The Malta Independent 17 July 2024, Wednesday
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Napoleon: a giant of European history

Marie Benoît Sunday, 16 June 2024, 09:30 Last update: about 2 months ago

I recently finished reading Napoleon Bonaparte  England's Prisoner:The Emperor in Exile: 1816 -21, by Frank Giles, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  At the end of it I was feeling pity for Napoleon who has always had my admiration.   Was he martyr or a menace, should he have been treated  differently or did he richly deserve to be put out of harm's way? I am a Napoleonist but I am well aware that the various writers who have tried to express their opinions of Napoleon and his career have reached different conclusions. He had superlative talents and an extraordinary career. For a certain section of the British he was a victim because of the well known national British characteristic  of siding with the underdog, which Napoleon on his Atlantic outpost had certainly become.  But he had his sympathisers like Lord and Lady Holland.

He died of stomach cancer or arsenic poisoning, depending on who you believe. But maybe he simply died of boredom although Lady Holland kept him supplied with cases and cases of books and at one time he tried gardening,  successfully.

Some French historians treat Napoleon's death as an assassination, which is probably a little unfair to the British.

At its height, the Napoleonic Empire spanned much of mainland Europe. Feted and feared by millions of citizens, Napoleon was the most powerful and famous man of his age. But following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo the future of the one-time Emperor of France and master of Europe seemed irredeemably bleak.

How did the brilliant tactician cope with being at the mercy of his captors? How did he react to a life in exile on St Helena - and how did the other inhabitants of that isolated and impregnable island respond to his presence there? What tactics did he develop to preserve his legacy in such drastically reduced circumstances? Some answers are found in this book.

So much has been written about Napoleon's life but also on his years of exile. In this book the author writes: "What I have tried to do is to re-examine the question of whether the British government of the day treated its prisoner (a designation to which Napoleon would never admit) in an unjustifiably harsh and inhuman way. What was contemporary or near-contemporary opinion about these matters? For example as the years wore on and memories began to fade, did British feeling undergo a change in favour of letting bygones be bygones." Frank Giles admits that in spite of his research some of the analysis remains unavoidably speculative.

The fascination with Napoleon continues. Anyone going to Paris makes it a point of visiting Les Invalides where he is now buried. Queen Victoria visited the monument in 1855. The island of St Helena continues to attract visitors where his empty tomb is a source of interest. We know that the Empress Eugénie, widow of Napoleon III visited the empty tomb in 1880, on her way homeward from the Transvaal where she had prayed at the spot her only son, the Prince Imperial, had been mown down by Zulus.  Napoleon Bonaparte remains a controversial figure long after his death.

So, with Napoleon still on my mind, I came across Madeleine Gera's portrait of him on Facebook and liked it very much. I asked her if I could use it on my diary page and could she write something about it. So here it is.

MADELEINE GERA the artist of Napoleon's portrait writes:

 "After his success in Toulon and Milan, Bonaparte came to Malta on route to Egypt. He was 29 years of age. The invasion of Malta by the French ended the 268 year long Hospitaller rule and established a constitutional tradition in Maltese history, granted free education to all and abolished slavery. Regardless, the occupation also witnessed looting and requisition. A pattern that re-emerges in Egypt.
My portrait 'Bonaparte in Malta 'celebrates him as a vehicle for modernity and change but also explores the concept of the fleeting nature of power and the consequences of ambition .

My canvas
Bonaparte is situated in a Maltese interior with fine furniture of the period.
The painting refers to Ridley Scott's film Napoleon( 2023). I also researched several very famous portraits of Napoleon and found that a consistent likeness was very difficult to find.  I concluded that Ingres's full length portrait of Napoleon as Emperor and Canova's bust to be the most compelling . Antoine Jean Gros was also enormously successful at commemorating Napoleon's success in monumental history paintings. But he also portrayed episodes of suffering and defeat, often within paintings meant to celebrate Bonaparte's triumph. Gros's canvas Bonaparte Visiting The Plague Stricken of Jaffa 'must be seen as a masterly epic from Napoleon's propaganda machine where Gros is assigned the task of retrospectively re representing Napoleon's Egyptian expedition to the French public. Both Gros's painting and Bonaparte on his return to France were enthusiastically received. The painting was executed at a tense juncture in France's history at the controversial transition from Consulate to Empire. The painting is considered as a seminal example of nineteenth century Orientalism.
I paint Bonaparte as a much younger man which he was on arrival to Malta in June 1798. He is situated in a Valletta interior. The body language speaks volumes.., Joaquin Phoenix's interpretation of Napoleon portrays him as an unlikable man. He did convey that he could be brusque and tempestuous. My version is a young tempestuous Napoleon. Unlikable? That depends. He was loved by his men, his wives and by France.
Napoleon was one of the most successful generals of the French Revolutionary armies. Despite his war-winning record, his career ended in defeat. He has since been regarded as a military genius and one of the finest commanders in history. In just ten years he had progressed from being an unknown soldier to being the Emperor of the largest European empire the world had seen in a 1000 years.



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This weekend the Salesians of Don Bosco are organising a sale of a number of paintings at St Patricks in Sliema. The sale will be open between 9am and 7pm Saturday and Sunday.  For further information call Fr Charles Cini SBD on Mob 79492555; email: [email protected]

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