This exhibition focuses on the printed propaganda that either reviled or glorified Napoleon Bonaparte at the turn of the 19th century. It explores how his formidable career coincided with the peak of political satire as an art form on both sides of the English Channel. 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo – the final undoing of the brilliant French general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821).
The works from the British Museum’s own collection is supported by loans from generous lenders such as Sir John Soane’s Museum, the Wellington Collection at Apsley House and others preferring to stay anonymous.
The exhibition concentrates on works by British satirists who were inspired by political and military tensions to exploit a new visual language, combining caricature and traditional satire with the vigorous narrative introduced by Hogarth earlier in the century. The print trade had already made the work of contemporary British artists familiar across Europe. Continental collectors devoured the products of the London publishers, and artists across Europe were inspired by British satires. This exhibition includes work by James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, Richard Newton and George Cruikshank, some of the most thoughtful and inventive artists of their day. The range and depth of the British Museum’s collection allows the satirical printmakers’ approach to be compared with that of portraitists and others who tended to represent a more positive view of Napoleon, as well as with French satires produced both by Napoleon’s regime and by his royalist opponents.
The exhibition begins with portraits of the handsome young general from the mid-1790s and ends with a cast of his death mask and other memorabilia acquired by British admirers. Along the way, the prints examine key moments in the British response to Napoleon – exultation at Nelson’s triumph in the Battle of the Nile in 1798, celebration of the Peace of Amiens in 1802, fear of invasion in 1803, the death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Napoleon’s triumph at Austerlitz, and delight at his military defeats from 1812 onwards culminating in his exile to Elba in 1814. 1815 sees triumphalism after Waterloo and final exile to St Helena, but some prints reflect an ambiguous view of the fallen emperor and doubts about the restoration of the French king Louis XVIII.
Eleven watercolours of the battlefield of Waterloo from a private collection, including three long panoramas, are on public show for the first time. These are the earliest known studies of the battlefield made only two or three days after the fighting concluded.
There were many British enthusiasts for Napoleon. The exhibition has prints from his early days when his popularity in Britain was at its peak, and artists were moving between London and Paris. Printed imagery spread widely across the continent. The ‘Devil’s Darling’, depicting Satan gently holding the infant Napoleon, originated in Germany in 1813 and was copied in in Dutch, English, French, Italian, Swedish and at least thirteen other German versions.
This exhibition explores one of the most crucial events in European political and social history, as well as one of Europe’s most influential figures – Napoleon Bonaparte. The exhibition brings to light the multifaceted power of satire as propaganda.