A few weeks ago, shortly after the news broke that the curator of the Guggenheim Museum had offered President Donald Trump a gold toilet as an artwork-commode for his private quarters in the White House, I found myself in Montreal, examining a toilet meant for another powerful rump.
The cream-colored chamber pot had been custom made for the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte when he was a prisoner of the British on the island of Saint Helena after his 1815 defeat at Waterloo. The English furniture maker commissioned to design the former emperor’s household furnishings had come up with this elegant Grecian chamber pot. But it turned out to have a fatal flaw: a neoclassical laurel wreath encircled its rim. Out of the question, said the scandalized British authorities when they laid eyes on it. Fearing their hostile prisoner would misinterpret the laurel as a symbolic nod to his long-gone imperial status, the pot was, so to speak, never pressed into service.
The British knew what they were doing. Their captive was no ordinary mortal but the master propagandist of the age, a man who had conscripted everything from the press, opera, theater, and music to art, porcelain, coins, medallions, uniforms, furniture—in short, every communication device available—to burnish his image as hero and savior of the French Republic. In such protean hands, even a lowly chamber pot was in danger of being weaponized.
The motif of the laurel carried an especial goad. It conjured up Napoleon’s coronation portrait, a sumptuous neoclassical confection of the new emperor with a gilded laurel crown around his head and forelock carefully arranged à la Caesar. By choosing a Roman power haircut instead of the powdered wig favored by the recently guillotined Louis XVI, Napoleon had effectively managed to establish a distance from France’s corrupt ancien régime while simultaneously offering himself to his adoring patrie as heir to the noble Augustus. The portrait radiated a seductive message: here stands the emperor of a new Rome. Simple, direct, and powerful, it bore the stamp of Napoleon’s consummate image-making skills.
That ubiquitous portrait—dozens of copies were made and distributed throughout the conquered territories—and the offending chamber pot are part of a stunning exhibition on Napoleon’s imperial household mounted by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Dramatically positioned at the entrance, the coronation portrait has the desired effect of pummeling the viewer with awe, whereas the chamber pot is in the final gallery, a somber space imbued with the melancholy of the Saint Helena years. Together, the two laurel-bearing objets d’art make for a piquant set of bookends that mark the remarkable career of a complex Corsican who rose to be warlord of Europe and—love him or loathe him—one of the most influential figures in history.
Five years in the making, “Napoleon: Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace” is the accomplishment of the French curator Sylvain Cordier and MMFA’s director general, Nathalie Bondil. It is an intelligent and compelling show, comprising some of the most iconic paintings Napoleon commissioned as well as a wealth of royal accoutrements: the tall gilt crucifix and candlesticks from his wedding altar, candelabra from his bathroom, enormous Gobelin tapestries, Sèvres porcelain, silk uniforms, urns, chapeaus, sabers, and gold furniture. But while exhibitions like this are visually imposing, they run the risk of being no more than a dazzling cabinet of curiosities. This one escapes that trap because the pageantry has a hard-nosed political story to tell: the story of how the emperor skillfully deployed the fine arts for purposes of ideology and official propaganda. Taken together, the more than four hundred objets d’art form a narrative that helps answer that central question dominating Napoleon’s life: How did a sallow Corsican of minor nobility, whose mother tongue was Italian and who grew up loathing the French, transcend his roots and rise to be the emperor of France? Military genius is the correct but incomplete answer. At every stage, what helped to advance and consolidate Bonaparte’s political career was his genius for mythmaking. He was commander in chief of an extraordinarily successful publicity and censorship campaign whose cynical maxim was his own: “It is not what is true that counts, but what people think is true.”
Political propaganda existed centuries before Napoleon, but he is regarded by historians as the first modern propagandist. In his seminal 1950 work Napoleonic Propaganda, Robert Holtman says Napoleon was the “first sovereign to talk to his subjects directly and frequently” through bulletins and orders of the day, and the first to utilize the machinery of government “towards systematic official propaganda activity of the type we know today.”
Napoleon used bulletins in the way that Trump uses Twitter—with aplomb and mendacity. By issuing regular dispatches of victorious battles and other feats—usually dictated by him—he bypassed the press and spoke directly to his base, his beloved Grand Armée. The bulletins were also meant for the wider public, the peasants, city dwellers, diplomats, foreign leaders, and peoples of conquered states. Printed in the official mouthpiece, Le moniteur universel, and pasted on the walls of churches and town halls throughout France, they magnified Napoleon’s triumphs and played up his tactical brilliance, obscuring the times sheer luck, opportunism, or enemy bungling had won the day. In glowing prose, they recounted how their dear leader had marched stoically on horseback for hours in the soaking rain, bespattered with more mud than “the least drummer boy of the army.” Enormously popular though these bulletins were, it was scarcely possible to fool all the people all of the time, and soon, “to lie like a bulletin” became a running Parisian joke. Despite this, the steady blast of hype emerging from military headquarters had its desired impact, and the bulletins became a source of inspiration for the army. If a battle started to go badly, Napoleon’s standard feint was to recall past battles won—not very different from Trump recalling his electoral-college victory in all caps on Twitter every time he’s in the crosshairs.
Alternative facts were an obligatory part of the emperor’s arsenal. In Napoleonic Propaganda, Holtman writes that Napoleon “frequently relied on a slim, necessary base of truth.” Sometimes that slim base was less than wafer-thin. Notoriously, during his Egyptian campaign, after failing to invade the fortified city of Acre in Syria in 1799 and losing hundreds of men to plague, injury, and thirst, Napoleon issued bulletins announcing that he had razed Acre to the ground so that—in an eloquent biblical touch—“not a stone remains upon another.” This was shockingly untrue but impossible to fact-check in faraway Paris. And so when General Napoleon slunk away from his army in Egypt and returned to France, he was greeted like a triumphant warrior, a welcome that set the stage for his coup d’état.
As the Acre bulletin proves, Napoleon was a propagandist long before he became emperor in 1804. From the very beginning, writes political scientist Hans Morgenthau, Napoleon “was a deliberate artisan of his own legend.” In 1796, as a twenty-six-year-old general, he led from the front and drove the mighty Austrian army out of northern Italy. Anxious to broadcast his exploits, he quickly started two newspapers. The articles were worshipful. “He flies like lightning, and strikes like thunder,” one report read. Even more audacious was his order for medals to be struck, engraved with the figure of Hercules and the legend “Napoléon Bonaparte, général en chef de l’Armée d’Italie.” Hercules had long been an allegorical figure on French coins, but for a newbie general to so smugly equate himself with the son of Zeus was perceived as an act of hubris—for which he was no doubt chastened by the fates when his navy suffered a crushing defeat at Trafalgar, in the shadow of the Pillars of Hercules.
But bulletins were only flimsy bits of paper, and coins were puny, little things. For a more ceremonial and enduring narrative of la gloire, the emperor turned to art. The Salon, a grand biennial held at the Louvre, became his chief propaganda platform. From 1800 to 1812, eighty portraits of Napoleon were exhibited there. He ordered that his major victories be “consecrated” in paintings. Every one of these works was micromanaged by France’s polished commissar of culture, Dominique Vivant, Baron Denon, the director of the Louvre and Napoleon’s top brand manager, who called his boss “the hero of our century”—an obsequy no doubt predicated more on survival than sycophancy. Denon gave artists exact instructions on what to paint and laid down the composition, the number of figures to be included, their skin color, and the size of the canvas and frame. What resulted was a series of authorized portraits that transmogrified Napoleon into Augustus, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, and even Christ himself. In Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa, Antoine-Jean Gros created a moving tableau vivant of him visiting his stricken men. Some historians believe he did lay hands on his soldiers; others are more skeptical. The Romantic writer Chateaubriand, who was a fierce Napoleon critic, debunked the mythmaking in his Memoirs from Beyond the Grave:
It was not enough to lie to the ears, it was necessary to lie to the eyes: here, in an engraving, we see Bonaparte taking off his hat to the Austrian wounded; there we have a little soldier-boy preventing the Emperor’s passage; farther on Napoleon touches the plague-victims at Jaffa when he never touched them in fact; or he crosses the St Bernard Pass on a high-spirited horse in snowy weather, when in fact it was as fine as could be.
Recently, the ghost of Napoleon and that “high-spirited horse” rode briefly through the news when President Barack Obama unveiled his official portrait at the Smithsonian. The artist Obama had commissioned, Kehinde Wiley, is known for his subversive (if formulaic) painterly prank of placing black men in lily-white works of European art to create counterhistories that question the grands récits of history. Two of his wittiest pastiches utilize Napoleon paintings: Jacques-Louis David’s exultant portrait of Bonaparte in a billowing red mantle crossing the Saint Bernard Pass in the Alps on a high-spirited horse (in reality, Napoleon had ridden a mule, was swaddled in furs, and led by a guide) and another one by Ingres of the emperor coddled in crimson ermine. In the former, Wiley replaced Napoleon with a black man in Timberland shoes, while in the latter, the rapper Ice-T takes the Emperor’s place. No doubt terrified of being similarly arranged, no-drama Obama cautioned Wiley against putting him on a horse, joking, “I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon.” Wiley obliged, but if he had in fact swapped Napoleon for Obama, the portrait would have had—comical optics apart—a strangely apposite thematic resonance in one respect. As America’s first black president, Obama is a disruptor—but then, so was Napoleon.
He was, in every sense of the word, an outsider—and perhaps the anxiety of that illegitimacy fueled his need to perpetually embellish his image. Born a Corsican, he existed, to borrow E. M. Forster’s superb phrase, “at a slight angle” to France, and all his life he spoke French with a strong Corsican accent. Napoleon was a child of the French Revolution, coming of age at its inauguration in 1789 and rising on its savage winds to take charge of a country sickened by the orgy of slaughter it had released. After a decade of the Reign of Terror, there was a craving for peace and order. The brilliant young general was eager to present himself as the beau ideal of both republic and empire—an oxymoronic goal that he nevertheless pulled off with the help of his galère of artists and obedient pressmen. “We have all been enlisted, even if we don’t wear a uniform,” the painter Anne-Louis Girodet complained in a letter to his friend. “Paintbrush to the right, pencil to the left, forward march.”
One of the trickier areas to manage was the emperor’s religious profile. Napoleon was not a believer and was impatient of Christianity. But he was acutely aware of France’s deep religious roots, so he signed a concordant with the Pope, got the church bells—which had been silenced by the Revolution—to start pealing again, and began to reluctantly attend Mass. It helped greatly that his second wife, the Hapsburg princess Marie-Louise, had been raised Catholic and was very religious. “He divorced his first wife and great love Josephine and married Marie-Louise because he wanted an heir,” Cordier says. “But she was also a classic trophy wife. At some level, he was desperate to be recognized as French aristocracy, and Marie-Louise, the niece of Marie Antoinette, was the epitome of the upper, upper, upper European echelons.” Marie-Louise’s religiosity suited her husband perfectly, but it also caused an unexpected problem for Napoleon’s brand. “Marie-Louise would attend Mass at the official chapel every day,” Cordier says. “Then she was told by an official: We have a problem. Your coming to Mass everyday shows that the Emperor never comes.”
Other more tender aspects of the emperor’s personality were duly publicized as well. One of the most charming paintings at the Montreal exhibition is of Napoleon’s young, barefoot niece toting a bust of the emperor. On her face is the hint of an impish smile, suggesting she knows her toy is a forbidden one but that her benevolent uncle will forgive her transgression. The painting, exhibited at the first Salon, was a masterstroke of propaganda. It is easy to imagine people at the Louvre crowding around it with indulgent smiles. Although unlikely that a child could lug such a heavy bust, the artist had caught a moment of truth: Napoleon had strong, near-obsessive family ties and was a devoted son, brother, husband, father, and uncle; when it came to his army, he called his soldiers “my children” and knew many of them by name.
The gush of sentimental propaganda emerging from the Tuileries Palace was accompanied by oppressive censorship. Freedom of speech died under Napoleon. Every scrap of printed matter, from books and plays to librettos and poems, was censored. It’s very revealing that the two principal henchmen of his propaganda campaign were Denon and his police chief, Joseph Fouché. The former, in his role as director of the Louvre, got the artists to bend their brushes in an acquiescent manner; the latter shut down newspapers and theaters that failed to fall in line. When Napoleon came to power in 1804, there were seventy newspapers in Paris; by 1810, there were only four. Before he shut them down, he ranted against the mainstream newspapers, calling them fake news—or, in the parlance of the day, “royalist propaganda” or “in the pay of the English.” When Chateaubriand wrote a pointed piece about how the tyrant Nero “prospered in vain,” he was banished to the outskirts of Paris and his literary newspaper slapped with a suspension. Napoleon was especially afraid of plays that portrayed kings as cowards, demanding that the words je tremble be excised from Henry IV’s mouth. It’s a measure of his paranoia that even when he was fighting wars in faraway Milan or Tilsit, he found time to write pestering letters to his police chief about plays and operas. A weary Fouché described him as “perhaps the most easily offended and most mistrustful man who ever lived.”
Of course, caricature of the emperor was out of the question. But strangely enough, writes the historian Alistair Horne, Napoleon had a “morbid fascination” for the savage British caricatures by Gillray, Cruikshank, et al, that pilloried him as the devil himself or as a dwarf riding a donkey. These caricaturists were handsomely paid by the British government to churn out works of propaganda. Why Napoleon—so neurotic about his amour propre—would want to study these skewerings is baffling. They were scatological and unabashedly vulgar—Charlie Hebdo had nothing on them. But his behavior, in a way, recalls that of Vladimir Putin—another anti–free speech despot—who is said to be obsessed with the brutal video of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s lynching, watching it again and again in appalled horror.
It’s not as if Napoleon shot or gassed thousands of political dissenters like Stalin or Hitler did—for instance, his threat to have Chateaubriand sabered on the steps of the Tuileries Palace for the Nero article turned out to be a brutum fulmen. But the chilling, stifling environment he created and the flattery he so cynically encouraged are a permanent taint on his legacy. His narcissism got more virulent after the birth of his son and heir in 1811. With a dynasty to protect, his megalomania coarsened. Even a fairly sympathetic Napoleon biographer like Steven Englund goes so far as to say in his Napoleon: A Political Life that at its nadir, the Napoleonic period witnessed “the worst suppression of freedom of the press in France until Vichy.” A real shame, says Englund, because it was all so unnecessary.
And yet Napoleon’s propaganda campaign had a lasting impact on collective memory. Historians have noted that his fifteen-year regime brought incessant war, taxation, and, ultimately, defeat. Why, then, was he so revered by the Paris street? He was feared, no doubt, but he was deeply admired and loved as well. So many tyrants have futilely resorted to publicity blitzes. Why did Napoleon succeed where others failed? Biographer Steven Englund’s answer—a persuasive one—is that there were enough “elements of truth” in the tangle of lies to allow people to distinguish between literal and metaphorical truths. “A painting of Abraham Lincoln breaking chains of a small African-American boy does not show an actual event,” writes Englund, “yet its non-veracity does not detract from its truth.” Similarly, he says, no one really thought that Napoleon had crossed the Alps in a flaming red mantle on a high-spirited horse. Instead, the picture was viewed through a metaphorical lens—it symbolized his victory over the mighty Austrians, a fact that was real enough. And that is what they held on to.
In other words, the seeds of greatness in Napoleon’s character were real enough for his people to wink at the dissembling, the distortions, and the puffery. It is naive to think of the populace as a gullible herd of sheep who unquestioningly swallowed the thick pancake of self-promotion.
More likely, they believed in the greatness of the emperor at a fundamental level. For all his megalomania, Napoleon was, by any yardstick, an extraordinary leader, a fearless general and an autodidact with an adamantine will who pioneered monumental reform, enacted the Napoleonic Code, abolished feudalism, championed science, established the modern French educational system, and promoted a meritocracy—his generals were not the incompetent offspring of marquesses and comtes but the highly competent sons of stable cleaners and barrel makers, and in this he was a true heir to the ideas of the French Revolution. “Take away the artifices of the Napoleonic legend, and what is left is the greatest man of action the western world has seen,” says the political scientist Hans Morgenthau. “He revolutionized warfare and military organization, law and administration; he made Europe ready for the modern age.”
Two centuries after his death, after thousands of biographies, histories, caricatures, and intemperate comparisons to psychopaths like Hitler and Stalin, his heroic image has not atomized. “It is perhaps the most enduring of all his victories,” Cordier says. The Brits on Saint Helena may have won the battle over the loo, but l’Empereur never loosened his grip on the laurel.
After the exhibition closes in Montreal on May 6, it travels to the Virginia Museum in Richmond (June 9–September 3), the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City (October 26, 2018–March 3, 2019), and the Château de Fontainebleau in France (April 13–July 15, 2019).
Nina Martyris is a freelance journalist who writes on literature, history, and food.