Napoleons-Tag auf der Insel St. Helena

The Bowes Museum has a vast collection of historical artwork and artefacts that allow us to gain valuable knowledge of the past through popular art and primary sources from the time. Many of these were graphic prints and cartoons that were easily disseminated across Europe.

Napoleons-Tag auf der Insel St. Helena

This German print is a depiction of the second exile of the Emperor Napoleon I to the island of St. Helena in 1815, drawn by the German artist- Johann Michael Voltz. In the print, we can see a representation of Napoleon on St. Helena on the French public holiday of ‘Napoleon Day’ which had been held on 15 August. This was an extensive celebration that was widely partaken in during Napoleonic France. However, this print by Voltz is a depiction of how Napoleon Day was ‘celebrated’ after his final exile, and shows how dismal the celebration has become. We can see that Napoleon is trying to cling on to any sense of dominance he can find and in this case his only subjects were the rats of the island. He is clearly being mocked by other Europeans in this print. He awards honours and medals to mere rats, and persists in wearing his imperial uniform. Therefore, emphasising the idea that the ex-emperor was clinging onto any hope of staying as a ruling figure.

One interesting point to highlight is that this was made by a German-speaking artist. Here we can gain a good understanding of the attitudes of other countries towards Napoleon. For instance, this shows the vision of the former Emperor from the German states as being almost desperate for power.

The print also contains a lot of symbolism. Napoleon’s medal and honours ceremony recalls the many ceremonies he held during his reign to award high military accolades, most notably via the Légion d’Honneur. We can also see some of his rat subjects dressed as ministers with the wigs and sashes. This shows how he is trying to keep his old way of government and carry on his political reign.

The physical portrayal of Napoleon is also interesting as it is not a flattering one. He is shown as overweight and pale. This puts across the view of Bonaparte by Europe as a physically decrepit joke. This is emphasised, as usual, in his short stature.

The importance of prints such as this one is that they were a relatively cheap and easy way to convey political viewpoints to a wide range of audiences. Graphic satire such as this was effective towards both literate and illiterate audiences.

Overall, this print of Napoleon Day on St. Helena as a very effective piece that highlighted the view of Napoleon from the victors in Europe after his final exile.

The blog post was written by Dan McDermid. This was a research project conducted on the Museum’s French Revolutionary and Napoleonic collections, as part of a module on France in the age of revolution by the History Department at Northumbria University. This visit was funded by Northumbria University’s Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund.

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