Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte

The beginning of the nineteenth century found France experiencing economic and class struggles as a direct result of the Revolution as well as a new political and ideological order. The French government changed several times during the First Republic after the fall of Louis XVI and the monarchy including: the National Convention, the Reign of Terror, the Thermidorian Reaction, the Directory and finally the Consulate. However, France continued to decline economically and lost important territories such as Canada and the Indies.  This is a very confusing time in French political history. What a mess! Who would rescue France and lead it back to power?

The answer came in an unlikely war hero by the name of Napoléon Bonaparte. Napoléon had just led a military expedition to Egypt in 1798 in order to establish a French presence in the Middle East.  He conquered the Ottoman province and, more importantly (in my opinion), launched modern Egyptology through discoveries made by his army.

[ Nina Burleigh gives a thrilling account of Napoléon’s expedition her book Mirage including the 151 “savants” that he took along- geologists, mapmakers, naturalists, artists and musicologists.    These scholars not only discovered the Rosetta stone, they also compiled a 24 volume encyclopedia Description de l’Egypte ($90 on Amazon), about the natural history of Egypt’s people, Pyramids, daily life, species, and agriculture.  This encyclopedia led to a world-wide “Egyptomania” and the acquisitions of: Cleopatra’s Needle in NY, Luxor Obelisk in Paris, the mummies at the Metropolitan, British and Louvre museums.  (I love, love, love this book; it is a fascinating read!)[see post]

Luxor Obelisk
Luxor Obelisk

In 1799, Napoléon Bonaparte engineered a coup and took power of France.  He signed a Concordat with the Pope to restore the catholic religion which had been abolished since the Revolution.  In 1804, Napoléon became Emperor of the French, but there are differing historical accounts as to who did the actual crowning! According to my French history professor,Mme Kessler,  at the Sorbonne University in Paris, Napoleon was crowned by Pope Pius VII which is also the opinion of Dr. Ravise , author of Tableaux culturels de la France,  French Civilization (a textbook used by many American universities).  However, most American references claim that Napoleon took the crown from the Pope and placed in on his own head !  (I recently lost a pie in Trivial Pursuit as my husband went with the American version on the card!!) The contemporary French painter Ingres sketched the ceremony of Napoleon’s wife,Josephine, being crowned Empress and then proceeded to paint a very large tableau which hangs in the Louvre museum.

Coronation of Josephine Ingres Musee du Louvre
Coronation of Josephine
Musee du Louvre
Napoleon's Crown Josephine's necklace Musee du Louvre
Napoleon’s Crown
Josephine’s necklace
Musee du Louvre

Napoléon created a new court of officers of the French army as well as bourgeoisie nobles. He subsequently reported many military victories in Austerlitz, Iéna, Eylau, and Wagram.  Reliefs of these victories can be seen on the Arc de Triomphe and in paintings which surround his tomb in the Invalides in Paris.  By 1811, Napoléon ruled over 70 million people across an empire which included Europe and maintained these alliances with family appointments:  brothers Louis in Holland, Joseph to Spain, and Jerome to Westphalie; sisters Caroline to Naples and Elisa to Etruria.  He even created a new aristocracy in France and allowed the return of the nobles who had been forced into exile by the Revolution..

Napoleon's tomb Paris, France
Napoleon’s tomb
Paris, France

(Of course there are numerous victories through military campaigns that Napoléon led which I am not including in this post.  **see War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Campaigns of Napoleon by David Chandler, or Napoleon on the Art of War by Jay Luvaas).

Napoléon did bring about many good changes to France, becoming the “maitre de l’Europe occidentale”.  He created the Banque de France along with une nouvelle monnaie “le franc”, created “le Code civil”, created many new schools, the Legion d’Honneur and divided the state into individual “departments” to make it easier to govern.

Unfortunately, Napoléon experienced a great defeat in Leipzig in 1813, abdicated his throne in 1814 and was sent into exile on the island of Elba.  He returned to France for a brief period and was once again defeated at Waterloo after being captured by the British and sent to prison at Sainte Helene, where he died at the young age of 51.

Even in his short reign as Emperor, Napoléon is honored as a hero in restoring France to power.There are many evidences of this honor to Napoléon Bonaparte in Paris through paintings, statues, and monuments:

1) The Vendome Column : in Place Vendome stands a bronze plated column from 1,250 cannons captured from Austrian and Russian troops during the Battle of Austerlitz, considered one of Napoleon’s greatest victories

2) #3, rue D’Antin:  Napoléon and Josephine were married on the 2nd floor of this mansion when it was the office of the Mairie.

3) Church of Saint-Sulpice:  the “Temple of Victory” at the time, General Napoleon was honored here at a banquet.  Directly behind the church is rue Bonaparte.

4)  Luxembourg Palace:  where Napoléon and Josephine lived for a time.

Luxembourg Palace Jardin du Luxembourg
Luxembourg Palace
Jardin du Luxembourg

5)  Site of Tuileries Palace:  between the Arc du Carrousel and the Jardins du Tuileries.  Napoléon lived here for 14 years.

6)  Rue de Rivoli: Napoléon created this large street to ease the heavy traffic of rue Saint-Honoré, one block over.  This rue runs from place de la Concorde to the place du Palais-Royal.  It is named for one of Napoléon’s victories in Italy.

7)  Notre-Dame de Paris:  where Napoléon and Josephine were coronated as Emperor and Empress of France.  A triumphal arch and golden statues of Charlemagne were erected outside the cathedral with elevated platforms of scarlet canopies for their thrones.

8)  Arc de Triomphe de L’Etoile :  Napoléon ordered a new monument dedicated to the Grand Armee built on one of the old city gates in Paris.  At the time there were 5 roads leading to villages outside of Paris.  Today there are 8 grand boulevards including Champs-Elysées.Names of the battles won by Napoléon are engraved around the arch’s top and 386 generals and the names of those who died in action are underlined.

9)  Hotel National Des Invalides & Napoléon’s Tomb :  Napoléon requested a crypt to be buried in of black marble.  After his death on Saint-Helene, Napoléon’s coffin was movied to a few locations and eventually was placed in the Invalide Dome.  Napoléon’s body is encased in six coffins of :zinc, mahogany, lead, ebony and oak.

Fortunately, the 19th century brought about many positive changes in France: political, literary, artistic and scientific.  I will address these in my next blog “ My History Review of France:  La Première Moitie du XIX Siècle, Littéraire France Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac”.

 Further Reading

  • Burleigh, N. (2007). Mirage: Napoleon’s scientists and the unveiling of Egypt. New York: Harper.
  •  Clark, Priscilla P.  Literary France. The Making of a Culture ( University of California Press, 1987)

Copyright 2015 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (