Napoleon on Board the Bellerophon

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The work by Charles Lock Eastlake is the only portrait of the defeated French emperor ever done by an English painter.

By Vyacheslav Katamidze

They say that during the time that Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France and the countries he had conquered (or reduced to the status of colonies), about two hundred portraits of him were painted. Of these no more than thirty became well known, since they were painted by leading French and other European painters. However, there is one portrait of him that French historians and art critics do not like to talk about: this is a portrait painted from life by the British artist Charles Eastlake, ‘Napoleon on Board the Bellerophon’.

Napoleon surrendered to the captain of the Bellerophon ship about a month after the Battle of Waterloo. All this time the French authorities, including the Provisional Government in Paris, demanded that Napoleon leave France as soon as possible. If he lingered in France, he risked becoming a prisoner of the Bourbons or the Austrians, and in France they really did not want the former emperor to be executed or end up in prison.

It was decided that it was best for Napoleon to surrender to the British and ask them for political asylum. But Napoleon still hoped that he would be able to escape punishment in Europe and reach the American continent.

On 10 July, he sent two of his emissaries, General Savary and Comte de Las Cases, to the British Royal Navy ship Bellerophon to meet with Captain Maitland and discuss with him the possibility of British help in the emigration of the former emperor to the United States.

Napoleon did not know that all the captains of the British Navy, including Maitland, had been ordered not to allow such an unfolding of events on any account. Thus, Maitland refused to help Napoleon, but kindly offered to take him with a small retinue aboard his ship to transport him to the UK. The negotiations went on for several days, and when Napoleon was finally convinced that it would be impossible to soften the position of the British, he decided to surrender to them.

On 15 July, the former emperor arrived on board the Bellerophon and thereby put his fate into the hands of the British Prince Regent [the future George IV].

The Bellerophon first anchored in Torbay, near the small fishing town of Brixham. The rumour that Bonaparte himself was on the ship quickly spread in the town, and dozens of boats surrounded the ship. It was said that the former emperor suffered from seasickness greatly during the journey and that it was time for him to go ashore, to finally be on solid ground. Rumours of this kind and the intense interest of the inhabitants of the coastal region in the Bellerophon’s passenger caused the authorities’ discontent. The UK did not want Napoleon to set foot on British soil at Brixham or anywhere else, so it was decided to move the Bellerophon to Plymouth Bay. Napoleon had to stay on the ship for some time: after all, all the monarchs of the victorious countries, and not just the British Prince Regent, were to decide his fate.

I. Aivazovsky. ‘Napoleon on the Island of St Helena’ (detail). 1897

But soon Plymouth and its surrounding area were agitated by the message that Napoleon was on board the Bellerophon: thousands of local people rushed to hire boats to get closer to the ship and look at the ‘monster’ who had been tormenting all of Europe for decades. They were amazed at what they saw. A plump man of small stature, dressed in the uniform of a colonel of the French guards, was walking around the deck; he sometimes squatted to stretch, or did exercises. When another boat approached the ship, he took off his cocked hat, greeting the ‘tourists’. He seemed to enjoy the attention of the British public. And all this was in no way consistent with the image of the ‘cannibal and exterminator of youth’ that the British had developed…

At that time the painter Charles Lock Eastlake, an expert on European painting and art history, worked in Plymouth. He did not become an ordinary spectator: Eastlake rented a boat quickly, ordered it to go up to the ship and began to make sketches that later allowed him to do the painting, ‘Napoleon on Board the Bellerophon’. And, by the way, this is the only portrait of the defeated French emperor ever done by an English painter!

In the painting Napoleon takes centre stage; a fairly large space on the canvas is devoted to the British flag – a symbol of Napoleon’s final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. To the left of Napoleon we see General Bertrand, a man devoted to him who followed him to the island of Elba. The defeated emperor looks rather blank; he does not know what fate the European monarchs are preparing for him, but the worst awaits him: in prison or exile, where there will be no place not only for battles or campaigns, but also for simple actions, which for him is tantamount to death.

As we know, he was exiled to the island of St Helena, located at a distance of 2,000 kilometres from the African coast. He had complete freedom of movement on the island, took horseback rides and was not limited in contacts with anyone, although there was a detachment of British military and representatives of France, Russia and Austria on the island. The island had a healthy climate, Napoleon did not need anything, but he was terribly homesick. After a life full of action, the former emperor, who possessed a huge capacity for work, felt completely lost. His only serious occupation was dictating his memoirs. In them he recognised the war with Russia as one of his major mistakes, which had catastrophic consequences for him. Napoleon died in 1821.

 As for Eastlake, his painting attracted the attention of the general public; it was called the artist’s indisputable success. His popularity grew rapidly: he began to order canvases on which the portrait, the genre, and the reality of the situation were equally important for the composition.

His knowledge of European painting was highly appreciated. In 1843 he became the first curator of the National Gallery in London, in 1850 – president of the Royal Academy, and in 1855 – director of the National Gallery.

Eastlake was a humanist with an encyclopedic knowledge. In particular, his knowledge of European culture and painting helped not only to form, but also to study the collection of the National Gallery, to which he bequeathed his extensive art collection.

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