Today I received by courier an exquisite book from 1894 with 330 reproductions of famous paintings pertaining to Napoleon, his battles, life and times. Each reproduced painting has a description below penned by John L. Stoddard. There is no way to accurately reflect how fabulous this book truly is. An unsurpassed record of historical paintings relating to Napoleon Bonaparte.

The story of how I got the book is almost as magnificent as the stories contained within. I bought it on eBay about 10 months ago from a seller in Wisconsin and several times he sent it to me and several times it never made it hear, always getting rejected by Australia Post for one reason or another and getting returned to sender! I had given up ever seeing it and so was nicely surprised when it arrived today.

I wanted to share with you Stoddard’s magnificent introduction to the book, written a mere 73 years after Napoleon’s death, as it poetically describes the story of Napoleon and, in doing so, reflects some of the debate we’ve had in the comments section lately, demonstrating that debate over Napoleon is certainly not a recent phenomenon.

NAPOLEON’S history naturally adapts itself to illustration. His whole career was pictorial. His meteoric course revealed itself in scene, each of which seemed more brilliant than its predecessor.

The pictures of his progress from Corsica to the Throne and from the Throne to St. Helena produce a panorama unequalled in the annals of the world. The life of Napoleon was a tragedy which had the whole of Europe for a stage, Napoleon for the star, kings, queens and warriors for subordinate actors, and for an audience a dazzled world. Act after act of this absorbing drama was performed, yet still humanity looked on in wonder. The interest never waned. No one could possibly divine the end. What seemed at one time an incomparable climax, became the next day by comparison a common-place event; as a bright star of dawn is lost in the refulgence of the rising sun. Even when the tragedy drew near its end, and the colossal background of the stage was black with gloom, Napoleon’s dramatic deeds,—such as his duel with united Europe, his farewell to the Imperial Guard at  Fontainebleau, his marvelous return from Elba,—the stroke of Destiny at Waterloo, and the wild death-scene on the tempest-beaten rock of St. Helena,—lit up the Heavens with a supernatural brilliancy, much as we see a landscape outlined by successive gleams of lightning on an inky sky.
It would be natural therefore to suppose that Bonaparte’s would be the best known figure in the long procession of humanity. Far from it. The world is not agreed about his character. No person in history, not even Mary Queen of Scots, has been the object of such bitter controversy. Emerson has well said,—” To be great is to be misunderstood.” Even the founders of the world’s religions, though deified by their followers, are execrated by believers in all other faiths. To Moslems Jesus is no more the Son of God, than Mahomet seems His prophet to most Christians.

Even today with the assistance of the press and telegraph, prominent statesmen are so lauded by their partisans and vilified by their opponents, that it is difficult to ascertain the truth about them. Gladstone, for instance, is by millions called the “Grand old Man,” By other millions lie is looked upon as a consummate by hypocrite and fraud, The greater the man, the larger is the multitude of his inferiors. The higher his position, the vaster is the sea of upturned faces raised towards his in admiration or in envy. In the case of Napoleon there were special causes why he should have been maligned, and why in death, as in life, his foes have been more numerous than his friends.

Most English writers have been naturally against him. Even in France, in the repeated changes of that nation’s government, there have been times when accusations against Bonaparte were the best passports to reward and fame. Especially since the Franco-Prussian war, a sense of national disgrace has made some French Republicans forget the glory of Napoleon the Great in the disasters of “Napoleon the Little.” Yet there never has been an epoch since his death when the career of the great Corsican excited so much interest as now. IT WILL NOT DIE OUT. The theme is as colossal as his genius, as many sided as his empire, as brilliant as his victories. The literature which treats of him is constantly increasing. New memoirs every year call forth fresh statements and critiques by shedding light upon obscure points in his history, It is Napoleon, THE MAN, who is now being specially portrayed. The result completely demolishes the theory that he was a monster of selfishness, devoid of human sympathies.

Viewed in his relations to his mother, his brothers and sisters, his generals, soldiers and the friends of even his earliest years, the careful sifting of unimpeachable testimony proves that Napoleon was naturally magnanimous, tender-hearted, sympathetic and indulgent to a fault. In fact concessions to his greedy and insatiate brothers and sisters contributed to his downfall. The average estimate of Napoleon, formed partly from hearsay and partly I from a limited reading of his history, is that his measureless ambition deluged Europe with a sea of blood, and that he coldly pushed aside a wife whom he no longer loved to wed a daughter of the Hapsburgs. But a study of the conditions of Europe at that time explains the causes of almost all the Napoleonic wars, as well as of the divorce of Josephine. Before the young Napoleon had ever drawn his sword, all Europe was in arms against Re Republican France. The allied kings, in terror lest their thrones should fall, as that of Louis 16th had done, combined to crush out that audacious spirit of Democracy. Napoleon, as the embodiment of that spirit, vanquished them repeatedly; but they invariably rose again, and almost every year a fresh coalition of three or four nations sent armies to hurl Bonaparte from the throne and place again the hated Bourbons there. That these repeated wars led I lie successful Emperor to imprudences and faults, is but to say that he was human. But all his deeds should be examined in the broad clear light of contemporaneous history; one side of Europe being just as carefully surveyed as the other.

As for the divorce, which forms the second popular charge against Napoleon ,—it is difficult to imagine stronger reasons for such a political step than were urged upon him by all the leading statesmen of France, as well as by his family. Absolute master of a colossal empire, and knowing from experience tile chaos from which he had just brought the French nation to a position of glory and stability, it was a question of tremendous importance who was to govern it after his death. His brothers were incompetent. His generals, like those of Alexander, would inevitably quarrel and plunge the nation into civil war. To found a settled dynasty and thus create a legitimate successor seemed an absolute necessity. Moreover, by marrying into one of the reigning families of Europe, it was supposed that the French Emperor would gain at least one ally, and put an end to the powerful coalitions continually formed against him It is a proof of Napoleon’s natural tenderness of heart that, steadily resisting arguments and appeals, he struggled for years against a separation from the only woman he ever really loved.
Refusing to consider the natural longing of a father’s heart to have a son to follow him in a career of glory, he chose at first his brother’s child to be his political heir, and only after the death of that little prince did he allow the question of divorce to be re-opened. Step by step, despite fierce opposition, he had raised Josephine with him even to the Imperial throne, and when they both accepted the necessity of the sacrifice required, Napoleon’s treatment of her, (not merely in generosity, but in delicacy) is unsurpassed in any such act in either public or private history.

Nothing is more impressive, as we contemplate Napoleon, than the PERMANENCY OF HIS GREATNESS. Year after year accusers rise, assail his memory, and pass away; but still the Vendome. column rises over Paris, and still its plates of bronze portray in beautiful relief his victories o’er united nations. A maddened populace pulls down that noble shaft and the majestic statue breaks, in pieces in its fall, but it inevitably rises once again, and still the Emperor looks down upon the city which he made the political centre of the world. His enemies call him a usurper; but who was ever so enthusiastically and unanimously chosen by the people for their ruler, as was Napoleon to be Consul of France for life? Others delight in branding him as a parvenu; but where among the sovereigns of the past or present can we discover one, whose coronation has been solemnized by the Pope himself, not at the Vatican, but in a foreign capital hundreds of miles away, whither the venerable Pontiff came, (an act unparalleled in history), to place the crown upon Napoleon’s brow! The men who fought against him, Schwarzenberg, Blucher, and even Wellington, sleep in comparatively unknown graves. But Bonaparte, though buried on a lonely, isolated rock; thousands of miles from Europe, no longer slumbers there. His ashes are brought back to France, and with a solemn pageantry and enthusiasm unequalled in all history are laid beside the Seine and in the midst of the French people he so dearly loved. Critics may come and go, but they can never change the solemn fact that Napoleon Bonaparte reposes in the heart of the nation of which he was the Consul and the Emperor, and in the most magnificent sepulcher on earth.

The memory of Napoleon resembles a gigantic cliff emerging from the sea of Time. The waves of calumny may break against it; the lightning’s bolt of hatred may descend upon its brow; the cutting winds of sarcasm and malice may attack its surface; the clouds of misunderstanding may at times conceal it, and even the disintegrating touch of Time may strive to mar its massiveness; but presently the waves are stilled, the tempest disappears, the mists all clear away, and lo! the cliff is there; serene and indestructible.

It is not, however, the purpose of this introduction to discuss Napoleon’s record in detail; nor is the object of this book a critical examination of his life and character. It is to present in a connected series some of the great events of his career, which shall by word and picture suggest a study of the complex life which lies behind them. They do not form an exhaustive narrative. For such a work not fifty volume nor a thousand illustrations would suffice. These pictures rather serve as milestones on a path of glory leading to the grave.

Nothing is more instructive than a study of this path which they commemorate. For twenty years the history of Bonaparte was the history of Europe; and even now, whatever route we take from Paris to the Pyramids, or from Madrid to Moscow, one name continually greets us, carved on the mountains trodden by his legions, reflected in the rivers where his shadow fell, and traced upon a hundred fields where it was whispered fondly by unnumbered lips, ere they were closed in death. It is the magic name —