The geniuses we remember are those who somehow capture our imagination. This might be down to luck, design or deliberate manipulation. Napoleon Bonaparte benefited from all three.
In June 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Army were defeated by British and Prussian forces at Waterloo, in present-day Belgium. Almost three decades later, a museum dedicated to Napoleon opened in London’s Piccadilly.
London musical agent John Sainsbury created his museum to honour Napoleon’s “wonderful character and uncommon genius”, traits Napoleon deliberately promoted. But the French emperor’s own propaganda isn’t the only reason we remember him as a special, talented individual.
It is impossible not to be dazzled and overwhelmed by [Napoleon’s] character and career.
A military mind
As a boy, Napoleon was a talented mathematician. When he joined the French Army as an artillery officer, his mental skills helped him rise quickly through the ranks.
Napoleon had an extraordinary ability to visualise troop locations and recall information about munitions and supplies. Plus, he appreciated how to deploy these resources to gain the best possible outcome on the battlefield. By 24, Napoleon was a general. Three years later he became commander-in-chief of France’s army in Italy.
When fellow general Henri Clarke travelled to Italy to observe Napoleon’s talents, he reported to the French government that the younger general had sure judgement, stayed calm under pressure and could restructure his plans at great speed, a vital skill in the heat of battle. Clarke also praised Napoleon’s energy and vigour, and the influence he held over his men. He reported that, “There is no one here who does not regard him as a genius, and he really is.”
Napoleon conformed to English polymath Francis Galton’s view of genius as intellect combined with the zeal and grit to overcome obstacles. But he also presented a compelling image to his soldiers, superiors and the public. In fact, Napoleon spent as much time crafting the myth of his own genius – through official documents, speeches, print publications and the arts – as he did on military strategy.
Shaping his story
In 1796, during the Battle of Lodi, at a small town outside Milan, Napoleon chose to storm a bridge held by the Austrian Army rather than waiting for the enemy’s likely retreat. It was a minor, unnecessary, victory. Napoleon inflated its importance in his official report by claiming to have defeated twice as many opposing soldiers. This looseness with the truth was common; he regularly exaggerated victories and played down setbacks.
Napoleon’s version of events was shared with the public through two free French-language newspapers, which he set up. Reporting from Italy, each targeted readers with a different political bent. Though the publications had limited circulations, their articles were picked up by Paris papers and Napoleon’s victories became the talk of café society in the French capital.
The truth is not so important as what people think to be true.
The Battle of Lodi, Napoleon later wrote, was the first moment when he felt “superior” to other men and capable of “executing great things”. Yet, knowing he had to win support from his soldiers, he deliberately addressed them as “brothers” and upped their pay and rations. When he helped artillerymen load a cannon during the heat of battle, Napoleon encouraged the story of his lowly labours to spread among the troops.
Contemporary paintings of the Lodi skirmish focused not on Napoleon but on groups of soldiers crossing the bridge under fire. Within six months, Napoleon had commissioned artists to tell the stories he wanted the public to see and remember. At a time when painters were expected to represent nature and history truthfully, Napoleon’s artists shaped and promoted his image above all else, while editing the historical record as he demanded.
Looking the part
Written accounts of the time describe the young Napoleon as small, pale and slight – not exactly the stereotypical image of a military or political colossus. Look at a range of paintings of him and you’ll find that his facial features vary. That’s because he was more interested in presenting an idealised image of himself than posing for realistic portraits.
What do you need a model for? Who cares whether or not the busts of Alexander resemble him? It is enough if we have an image of him which conforms to his genius.
By the time French artist Jacques-Louis David painted Napoleon and his troops crossing the Saint Bernard Pass in the Alps in 1800, the general had overthrown the French government to become First Consul. Napoleon instructed David to show him “calm on a spirited horse”, a stance that emphasised his strength and his genuine ability to overcome challenges.
The painting positioned Napoleon away from – and much larger than – the artillerymen he had once fought alongside, as if he was a superior being. By echoing earlier portraits of other great leaders in history, it suggested this unelected leader had a legitimate right to his role.
The reality of Napoleon’s alpine journey was a little less impressive. Napoleon is thought to have followed his soldiers over the Alps on a mule, an animal much more suited to navigating steep and narrow mountain paths. However, David’s stylised painting was so well-received that four other versions were commissioned. Four years later, the artist was honoured with the title ‘First Painter of the Emperor’.
Napoleon also aligned his image with the Roman emperors who ruled Western Europe centuries before. He instigated his appointment as ‘Emperor of the French’ in 1804, and was often shown in classical dress, wearing a laurel wreath like the Caesars of ancient Rome. He adopted the eagle, a Roman motif, as a personal symbol of strength and power.
The growing legend
Within four years of the Battle of Lodi, Napoleon had built up such a compelling myth of himself as hero, saviour and man of the people that artists and writers spontaneously reinforced it. Poems, plays, songs, pamphlets and newspaper articles all presented Napoleon as the great preserver of French liberty.
Generally speaking, we may say it is on the testimony of the newspapers that men believe in the existence and exploits of Napoleon Bonaparte.
English and French alike sought out souvenirs of Napoleon. Getting close to something owned or touched by him offered, as collector William Bullock wrote in an advertisement for the London display of Napoleon’s carriage in 1816, “an immediate connection” with great events and “almost immediate contact” with Napoleon himself.
Perhaps this was why the commander of British forces at Waterloo (the Duke of Wellington) and the British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel both paid visits to John Sainsbury’s Napoleon Museum. This enormous collection of paintings, sculptures and letters included personal effects such as a monogrammed wine bottle used by Napoleon the morning after the Battle of Waterloo, a pen with which he wrote his memoirs, and a piece of wallpaper from the room where he died.
‘Napoleoniana’ like this even caught the interest of Henry Wellcome, who acquired Napoleon’s toothbrush and a lock of his hair. These were almost certainly categorised as ‘relics’, a term that traditionally describes the belongings or remains of a saint, but which Wellcome applied to items owned by notable people.
A man of his time
Napoleon set out to perform the role of the heroic genius, but he was also in the right place at the right time. The French were already honouring great men in the place of kings and saints, while the French Revolution, which began when Napoleon was 19, had opened up new routes to political greatness. The uprising also demonstrated the power of the pamphlets, artworks, music and festivals Napoleon would later employ.
Even when Napoleon’s fortunes changed after Waterloo, his banishment to the remote South Atlantic island of St Helena coincided with an era where the image of the lonely, tortured or suffering genius held great sway. Napoleon’s story demonstrates that genius relies not just on talent, or even on public relations, but also on time and place.
About the contributors
Anna Faherty is a writer and lecturer who collaborates with museums on an eclectic range of exhibition, digital and print projects. She is the author of the ‘Reading Room Companion’ and the editor of ‘States of Mind’, both published by Wellcome Collection.