Napoleon rose to power during the French Revolution, crowning himself Emperor of France in 1804. He had ambitions to carve out a vast empire and dynasty, and successfully invaded and conquered countries across the European continent in a series of bloody battles, before he was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. These became known as the Napoleonic wars.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821) was born in Corsica. In 1785, he graduated from the military academy in Paris, with an unremarkable record, having shown none of the extraordinary traits that would become evident later in life. In the spring of 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte was still a little-known junior general with some useful political connections but no obvious signs of military promise. A year later, his aptitude as a Commander would be known across Europe. This painting shows Napoleon during the Battle of Arcole, in 1796, leading the swift and devastating conquest of Northern Italy that established Napoleon’s reputation and assured his rise to the top.

In this campaign, Napoleon had taken a collection of demoralised and dispirited regiments, and forged them into a single army who would follow him to victory. This painting (tellingly from 1801 by which time he was head of state) shows the moment Napoleon seized a flag and personally led an attack in a typical attempt to inspire his men. It depicts him as a revolutionary general, a dashing leader with long flowing hair. The young general’s cold and steely gaze shows the same calculating nature that is more apparent in later depictions of him as Emperor.

Did you know..?

At the height of his powers and self-obsession Napoleon would still project himself on occasion as a lower-class man, and tried to remain in touch with ordinary people and canvass their views, wandering through streets or conversing with common soldiers.

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This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above. 

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This object is in the collection of Palace of Versailles