Agustina get your gun…

Agustina_de_aragon4redAgustina Raimunda María Saragossa Domènech was just 18 years old when she found herself besieged in the northern Spanish city of Zaragoza in the summer of 1808. Though the city had not seen war for 450 years, the population rose up with much of the rest of the country as part of the Dos de Mayo (2 May) uprising against the French who had seized power in Spain and replaced the rightful monarch with Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte. The rising was mostly quickly and brutally suppressed but Zaragoza held out and Marshal Bessieres, in command of French forces in north east Spain, detached General Lefebvre-Desnouettes with 6000 troops to take the city.
Their first assault was bloodily repulsed but the French were reinforced by 3000 more troops under General Verdier who, being senior to Lefebvre, took command. The second assault on 2 July was more determined and breached the Portillo, an ancient gateway into the city defended by a hodgepodge battery of old cannons and a heavily outnumbered volunteer unit. Agustina’s lover was an artillery sergeant in this unit and she was delivering food to him when she was caught up in the attack.
The story then merges into myth. The Spanish defenders were wavering under the onslaught. Agustina’s lover and his gun crew had been killed before they could fire off their last round. It is said that the young woman ran forward, snatched the lighted match from her dead lover’s hand and fired the cannon. The leading French attackers, hit by grapeshot at point blank range were mown down, the Spanish defenders rallied and the attack was thrown back.
Fierce fighting continued for a few days then dragged on inconclusively for three more weeks before the French abandoned the siege. Though they would be back.
In December of the same year the French returned. Initially under the command of General Junot, the French progressed slowly but in January 1809 command was taken over by Marshal Lannes, one Napoleon’s most competent marshals. He accelerated the attack. The walls were breached at the end of January but rather than surrender, the defenders set about defending the city street by street.
agustina aragonPestilence broke out in the city and by the 19 February the Spanish commander, José de Palafox, sued for surrender. The defence had cost the lives of approximately 20000 soldiers and 35000 civilians. The French lost close on 10000 men, more than half to sickness. The city was a devastated wreck.
Agustina was captured, her baby child killed. But subsequently she mounted a daring escape from captivity and became the leader of a guerrilla band organising harassing raids and attacks on the French occupying army. As the strategic situation deteriorated for the French Army, her role became increasingly orthodox as supplies and training were covertly provided by the Duke of Wellington.
agustina goyaBy now the legend of Agustina of Aragón was folklore.
After the war, she married a doctor and, late in life, she became a familiar sight in Zaragoza as a respectable old lady, wearing medals, who used to go for walks around the Portillo. Agustina died at the age of 71 in Ceuta.
Agustina-de-Aragon-tt0042185-1950-Peris-Arago-es-0Agustina’s heroism became a popular subject for artists both contemporary and later. The only truly identifiable person in Goya’s “The Disasters of War” is Agustina firing her cannon. Modern culture too wouldn’t let go of the legend. Her story was one of the first subject of silent film in Spain when the epic “Agustina of Aragon” was released in 1929. It was followed by a remake in 1950.

Painter of battles and fantasy myths…


Gros as a young man

On the 26th of June 1835 a body washed up on the banks of the Seine at Meudon, near Sèvres. The artist Antoine-Jean Gros’ longstanding sense of personal failure compounded by his abiding melancholic nature had finally become too much for him to bear and he had committed suicide.

But his career had always been one of emotional conflict, his naturally romantic flair often at odds with the coolly cerebral neo-classical style in favour with his closest contemporaries. In the end he could not arrive at a balance between the styles that satisfied himself and his critics and ultimately that exacerbated his own sense of failure. In hindsight though, it can be seen that Gros’ style was a major influence on the likes of Gericault and Delacroix who followed him. It is a tragedy that he could not see that for himself.

Perhaps though it is as Napoleon’s official “painter of battles” that Gros is best remembered and in a few short years after Napoleon’s coronation he became famous for his grand representations of Napoleon at his most dashing and heroic all of which were aimed at enhancing the myth of the Emperor; in the end, closer to fantasy than fact.


Napoleon on the Bridge at Arcole

It was on a visit to Genoa that Gros met Josephine de Beauharnais who, in turn, introduced him to Napoleon.  In 1796 Gros was with the French army at the Battle of Arcole and saw Napoleon famously lead the attack on the bridge. This incident he immortalized in his first major work, Napoleon on the Bridge at Arcole.

A succession of grand tableaux followed:– Napoleon Visiting the Pesthouse at Jaffa, the Battle of Aboukir, Napoleon on the Battlefield at Eylau.


the_battle of abukir


But after the fall of Napoleon, the principal subject of his grand, mythologizing propaganda paintings, Gros’ star rapidly waned. None of his later works were received with the same enthusiasm as his earlier pictures and his melancholy, stoked by constant sniping from the exiled Jacques Louis David, gradually became all consuming.

Swashbuckling stories from the descendant of a slave…

Not much is known of Marie-Cessette Dumas; even her name is the subject of contention. One of only two primary sources mentioning her has her first names spelled two different ways in the same document and her surname has variously been claimed to be derived from the fang (west African language) word “dûma”, meaning “dignity” or merely from the French “du mas” meaning “of the farm”, a descriptive addition to her first names meant to signify that she belonged to the property.

Either way, she was a black slave, likely captured in West Africa and shipped to the French colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, where she was bought by Marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie some time before 1762. They resided on the plantation of La Guinaudée where Marie-Cessette became his concubine and together they had three children.

It is unclear what fate befell Marie-Cessete. One source suggests she died in 1772 of dysentery. However, a more compelling theory, backed up by a 1776 letter from a retired official on the island, is that the Marquis sold her together with their two youngest children, and the daughter she had with another man prior to their relationship, to a nobleman from Nantes.

This occurred just prior to the Marquis arranging for the other child, the then 14-year old Thomas-Alexandre, to accompany him on his return to France whereupon he was freed. Thereafter, the Marquis spent lavishly on his son, ensuring his education and providing him, in 1784, with a swanky apartment near the Louvre Palace.

general Alexandre_Dumas_(1762-1806)

Alexandre Dumas – soldier

Two years later though relations between Thomas-Alexandre and his father broke down following the Marquis’ marriage to a domestic servant on his estate. Thomas-Alexandre joined the army as a private, his mixed race making it difficult for him to claim noble privilege and join as a commissioned officer, and from this time on he began calling himself Alexandre Dumas.

With the outbreak of Revolution, promotion came fast; lieutenant colonel in 1792, brigadier general by July 1793 and general of division just a month later. By the end of that year he was commander of the Army of the Alps and captured the strategic stronghold of Mount Cenis from the Piedmontese.

Somehow though he fell victim to the mad world of the politics of the day, was denounced and called to appear before the Committee of Public Safety during the Terror. However, he managed to delay his journey to Paris long enough so that Robespierre fell before he was seen.

Service with the Army of the Rhine and the Army of Italy under Bonaparte then followed but relations between Dumas and Bonaparte were strained as Dumas resisted the policy to expropriate local property indiscriminately. However, following Dumas’ heroic effort to single-handedly drive back an entire squadron of Austrian troops at a bridge over the Eisack River, Napoleon rewarded him by making him commander of all cavalry in the Tyrol and the following year giving him command of the cavalry he took to Egypt.

Within a few months the relationship between Napoleon and Dumas had collapsed with Dumas being accused of sedition and being removed from command. Things went from bad to worse for Dumas as his ship sank on the return journey to France and he was imprisoned in Taranto by the forces allied to the Kingdom of Naples.

During two years of captivity his health was broken and he never saw active service again.

In 1802, he and his wife Marie-Louise had their third child, a son, who they inevitably name Alexandre but they were struggling to make ends meet and when Thomas-Alexandre died of cancer in 1806 his widow and her children were plunged into poverty.


Alexandre Dumas – author

The next few years were hard but the family still had their father’s distinguished reputation and finally, after the restoration of the monarchy one of Marie-Louise’s letters to her late husband’s comrades finally paid off. General Maximilien Foy, impressed with Alexandre’s elegant handwriting, secured him a position as a clerk to the Duc d’Orleans, later King Louis Phillippe.

With the security of a steady income behind him he began to devote more energy to his own writing and by 1829 he was beginning to see success. That success would grow and grow. And alongside his publishing success he was to lead a life that was almost as exciting as the characters he wrote about.

He took part in the Revolution of 1830. He built a fantastic chateau on the outskirts of Paris and had to sell up two years later because acquaintances had taken such advantage of his generosity. He travelled widely to Belgium, to Russia and to Italy where he participated in the movement for the unification of Italy.

He wrote in a wide variety of genres and published a total of 100,000 pages in his lifetime. His works, including some all-time classics like The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo have since been translated into a hundred languages and have sold more than any other French author.

alexandre dumas metroAnd he also has a Paris Metro station named after him!

EA 24; the code of the code-breaker…

rosetta stoneOn the 15th July 1799 soldiers under the command of a lieutenant of engineers, Pierre-François Bouchard, were digging foundations for an extension to Fort St. Julien at El Rashid in Egypt when their pick axes and shovels uncovered a slab of black rock with one side covered in masses of engraved text.

Luckily for history, Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt was accompanied by a large body of experts from a variety of disciplines from the Commission des Sciences et des Arts and Bouchard immediately recognised that the stone he had found at El Rashid, then known as Rosetta, would be of interest to the scholars.

bonaparte in front of the sphinx

Bonaparte in Egypt

The first report of the find, just a few days later, by Michel Ange Lancret noted that it contained three inscriptions, the first in hieroglyphs, the second being a language as then unknown and the third in Greek. Lancret rightly surmised that the three inscriptions would be versions of the same text so hopes were raised of it perhaps being able to unlock the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphs that had completely defeated scholars.

By the time Napoleon himself inspected the find on its arrival in Cairo shortly before his return to France in August 1799, it had already begun to be called la Pierre de Rosette, the Rosetta Stone.

A few months later, in 1800, a gifted linguist attached to the French army in Egypt recognised that the middle text was written in the Egyptian demotic script, rarely used for stone inscriptions and, therefore, seldom seen by scholars at that time.

For the next 18 months, following the departure of Napoleon back to France, the remaining French forces were gradually worn down and ultimately surrendered to the British at the end of August 1801 whereupon the Rosetta Stone passed into the possession of the British Army. The grandly named, Colonel Tomkyns Hilgrove Turner escorted the stone back to England where it was presented to King George III in February 1802.


Report of the arrival of the Rosetta Stone in the English press

The King decreed that it should be placed in the British Museum where it was assigned the inventory code EA 24, EA standing for Egyptian Antiquities. It has been on display there ever since except for two years during World War 1 when it was removed due to fears of German bombing and housed in a station of the Postal Tube Railway 50 feet below Holborn.

Over the next twenty years scholars worked on the tablet and after initial breakthroughs by Silvestre de Sacy and the key discovery by Thomas Young that the cartouches contained phonetic characters. This led to Jean-François Champollion being able to construct an alphabet of phonetic hieroglyphic characters which was published in 1822.



It is perhaps fitting that the crucial break in deciphering the hieroglyphs should have been made by a French scholar.

The devil is in the Detaille…

Apologies for the awful pun, but what first sparked my interest in Napoleonic history was visual. I have always been attracted to visual imagery, perhaps that’s why I am such a keen photographer, but specifically with regard to Napoleonic history it was the work in the second half of the 19th century of two French artists, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (below left) and Jean-Baptiste Édouard Detaille (below right).

Ernest_Meissonier Edouard_Detaille

I remember still, when as a teenager I visited the Musée d’Orsay in Paris for the first time and saw Meissonier’s wonderful painting, below, “1814. Campagne de France (Napoleon and his staff returning from Soissons after the Battle of Laon)”.


It is full of drama; Napoleon proud and erect (a bit of poetic license there perhaps as Bonaparte was a notoriously poor horseman) despite the defeat his army had just suffered against the Prussians. Behind him his staff ride silently, most so tired they can barely stay upright in their saddles. And all enveloped in a dark and gloomy melancholy (maybe that was the bit that appealed to the teenager).

I knew of the painting before I saw it first hand and I remember that I was surprised how small it is – about 76cm by 50cm. But it is filled with realistic detail that is characteristic of Meissonier’s pictures. Indeed, in his own lifetime, Meissonier was acclaimed for his mastery of fine detail and assiduous craftsmanship. The English art critic John Ruskin examined his work at length under a magnifying glass, “marvelling at Meissonier’s manual dexterity and eye for fascinating minutiae”.

When a seventeen year old aspiring artist, Édouard Detaille, came to him in 1865 to ask for an introduction to Alexandre Cabanel, another renowned artist with whom Meissonier was acquainted, the master looked at the boy’s work and offered to teach him himself. And Detaille turned out to be an eager disciple in the school of obsessive authenticity.

chasseur imp guardHe first exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1867 and from that point didn’t look back. Like his teacher Detaille too was a master of the small canvas, as in this painstakingly detailed picture of a Chasseur of the Imperial Guard. The canvas is just 31cm by 24cm.

But occasionally both men splashed out to make big, bold statements on big canvasses. Here are two of my favourites, Meissonier’s “1807, Friedland” and Detaille’s “Vive L’Empereur”. I hope they thrill you as much as they do me.

1807 friedland

1807, Friedand


Vive L’Empereur

Satirist with a secret…

“The Plumb-pudding in danger” by James Gillray is probably the most well-known political cartoon of the Napoleonic period, with British Prime Minister William Pitt sitting  opposite Napoleon Bonaparte, both of them slicing up the globe in a bid to gain a larger portion.


But Gillray was not the only satirical cartoonist plying his trade during the period and I recently came across George Cruikshank. Though probably not as well known as Gillray, he had a most remarkable life, living to an age  when photography had been invented and, in later years, leading a double life!


George Cruikshank

George was born into a family of political caricaturists. His father Isaac, and his elder brother Robert were cartoonists and the younger sister Eliza was also a dab hand with a pen or brush.

By the age of about seven George was sketching competently. At ten he was supplying simple designs to wood engravers for children’s games and books. His father taught him the fundamentals of etching into copperplates and by thirteen George was executing the titles of his father’s caricatures, and also putting in backgrounds, furnishings and dialogue.

By the age of twenty he was a a famous cartoonist in his own right providing material for rival radical publications The Scourge and The Meteor. This cartoon is typical of Cruikshank towards the end of the Napoleonic wars.


Little Boney Gone to Pot

Here Napoleon is sitting on a chamber pot ( “Imperial Throne ” ) on the island of Elba. He is in a forlorn condition, suffering from the itch, with large excrescences growing on his toes. He is all alone in his island prison, and tempted by a fiend, who offers him a pistol—“If you have one spark of courage left,” it says, “take this.” “Perhaps I may,” replies Napoleon, “if you’ll take the flint out.”

By his side is a pot of brimstone, numerous medicine bottles, and “a treatise on the itch, by Dr. Scratch.” One of the imperial boots, mounted on a carriage, forms a dummy cannon. His back leans against a tree, to which is nailed the “Imperial Crow,” while from the branches hang a ragged pair of breeches and stockings. The whole effect is to symbolize the Emperor’s decline of power.

After the war George created his best-remembered work as an illustrator for Sketches by Boz and Oliver Twist by his ‘on-off’ friend, Charles Dickens. Sketches by Boz was published in February 1836 with Cruikshank’s 16 etchings, which were praised by Dickens in the introduction.

In 1827, George  married Mary Ann Walker. They were childless, with Mary Ann suffering from ill health, possibly tuberculosis, until her death in 1849. Two years after her death, in March 1851, he married Eliza Widdison. Throughout this period he supported his younger sister and his mother, his father having died of alcohol poisoning in 1811.

On the surface, the bohemian lifestyle of Cruikshank’s youth gave way to sobriety, and the friendship between Cruikshank and Dickens soured when Cruikshank became a fanatical teetotaler in opposition to Dickens’s views of moderation. Though all was not what it seemed in Cruikshank’s private life. He seduced one of the young housemaids, Adelaide Attree, and set her up in her own house virtually round the corner from the house he shared with his wife. He fathered 11 children with his mistress and his maintenance of two households was not fully revealed until after his death in 1878 at the ripe old age of 85.

Punch magazine, which I assume did not know of George’s double life, said in its obituary: “There never was a purer, simpler, more straightforward or altogether more blameless man. His nature had something childlike in its transparency.”


Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun… an independent woman in a man’s world

When I was doing some research on the life of Catherine Talleyrand I inevitably came across the portrait of her during the time when she was perhaps the most famous courtesan in Paris; her 1783 portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun.

I was surprised that the painter was a woman and I couldn’t think of any other women artists of the period. But it turns out that was hardly a surprise. In many European countries the national “academies” were all powerful in the artistic sphere. They were responsible for artistic training, exhibitions, and inevitably artistic promotion through being the arbiters of style. Membership of the academies was closely controlled and most were not open to women. For example, in France, the Academy in Paris had 450 members between the end of the 17th century and the French Revolution; only fifteen were women and, of those, most were daughters or wives of existing members.


Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun self-portrait

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was born in Paris on April 16, 1755. Her father was a successful artist who encouraged her interest in art. She had a natural talent and, when still a teenager, began to attract wealthy clients to have their portraits painted. When, still only 19 years of age, she was accepted into the painters’ guild of the Académie de Saint-Luc, this increased her professional exposure significantly. In 1776 she married Jean-Baptiste Le Brun, an artist and art dealer, with whom she had one daughter, Jeanne-Julie-Louise.

Vigée Le Brun soon became a popular portraitist among the French aristocracy and, in 1779, went to Versailles to paint her first portrait of Marie Antoinette. She became the queen’s favorite portraitist and painted her a total of 30 times over the next decade. It was through the queen’s influence that, in 1783, Vigée Le Brun was accepted into the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, France’s most prestigious professional association for artists, which admitted very few female artists.

In 1789, with Revolution breaking out, Vigée Le Brun fled France with her daughter though her husband remained behind. For the next sixteen years she travelled widely, firstly in central Europe, then spent six years in Russia and finally two years in London before ultimately returning to France in 1805.

She had continued to work throughout this time, it being her only means of independent support, and her paintings were prolific; in her time in Russia alone she produced 44 portraits, her subjects including Tzar Alexander and his wife.

Back in France she suffered no apparent effects from being an emigre in exile and, within months, Napoleon had commissioned a portrait from her of his sister, Caroline, the wife of Marshal Murat. Though Vigée Le Brun describes the sittings as being nothing but a trial due to her sitter’s capricious temperament. In her memoirs she makes no bones about her annoyance. One day when she had been made to wait interminably for the lady to appear she commented to one of her attendants:

…loudly enough for her [Caroline] to hear, “I have painted real princesses who never worried me, and never made me wait.” The fact is, Mme. Murat was unaware that punctuality is the politeness of kings, as Louis XIV so well said.

Vigée Le Brun continued to paint until the late 1820s. She died at her Paris residence on March 30, 1842.