1769 – Birth of Napoleon Bonaparte
On 15 August 1769, Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio, in Corsica, into a aristocratic family. He parents, Charles and Letizia already had one son, called Joseph. There would eventually be five boys (Joseph, Napoleon, Lucien, Louis and Jerome) and three girls (Elisa, Caroline and Pauline) in the family. Napoleon was mischievous and disruptive and was often told-off, but even from an early age, he enjoyed learning.
Did you know… that Corsica became part of France just before Napoleon was born? It had previously been controlled by the Genoan Republic, in Italy. Napoleon’s first words were Italian! Today, you can still visit the house where Napoleon was born, which has become a museum.
1779 – A future general
When he was ten years-old, Napoleon left Corsica to go to military school in Brienne (near Auxerre). This was a school reserved for boys from aristocratic families. Napoleon read a lot, especially history books, and he was good at mathematics as well. He did not have many friends though, and his classmates made fun of his Corsican accent. When he was fifteen, he moved to the military school in Paris. He was to become an officer and command soldiers. At school he wore a uniform and learnt to use weapons and ride a horse. Once he had completed his education, he was sent to join his new regiment in the south of France.
Item. This is the compass that Napoleon used whilst at school. He used it to get his bearings and find his position on a map: the needle always points north. (Napoleon Bonaparte’s compass at Brienne military school, Musée de Malmaison © RMN)
1796 – The Première Campagne d’Italie
The young general Bonaparte was sent to Italy. The army that he commanded was exhausted and lacked uniforms, ammunition and food. Napoleon knew how to motivate his troops, though, and he won many victories, including at Arcola, Rivoli. The peace treaty was signed in 1797.
Portrait. The painter Jean-Antoine Gros chose to depict his subject in motion: Napoleon’s left hand is grasping the flag and he is looking over his right-shoulder, ready to lead his army into battle! (Painting: J.A. Gros, General Bonaparte on the Arcola Bridge, 17 November 1796 [detail], Musée du château de Versailles © RMN
1798 – The expedition to Egypt
In 1798, Napoleon was sent by his government to… Egypt! The expedition was top-secret: the troops left from different ports and the soldiers did not initially know where they were going. The French won some battles, but the heat, the desert, thirst and long marches tired out the soldiers. Napoleon eventually had to return to Paris with some of his troops.
Did you know… that Napoleon also took a number of scientists and scholars with him on the expedition? They brought back drawings of animals, trees, flowers and monuments such as the pyramids. Everything was published in a large, many-volume book called ‘La Description de l’Egypte’ (‘The Description of Egypt’). (Painting: J.A. Gros, Napoleon Bonaparte haranguing the army before the battle of the Pyramids, 21 July 1798, Musée du Château de Versailles © RMN)
1799 – Napoleon takes power!
Returning to Paris, Napoleon took power. This event is known as the coup d’état du 18 Brumaire (from 1783 to 1806, the ‘Republican’ calendar was used. The date 18 brumaire corresponds with 9 November of our calendar). Napoleon introduced a new government (the Consulate) and moved into the Palais des Tuileries, near to the Louvre. He worked hard with ministers to modernise France: during the Consulate period (1799-1804), he created the Banque de France, the Légion d’honneur, the Code Civil and reformed the school system.
Portrait. Napoleon Bonaparte in a civilian dresscoat of red velvet: the onlooker’s eye is immediately drawn to the figure by this bright, vibrant colour. Napoleon is standing next to his desk, pointing to a text, probably the details of a law. The painter depicts Bonaparte as a statesman and moderniser of France. (Painting: J.A.D. Ingres. First Consul Bonaparte [detail] © DR)
1800 – The Deuxième Campagne d’Italie
Napoleon had to confront Austria, a country which could not accept him as leader of France. To take the enemy by surprise, Napoleon and his army, including canons, ammunition and horses, crossed the Alps. During the month of May there is a lot of snow, and the Austrians could not believe it! Napoleon won a decisive battle at Marengo on 14 June 1800, and the Austrians were defeated.
Portrait. Napoleon cheated a bit in asking the painter David to represent him as a majestic figure on the back of a proud white horse. In reality, Napoleon crossed the Alps on the back of a mule, an animal better suited to the narrow mountain paths. (The First Consul crossing the Alps at the Great St. Bernard Pass, Musée du Château de Malmaison © RMN)
1803 – The Musée Napoléon, the greatest museum in the world!
In 1792, the Musée Central des Arts was opened in the Palais du Louvre. It was to bring together the greatest works of art and sculpture so that the general public could admire them. Young artists would also go along to improve their technique by copying the paintings and pictures. In 1803, the museum was renamed the Musée Napoléon. Museums were also created in the provinces, in Lyon, Bordeaux and Marseilles.
Did you know… that the works that were displayed in the museum were bought, or often just taken from the museums of France’s conquered enemies? When Napoleon abdicated in 1815, many of the works were returned to their country of origin. (Painting: B. Zix, Foreign visitors to the Museum National [detail], Musée du Louvre © RMN)
1804 – Napoleon I’s coronation
On 2 December 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor of the French in the cathédrale Notre-Dame in Paris. He took the name Napoleon I. His wife Joséphine was also crowned Empress. The pope made a special journey from Rome to attend the grand ceremony, which lasted for more than five hours.
Did you know… that Napoleon commissioned the painter Jacques-Louis David to create a huge painting of the ceremony? The painting is more than nine metres long, over six metres in height, and includes over 190 figures. You can see it at the Musée du Louvre, in Paris. (Painting: J.L. David, The Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and the crowning of the Empress Joséphine in the church of Notre Dame de Paris, 2 December 1804 [detail], Musée du château de Versailles © RMN)
1805 – The victory at Austerlitz
The kings of France’s neighbouring countries joined forces to attack Napoleon. However, Napoleon and his Grande Armée (French Imperial army) won a number of important victories, such as that at Austerlitz on 2 December 1805 (now part of the Czech Republic). Between 1805 and 1810, Napoleon won many battles and extended his empire in Europe.
Did you know… that the soldiers in the army were conscripted? Every young man between 20 and 25 had to be ready to fight, and soldiers were drawn by lot at random. They would often be away on campaign for many years.
Painting: On the battlefield, Napoleon was easily recognisable in his famous black, two-horned hat, a green uniform and a large grey overcoat. (Lejeune, Napoleon I’s bivouac, the eve of the battle of Austerlitz [detail], Musée du château de Versailles © RMN)
1810 – A new empress!
In 1796, Napoleon had married Joséphine de Beauharnais, but they did not have any children. As a result, Napoleon divorced Joséphine because she could not give him the son he wanted to create a dynasty (a family that reigns over France from father to son). Napoleon remarried on 2 April 1810, taking the princess Marie-Louise as his wife. She was the daughter of the emperor of Austria, Francis I. A year later, in 1811, Napoleon and Marie-Louise became the parents of a little boy, named Napoleon-François-Charles-Joseph. He was given the title of ‘King of Rome’.
Painting: Marie-Louise is welcomed by the young ladies at court. Napoleon and the girls watch the young lady, dressed in red. Even though she is not at the centre of the painting, she is certainly the most important figure in the scene. (P. Auzou, Arrival of the Archduchess Marie-Louise at Compiègne [detail], Musée du château de Versailles © RMN)
1812 – War with Russia
In 1812, Napoleon left France again to go to war with Tzar Alexander I, the emperor of Russia. He got as far as Moscow, but the cold (often dropping below -20 degrees Celsius!), hunger and the long distances travelled exhausted the soldiers. It was a big failure and Napoleon was unable to force the Tzar to sign a peace treaty. Napoleon and his troops had to return to France.
Did you know… the French word ‘la Bérézina’ is still used today to refer to a catastrophic failure or anything that has not gone as as they would have liked. The Berezina is a Russian river that the French forces had great difficulty crossing during their retreat from Russia.
Return from Russia © Fondation Napoléon
1814 – Napoleon is defeated and the end of the empire
France was invaded by Napoleon’s enemies. He led a final campaign against the invaders, known as the ‘Campagne de France’. It was the first time for a long while that war had taken place in France itself. Despite a few victories, Napoleon abandoned power (called ‘abdicating’) on 6 April 1814, at Fontainebleau. The victors sent him into exile on a little island near to Italy, called the island of Elba. His mother Letizia and his sister Pauline also accompanied him there. But the island was too small for Napoleon, the emperor who had ruled over a great empire…
Portrait: The painter represents Napoleon seated, his shoulders hunched, tired and distraught after his defeat. The emperor is defeated and his empire has come to an end. This painting is on display in the Musée de l’Armée in Paris. (Painting: Delaroche, Napoleon I at Fontainebleau, 31 March 1814 [detail], Musée de l’armée © RMN)
1815 – Napoleon’s return to Paris!
What a surprise! Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba and returned to France to retake power. The French were happy to see the return of their hero, particularly as the king, Louis XVIII, who replaced Napoleon, was not very popular. However, the neighbouring countries declared war on France again and Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, in Belgium, on 18 June 1815. He was forced to abdicate for a second time.
Did you know… that we call this short period between Napoleon’s return to Paris and his defeat at Waterloo ‘les Cent-Jours‘ (the hundred days)? This is because he was in power for roughly one hundred days before being defeated. (Painting: Sanders, The return from the island of Elba, Musée du château de Malmaison © RMN)
1821 – Exile on the island of St. Helena
Accompanied by several friends, Napoleon was exiled to a small, faraway island called the island of St. Helena. This time he was very closely watched by the English (after all, he had escaped the last time!). Napoleon lived in a very damp and dark house. He rode his horse a bit and read a lot, but he was very unhappy on the island and missed his family terribly. Napoleon died on 5 May 1821.
Did you know… Napoleon dictated the memoirs of his reign, the battles and the people that he met whilst on the island? The memoirs are known as the ‘Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène’.
Painting: Napoleon, all alone on a rocky outcrop, looks out to sea. In painting a very simple landscape, with nothing happening, and one single figure, the painter emphasises Napoleon’s feelings of solitude. (Napoleon on St. Helena, Musée du château de Malmaison © RMN)
1840 – Napoleon is buried in Paris, 15 December
The French were devastated by the news of Napoleon’s death. His veteran soldiers remembered with fondness their general and loved to tell tales about their great victories. The king, Louis-Philippe, decided to have Napoleon’s body brought back to France. On 15 December 1840, Napoleon was buried in the crypt of the church of Saint-Louis des Invalides. Thousands of French people as well as foreign visitors attended this special ceremony.
Photo : Napoleon’s Tomb at Les Invalides © Fondation Napoléon
Timeline by Emmanuelle Papot and Irène Delage ; translation by Peter Hicks, 2008