Napoleon - An Intimate Portrait

The Rise to Power

Born on the island of Corsica off the western coast of Italy into a family of minor nobility, Napoléon gained admission to France’s Brienne military school as Corsica had become a provence of France just before his birth. Arriving at the school at the tender age of 9, he found himself friendless and ostracized because of his relative poverty and thick Italian accent. He read incessantly and excelled in math and geography.

At 16, Napoléon was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the artillery. His genius as an artillery officer led to early military successes. The first was at the siege of Toulon, where his strategy forced the British fleet to retire. Later in Paris, he used his artillery regiment to disperse a crowd that threatened the ruling Directory. Paul Barras, the Directory’s head, repaid Napoléon for his help by putting him in charge of the Army of Italy. Barras also introduced the young general to the widow Rose de Beauharnais. Napoléon married this sophisticated, yet kind beauty and gave her a new name – Joséphine.


“Bonaparte at the Arcole Bridge”
After Baron Antoine-Jean Gros - 1798
In this famous image, Bonaparte is portrayed here crossing a bridge, under enemy fire at the head of his men, helping to win the battle of Arcole. The painting from which this came became famous for its portrayal of the young general's bravery and leadership, though its greater significance is as an important propaganda piece which helped build the Napoléon legend. In fact, Bonaparte never led his men across the the bridge, his advance on that day was forced back, his force was almost annihilated, and he was thrown with his horse into the surrounding marsh. Victory was ultimately secured by a cavalry attack two days later.
Lithograph engraving. First print.

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Images © Chalençon
A Traveling Exhibition from Russell Etling Company (c) 2011