Monday, 9 April 2012

Images of Napoleon on his Deathbed

Little known drawing by Lieutenant Guy Rotton of the 20th Foot
Trevor Hearl Collection, Bodleian Library, Oxford

I have been looking at a recent article by Albert Benhamou which discusses various sketches made by some of the many English who came to Longwood to view Napoleon's body after his death. Among them was the above drawing made by Guy Rotton, an officer in the 20th Regiment, which arrived on St Helena in 1819, and replaced the 66th Regiment on Deadwood Plain in February 1820. (1)

Portrait by Joseph William Rubidge (1802-1827)

Rubidge, a portrait painter, happened to be passing through St Helena at the time of Napoleon's death. His work erroneously portrays Napoleon with sideburns, which also appeared on the romantic painting done by Émile Jean-Horace Vernet (1789 1863) in 1825.

Christ like portrait of Napoleon on his death bed by Vernet

Albert speculates that Vernet might have seen a copy of Rubidge's portrait. He was after all the only professional artist to have attended the scene, and a number of copies of Rubidge's work were printed. Vernet is unlikely to have seen the work of any of the amateur artists who attempted to recapture the great man on his death bed.

Whether the sideburns were on the original or not is unknown. It was apparently bought by George Horsley Wood, and later presented by him to Napoleon III. It seems to have disappeared at the end of the Second Empire, perhaps in the burning of the Tuileries during the Paris Commune.

Finally Albert discusses a drawing sometimes attributed to Louis Marchand, faithful valet to the Emperor.

Drawing wrongly attributed to Marchand almost certainly the work of Captain Marryat

Albert suggests that there is no evidence that Marchand himself made any drawing at this time. He concludes, based on its similarity to another of his works, that it was done by Captain Marryat (1792-1848) of the Royal Navy, who conveniently happened to be on the island at the time. (2)

1. Little is known about Rotton, other than his marriage in January 1820 to Maria South, youngest daughter of Lt. Colonel Samuel South, commander of the 20th Regiment.
2. Frederick Marryat later became known as a children's author, publishing a number of stores based on his sea career, and "The Children of the New Forest", about a Royalist family who hid in the forest during the years of Parliamentary rule in the seventeenth century.


Hels said...

It is interesting that the portrait by Joseph William Rubidge shows Napoleon in full military honours. The others do not.

Albert Benhamou said...

Dear Hels
In my article in French, I separated the portraits made in the morning of the 6th from the others (made in the afternoon of the 6th and on the 7th). The portraits of the 6th show Napoleon in his white shirt: the autopsy was to be carried out in early afternoon. Then, the subsequent portraits show him in full dress, indeed. The portraits made by Welsh, Rubidge and Rotton were made on the 7th, with the same full dress, a short time before they prepared Napoleon's body to take a plaster cast and then place it in the coffin.

Albert Benhamou said...

The sentence "The portraits of the 6th show..." should have been "The portraits of the 6th morning show..."

andrew1860 said...

I bought a 19th century drawing of "Napoleon's body after his death" at a French market. I have since sold it. If I remember right it was artist signed. great post!