstoy, who had fought in Crimea against Napoleon III and despised Napoleon I as an enemy of Russia, depicted the Emperor as “the undersized Napoleon,” and “the little man with white hands.” He called him “child-like” and “spoiled.”

Finally, in the early 20th century, psychotherapist Dr. Alfred Adler dealt a crucial blow to Napoleon’s image. An Austrian contemporary of Freud, Dr. Adler proposed the Napoleonic Complex as a part of his Theory of Personality. In it, he attributed excessive aggressive behavior to short men due to their inferiority complex. To this day, research goes on to debunk this widely-held, non-scientifically-based view.

But perhaps, I’m overly sensitive to this particular Napoleonic myth. Full disclosure: I’m 5’2” (almost).

Miscellany Paris The Man

Poem about Napoleon’s general, Marshal Michel Ney

Michel Ney, Marshal of the French Empire, by François GérardNapoleon’s general, and later Marshal of the Empire, Michel Ney was born the son of a cooper (a wooden-barrel maker). Originally a non-commissioned officer, Ney rose through the ranks due to his courageous leadership in battle. Tradition holds that he was the last Frenchman to leave Russian soil during the disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812. For that, Napoleon nicknamed him “the bravest of the brave.” 

His performance in subsequent years is more ambiguous. In 1814, he helped force Napoleon’s first abdication, telling the Emperor that the Army wanted peace and would obey its chiefs rather than the Emperor himself. Napoleon then accepted exile on Elba, and the Bourbon dynasty was restored to power. The new king, Louis XVIII, rewarded Ney with honors.

Ten months later, Napoleon escaped his exile and started his 500-mile march to Paris, gathering soldiers along the way. Ney bragged to Louis XVIII that he would bring “Napoleon to Paris in a iron cage.” However, when Ney encountered Napoleon, Ney’s soldiers deserted him to join the Emperor’s forces. Napoleon, in his typical fashion, forgave Ney and reinstated him as a Marshal of his army.

The Battle of Waterloo took place three months later. Ney is often blamed for Napoleon’s defeat on that day. It’s true that Ney and his forces were not where Napoleon had designated they should be and that Ney diverted other French troops away from the main fighting. That might have been enough to tip the balance against the French in a battle even Wellington called a “near-run thing.”

If Ney contributed to Napoleon’s loss at Waterloo, he ended up paying the ultimate price, as you shall see at the conclusion of this poem:

            To a Young Girl in Washington Square Park*

                        A poem by George Green


            Lolling beneath the Garibaldi statue,

            you look like some pre-Raphaelite Cordelia,

            except you’re tarted up for rock and roll.

            Your beauty is the barrel you’ll go over


           Lord Byron's Foot by George Green the falls in, and you’re copping now, I see—

            I hope it’s only pot. Oh I would row

            you back to Astolat, and swiftly too,

            but that’s just not my job. You’re on your own,


            And while you gambol off to get your buzz,

            the statue tries to pull its damaged sword,

            snapped off by hooligans eons ago.

            That sword reminds me now of Marshal Ney,


            who charged at Waterloo with half a saber

            brandished above his powder-blackened head.

            Five horses fell from under him, before,

            unscathed, he made it out, at last, on foot,


            only to find disaster on the roads,

            and gallantry in short supply; though he

            would tramp along, apparently unshaken,

            to Paris and a Bourbon firing squad.


*Copyright 2012 by George Green. Reproduced with permission, from Mr Green’s poetry volume, Lord Byron’s Foot, published by St Augustine Press: I highly recommend the book.

The Man

Napoleonic Historical Society 2013 Conference

Mark Schneider as Napoleon at the Napoleonic Historical Society 2013 Conference

I just attended the Napoleonic Historical Society’s annual conference, held this year in Alexandria, Virginia, not far from where I live. The schedule was packed with interesting, informative talks on battles, personalities, and culture of Napoleonic times. Even I gave a brief presentation about my voyage to St Helena

The highlight for me was our final dinner where the guest of honor was Napoleon himself . . . well, it did seem like that at the time.

It was actually one of the world’s foremost Napoleon enactors, Mark Schneider. As you can see from the photos, Mark has the right look (his mother’s French; his father American), but his talent goes beyond appearances.

Napoleon, my husband and meHe claims to have had a fascination with the Emperor since he was a toddler who clutched a tiny figurine of the Great Man as other children might cuddle a stuffed animal. Mark’s mobile features capture Napoleon’s commanding stare, then transform into a swift smile of melting charm. His movements are abrupt―decisive rather than awkward―and slightly self-conscious as I suspect Napoleon’s own to have been.

Having spent the last several years living in Napoleon’s head, trying to see the world through his eyes, imagining the next words he’d say, the next thought he’d try to conceal, I was transfixed to meet the man in the flesh.

I wanted to bring him home with me, but my husband said Best not.

Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

Dove Named After Napoleon Bonaparte’s Niece

Zenaide Doves cuddling up on my back deck, named after Napoleon's niece

As mentioned in my previous post, Napoleon’s nephew, Charles Lucien Bonaparte was a prominent ornithologist. He was also married to his cousin, Zénaïde, who was Joseph Bonaparte’s daughter. The first to scientifically identify the American mourning or turtle dove, Charles named the affectionate bird the Zenaida macroura

Joseph Bonaparte's daughters (Napoleon's nieces), painted by Jacques Louis DavidIn this lovely painting, Jacques Louis David depicts Zénaïde Bonaparte with her younger sister, Charlotte. After Napoleon’s final abdication in 1815, the girls and their mother fled to Belgium. Here the young ladies are shown reading a letter from their father, Joseph, who had escaped to America. Their mother was too afraid to cross the ocean, but in 1821, nineteen-year-old Charlotte travelled alone to her father’s estate outside of Philadelphia.  Amazingly, Dr John Stockoë, a former British Navy surgeon who had treated Napoleon on St Helena, was on the same ship.

A year later, after Zénaïde married her cousin Charles, she and her new spouse joined her father and sister in the United States. Charlotte stayed in Pennsylvania for about three years; Zénaïde for almost six.

Their father, Joseph, lived in the United States for almost twenty years, always hoping—some say scheming—for the restoration of the Napoleonic empire. But, after fleeing in 1815, he never set foot in France again.

Miscellany The Man

Finding Napoleon in Alaska? Yes!

Bonaparte's Gull

As my friend and noted Napoleonic scholar, J. David Markham, likes to say, “Napoleon Bonaparte is everywhere.” You are so right, David! Sure enough, while I was vacationing in Alaska, I came across this species of seagull, commonly called “Bonaparte’s Gull.” 

It’s not, however, named after Napoleon.  It’s named after his nephew, Charles.

Charles Lucien Bonaparte (1803 – 1857) was the son of Napoleon’s political firebrand and frequently estranged younger brother, Lucien. In 1822, seven years after Waterloo and a year after the Emperor’s death, Charles married his cousin Zénaïde. The couple then moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to live with Zénaïde’s father, Joseph Bonaparte.

Charles Lucien Bonaparte 1803-1857 (Wiki Commons)Charles Bonaparte is an excellent example of the self-taught citizen scientists of his day. An avid naturalist, he focused his studies on ornithology. During his time in the US, he joined the scientific societies of Philadelphia where he presented his findings and became friends with John James Audubon.  Between 1825 and 1833, he updated The Natural History of Birds Inhabiting the United States to include more than 100 new species he had discovered.  Among those was a kind of pigeon he called the Zenaide, after his wife.

Bonaparte’s Gull, however, was discovered by George Ord, another leading ornithologist of the time. Ord named the bird after Charles in recognition of his contributions to natural science—one more example of how the Bonaparte family changed the world.


Finding Napoleon in Alaska?

Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte in Alaska? Unlikely. Nonetheless that’s where I am. I’ll be back thinking about Napoleon again sometime late next week.

Copyright © 2011, 2012 Margaret Rodenberg