HISTORY OF MODERN FRANCE
From the Pre-Revolutionary period to the 3rd Republic 1770-1870 - Part III
Wednesday, 18 January 2023
Napoléon : from History to Myth
with Sylvie Koneski
May 5, 1821: Napoleon Bonaparte died at the age of 51 in the solitude of Longwood, on the island of St. Helena. Two centuries have passed since his death but he has not ceased to exercise, both in France and abroad, a fascination fed by admiration or hatred.
Some important intellectuals of his time were hostile to Napoleon: Germaine de Stael's salon became, under the Consulate, the den of the opponents of the regime. In 1807, Chateaubriand in Le Mercure de France compared Napoleon to the most bloodthirsty emperors of Roman antiquity. But soon, the construction of the myth began, first in painting, as in Jacques-Louis David’s Bonaparte crossing the Great Saint Bernard Pass (1802) and in literature, with the publication of The Saint Helena Memorial (1815-1816), by Emmanuel de Las Cases. It became the foundation of the Napoleonic legend.
After his death, Napoleon also became a hero to the Romantic generation of the 1830s: Of Alfred de Musset, who detested the returned Bourbons, Lamartine who declared Napoleon as the "the god of a bored generation” and Stendhal who glorified Napoleon in his two great novels “The Red and the Black” (1830) and “The Chartreuse of Parma” (1839). For Victor Hugo, Napoleon was a giant who dominated the century at grips with the forces of an unchained history and Balzac wrote: “What (Napoléon) began with the sword, I will complete with the pen".
In December 1840, the return of the Emperor’s ashes at the Invalides marked the crowning of the Napoleonic myth. Even today, the name Napoleon evokes more myths than realities and his tomb is still one of the most visited monuments in France.
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