Napoleonic Art: Nationalism and the Spirit of Rebellion in France (1815-1848)

Napoleonic Art: Nationalism and the Spirit of Rebellion in France (1815-1848)

Napoleonic Art: Nationalism and the Spirit of Rebellion in France (1815-1848)

Napoleonic Art: Nationalism and the Spirit of Rebellion in France (1815-1848)


This work discusses the social and political implications of a series of broadside illustrations about Napoleon Bonaparte produced by the Pellerin firm in Epinal, France. By investigating the production and diffusion of prints representing Napoleon and his legendary armies, this work offers a fascinating explanation for the overwhelming regional vote given to Louis Napoleon Bonaparte as president of the Second French Republic in December 1848.


After the revolution of 1830, pellerin firm pioneered the production of broadside illustrations of Napoleon’s military career. Though most regional printers continued to publish religious and fictional material, the Epinal editors concentrated on Napoleon, presenting one of the first political biographies done graphically for a provincial audience. With the relaxation of censorship restrictions from 1830 to 1835, Pellerin switched from producing mainly devotional prints to publishing broadside illustrations of Napoleon and his legendary armies. Making this shift from religious to secular themes was risky for Pellerin and Vadet, who stood to lose a profitable market in devotional literature and art.

Due to the innovative skills of Pellerin’s chief artisan, François Georgin, the Napoleonic prints brought monetary success and unquestioned fame to the Pellerin atelier. Georgin’s representations of Napoleon’s exploits catered to widespread yearnings for an imposing but nonetheless accessible political hero. Drawing from popular lithographic traditions, the artisan featured the Little Corporal as the protagonist in most of his designs. Georgin drew his audience into the graphic narrative by emphasizing the dramatic tension between Napoleon and the approaching enemy Through his audacious use of color and his compositional flair, the artisan imbued each composition with freshness and verve.

In most of his wood-block designs, Georgin portrayed Napoleon as the Little Corporal, a figure disengaged from hierarchical traditions connected with Imperial or Bourbon rule. By avoiding the trappings of either empire or monarchy, Georgin evoked the humble soldier and military comrade who had become a populist symbol in post-Imperial France. Popular representations of the Little Corporal signified both the egalitarian principles of 1789 and French military preeminence in western Europe. in addition to the heroic dimensions of the symbol, images of Napoleon as corporal conveyed the unassuming qualities of the common citizen and soldier.

Representations of the Little Corporal also presumed Napoleon’s experience of defeat and imprisonment on the island of St. Helena. Publications about his sufferings in exile recast pejorative attitudes toward Bonaparte into a more favorable light. Sympathetic artists and writers portrayed Napoleon as a political hero and martyr rather than as a ruthless dictator. Counteracting memories of Bonaparte’s final defeat and abdication in 1815, portraits of Napoleon as the Little Corporal likewise stressed his symbolic role in the political renewal of the French nation. Pictures of Napoleon as a military leader elicited yearnings for the reinstatement of national prestige and glory.

The popularity of Napoleonic prints, songs, and ephemera in regional France confirmed not only the vitality of his legend but also Bonaparte’s continued influence in provincial culture. Some consideration of Chistian imagery and practices can help to explain the development of such widespread enthusiasm for Napoleon Bonaparte, particularly after his death. Because of devotional customs, Pellerin’s customers likely infused illustrations of the Little Corporal with religious meanings and associations. As with the religious icon, broadside images of Bonaparte . . .

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