Napoleons Tomb, by Horace Vernet 1821
The extraordinary career of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), born the son of a lawyer in Ajaccio, Corsica, who rose through the force of his military and administrative genius to become Emperor of the French, astonished and enthralled many of his contemporaries. As the collection of paintings and miniatures on Napoleonic themes in this gallery demonstrates, one of his many admirers, both French and foreign, was the 4th Marquess of Hertford, the father of Sir Richard Wallace and the principal collector of the paintings now in the Wallace Collection. Lord Hertford lived his early boyhood in Napoleonic Paris, and his mother, the 3rd Marchioness of Hertford, was on friendly terms with some of Napoleon’s most senior officers and ministers, including Junot, Duroc and Talleyrand.
Horace Vernet’s fantastical image, Napoleon’s Tomb, is a version of a painting (now untraced) which Vernet painted in Paris after learning in July 1821 of Napoleon’s death on the island of St Helena two months earlier. Napoleon had been sent in exile to St Helena in the South Atlantic after his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. Vernet (who was a friend of Lord Hertford) was a great admirer of Napoleon, and this painting is an eloquent testimony to the dismay that he and many of his contemporaries felt when the Emperor died. In reality Napoleon’s grave on St Helena was by a narrow stream, but Vernet places it dramatically on a promontory by a stormy sea. The wreckage of a ship in the foreground is inscribed with the names of the Emperor’s most important battles, beginning with ‘Rivoli’ and ending with.’Wat …’ for Waterloo. Napoleon’s sword and his famous bicorne hat lie on the Emperor’s grave. General Montholon and General Bertrand with his family, who were present on St Helena, console one another, while the cloud-borne mourners in the right background include some of Napoleon’s dead officers.
Supernatural scenes of this kind had been encouraged during Napoleon’s lifetime by the Emperor’s enthusiasm for the poems supposedly written by the Celtic bard Ossian (though in reality they were by James Macpherson 1736-96). Gérard, Girodet and Ingres had been among the French artists who had painted Ossianic scenes containing similar visions of ghostly spirits. Either the Wallace Collection’s version of the painting or the original was exhibited by Vernet in his Paris studio in 1822, draped in black. In 1840 Napoleon’s body would be brought back with great ceremony to Paris for interment in Les Invalides. It is not known when the 4th Marquess of Hertford acquired the Wallace Collection’s painting.
2 and 27 December by Stephen Duffy
Ingamells, John, The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Pictures II, London 1985.
Forrest, Alan, Napoleon, London 2011.