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Home News Napoleon, a towering self-promoter

Napoleon, a towering self-promoter

Published on 29/11/2004

PARIS, Nov 28 (AFP) - Napoleon Bonaparte whose coronation in France 200 years ago is being marked this week left behind the formidable weapon of mass propaganda for future generations.

Experts believe the diminutive emperor whose legacy still provokes unease and fascination in France was probably the first person in history to use the tool of mass propaganda on such a scale.

The coronation ceremony itself on December 2, 1804, was largely re-invented for Napoleon’s purposes in the gigantic painting by Jacques-Louis David who created a different reality.

Napoleon’s mother Letizia had snubbed the ceremony perhaps to show her dislike for her daughter-in-law Josephine, but on the emperor’s orders David included her, affable and serene, in the painting.

On the other hand, Napoleon’s minister of police Joseph Fouche who was present in Notre Dame church for the coronation is missing in the painting, unlike foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.

“That was not how it was, but that is how it will always be,” historian Frederic Masson said.

In fact, it’s not so far removed from the sinister official Soviet-era photos in which Stalinist propagandists rewrote history by erasing the figures of those who had been eliminated.

David in fact based his painting on that of his student Antoine-Jean Gros who had painted Napoleon visiting the plague-stricken of Jaffa, an apparently noble gesture by a leader but likely designed to distract attention from a disastrous military campaign in Egypt.

Gros had also rewritten history with his painting of a battle in 1796 at the bridge of Arcole in Italy by depicting Napoleon as the intrepid leader while in fact he had fallen into the river.

General Augereau was in fact the first to cross the bridge.

“The writers and painters around Napoleon were perhaps not the best but were certainly the most efficient,” said Napoleon expert Ariane James-Sarazin, director of the History Museum of France.

“From the bridge of Arcole in 1796, Bonaparte, a young general, understands that what’s needed for a politician is to create a diary and control the information,” she said.

From that idea was born the “Courrier de l’armee d’Italie”, a periodical distributed among the troops and sold across France to report on the campaigns and cite the names of deserving soldiers.

This publication, later replaced, “was the only media present in all homes even the most modest, it’s practically from that that children learnt to read,” James-Sarazin said.

Napoleon understood the need to touch people in their daily lives, so the biggest paintings were often reproduced in smaller versions to be distributed more easily.

“They didn’t wait for the television to communicate. The pharaohs, Louis XIV used to communicate. But Napoleon did it well, he quickly understood that whatever he did it was the way in which he did it that mattered most,” said Sylvain Laveissiere, chief curator at the Louvre.


Subject: French News