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

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.

Napoleon was rubbish…

…at billiards!

He had no liking for the game and even less aptitude. He preferred to use the green baize table for laying out his maps; much better than spreading them around him on the floor. Yet even the Emperor who had no liking for the game, in exile on St Helena, had a billiards room in his house, Longwood (below).


Not necessarily ironically but perhaps comically, his two wives, Josephine de Beauharnais and then Marie Louise of Austria, were much more enthusiastic players and I can only imagine the Emperor’s fits of temper as he was beaten for the umpteenth time by one wife or another.

By the time of Napoleon, the game had already had a long history. It is thought its original form was played in France since the 1340s and Louis XI certainly owned a billiard table in the 1470s. It is thought the name derives from the term “billart”, one of the sticks originally used to shove the balls across the table.

Josephine had a billiards room in her chateau of Malmaison and often had a game before breakfast but, more often, played late at night, as recounted in the memoirs of Louis Constant, Napoleon’s valet:

“She loved to sit up late, when almost everybody else had retired, to play a game of billiards… It happened on one occasion that, having dismissed everyone else, and not yet being sleepy, she asked if I knew how to play billiards, and upon my replying in the affirmative, requested me with charming grace to play with her; and I had often afterwards the honour of doing so.”

Apparently Josephine’s daughter, Hortense, was a whizz around the table. It seems poor Napoleon was surrounded by women who could thrash him at the popular salon game.

But there was another element to the game which made it a rather appealing spectator sport, for some. Ladies’ fashion of the time was for flattering dresses in gauzy material and low, scooped necklines.


Boilly’s painting, here, has a distinctly erotic element to it. And it’s not just my lurid imagination running away with me. In the always-frank memoirs of Captain Coignet, serving in the Imperial Guard, he comments on a similarly pleasurable pastime regarding the billiards prowess and style of the Empress Marie Louise:

“Marie Louise was a first-rate billiard-player. She beat all the men; but she was not afraid to stretch herself out across the billiard-table, as the men did, when she wanted to make a stroke, with me always on the watch to see what I could.”

When he adds, “She was frequently applauded” I find I’m not at all surprised.

Beautiful, dimwit, survivor, princess… Catherine Talleyrand

In researching the background to a follow up to my novel Bitter Glory, I have become interested in some of the female characters who populated Napoleonic high society. I think several will end up as the subjects of posts here but I have chosen Catherine, the wife of Napoleon’s Foreign Minister, the arch schemer Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord.

Catherine Noele Worlée was born in India in 1762, in the hot and sultry southern region of Tamil Nadu, the daughter of a French colonial administrator. It is undoubtedly fanciful but I can’t help but think of that region of crazy heat, sultry humidity, exotic spices and full of contrasts as some kind of metaphor for the lady’s character.

For Catherine was just 15 when she became mistress of George Francis Grand, an English civil servant, shortly after her family relocated to Chandannagar. They were married the following year, 1778. Yet within a year of their marriage an outraged George Grand had caught his wife in flagrante with Sir Philip Francis, a member of the supreme council of Bengal.

For the next three and a half years Catherine lived with Philip Francis… and his wife in an apparently amicable arrangement. But in 1782, for reasons that are unclear Catherine left India and set sail for France. In Paris over the next ten years she moved through a series of lovers each either wealthier or better connected than the last; bankers, politicians, aristocrats. When Vigee Le Brun painted her portrait here she was one of the most famous courtesans in Paris.


But in 1792, with the horrors of the Terror just around the corner, she fled Paris for London and the patronage of more influential lovers.

She remained in London for three years, returning to Paris in 1795 after the fall of Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety and the establishment of the more moderate Directory. A year later she had been introduced to Talleyrand and by 1797 they were lovers, Talleyrand having set her up in her own house at Montmorency.

They were certainly an odd couple. Perhaps it was the attraction of opposites. Talleyrand was urbane, aristocratic, fiercely intelligent, ruthlessly calculating and Catherine was, frankly, none of these things. She was of relatively low birth and had little formal education and she is mocked in various memoirs as being a dimwit; her social faux pas became the stuff of legend in polite society. The story of her mistaking the French traveller, writer, and artist Vivant Denon for Robinson Crusoe and insisting over dinner on talking about how he met Friday may be apocryphal but it gives an idea of the stories about her that were doing the rounds. But, perhaps Talleyrand had had his fill of the imperious Germaine de Stael and her ilk.

And let’s face it, Catherine had other attributes; her beauty was incontestable. With blue eyes, luxurious masses of blonde hair, perfect skin and incomparable grace, she was acknowledged as one of the reigning beauties of the time.

Through Talleyrand’s influence Catherine finally secured a divorce and in 1798 she had moved into his Paris residence where the celebrity couple of the age embarked upon a glittering round of social engagements. Invitation to the Hotel Gallifet became the most sought after ticket in Paris.

In 1802 the couple married at the urging of Napoleon Bonaparte who did not appreciate his chief minister living openly with his mistress, but after their marriage the couple began to drift apart, her husband ultimately giving her enough money to live luxuriously in London.

The Princesse de Benevente, for she kept her husband’s title, moved back to Paris to live out the last few years of her life and she died there in 1834.

Standard opinion of Catherine is that she was stupid but I’m not so sure. In an age where women were most distinctly second class citizens she rose from obscurity to fame and fortune using whatever talents and attributes she had. She ended up a princess, fabulously wealthy and had married the man who, after Napoleon, was the most powerful in France. Not bad for a provincial nobody.

Humble necessity or heroic achievement….

bonaparte alps1

Bonaparte’s  crossing of the Alps in the spring of 1800 has been  portrayed as both but the pictures say more about the reasons for their commissioning than about the reality of the feat that led ultimately to the great French victory at Marengo.

The heroic image was commissioned by Joseph Bonaparte to impress the king of Spain. Napoleon liked it so much he commissioned his own copy and in the end Jacques Louis David ended up creating five variations of the image. The more humble portrayal by Delaroche was commissioned by a collector of Napoleonic memorabilia in 1850.

Whatever the reality of the crossing may have been, the feat was a logistical nightmare. Lucky for Napoleon that he had a logistical genius to manage the movements of his army. Whatever his limitations on the battlefield no one can deny the skill with which Alexandre Berthier, Bonaparte’s chief-of-staff, planned and executed a route of march.

The episode is central to the opening chapters of my novel, Bitter Glory, so I thought I would post something about this dramatic offensive.

Bonaparte’s masterminding of his army’s crossing was undoubtedly a strategic master stroke, falling upon the rear of the Austrian army that had its focus on the Var front towards Nice and the siege of Genoa on the coast. But the move wasn’t without risk. Snow was still thick on the main passes. The going was difficult for cavalry and close to impossible for artillery. The guns had to be dismantled and sledges improvised to move the heavy barrels. And when the vanguard under General Lannes reached the fortress at Bard, manned by a relative handful of Austrian troops, the plan almost fell apart completely.

The fortress dominated the valley of the river Dora Baltea as it tumbled down towards the plain of Lombardy from the high Alps. Built on a sheer promontory at a sharp bend in the river its guns could sweep all approach paths. Provided the defenders had some backbone they could hope to stave off any attack that lacked full blown siege machinery, and Bard’s commander, Hauptmann Josef Otto Stockard von Bernkopf, a veteran of the Kinsky regiment, had that backbone. It was only the discovery of a shepherd’s path high up the valley side that allowed Lannes’ infantry to push ahead via a precarious detour.

But push on he did. Lannes, Bonaparte’s best leader of vanguard troops, was aggressive and daring. He abandoned his artillery and forced on with whatever units could make it over the shepherd’s path. After five days, with actions at Chatillon, Bard and Ivrea, he was down the valley and into the fertile plain of Lombardy.

The campaign had not stalled and history was ready to be made.