The French Revolution conveys three especially strong impressions to observers some two centuries later: the liberal and democratic idealism of the early Revolution, the repressive Terror, and Napoleon. But who exactly was Napoleon? Historians chronicle the many different things that he accomplished. A man of relatively plebeian origins, he destroyed the Old Regime all across Europe, liberating minorities and oppressed ethnic groups. He was a military genius. Yet he strove to create a dynasty as he placed relatives and friends on thrones across Europe. And he was also an authoritarian ruler whose repressive state began traditions later used by dictators such as Hitler. He also promulgated a universal law code that regularized legal treatment; still one cannot help noting that his regulations forced women into greater subservience than even before 1789. Freedoms won in the Revolution were lost. A self-made man, liberator, military genius, intellectual, and a bully, who was nepotistic, charismatic, and authoritarian—these adjectives and nouns are among the many that can be applied to Napoleon. To this day, scholars debate the relative importance of all these aspects of his personality and actions in understanding the man.
If the fascination with Napoleon derives in part from the ambiguities in his persona, the first question that one must address is how the son of an impoverished Corsican nobleman became Emperor of France in his early thirties yet was banished to the remote island of St.-Helena before he could reach his fiftieth birthday. The multimedia presentation here provides the outlines of military success, extraordinary political acumen, followed by overreaching ambitions and plans.
In this presentation, you will also see other kinds of various images of Napoleon but these are not carefully considered judgments that a historian would reach. Most of the images here come from the Napoleonic era and reflect either Napoleon’s own propaganda machine or those of his opponents who had little choice but to respond with characterizations. As you see these prints, try to imagine why engravers selected the particular image they used either to praise or vilify Napoleon.
Also, plan to go beyond the media clip here to the book/CD-ROM or the website to investigate such questions as Napoleon’s varying approaches, the reasons for his meteoric rise and fall, and for the admiration and anger still communicated in contemporary images. You too may come to understand why Napoleon was the biggest “celebrity” of his day in Europe. He might be more appropriately compared to a current “star” than to a modern politician. Perhaps the Kennedy’s might be considered a pale imitation of this Corsican who loomed large.