The Objects

20th Mar 1815

Source: © Trustees of the British Museum; reproduced with permission.

Napoleon among the Violets

Contributed by: Allison Goudie

'Violettes du 20 Mars 1815'
This small and unassuming print – a hand-coloured etching – is perhaps one of the most laconic yet enigmatic objects to mark Napoleon’s return to Paris and the start of the 100 Days. Referring to the precise date of that event, 20 March 1815, in its title, it ostensibly depicts a bouquet of violets, a flower associated with Napoleon at this time: The origin of this association is unclear but popular myth quotes him as saying upon his defeat in 1814 that, just like the violets in the Fontainebleau palace gardens, he would return within a year, and he was said to have became known as Père Violette amongst his soldiers.

Echoing his emergence from exile, the negative space between the flowers and foliage appears to materialize into the silhouettes of Napoleon, his wife Marie-Louise and their son (here an English-speaking collector has written a key identifying them), while a leaf deftly morphs into the familiar form of Napoleon’s bicorn hat.

This print, the work of Jean Dominique Étienne Canu, belonged to a genre of ‘hidden silhouette’ imagery well established by 1815, and the portraits hidden in plain sight within the image were no secret to a French public well versed in how to ‘decipher’ such prints. Rather, this print offered a witty visualization of the political vicissitudes of the 100 Days. The training in and out of focus between the positive and negative planes of the image stages optically the emerging and submerging of dynasties that bookended the 100 Days, at once anchoring the image’s message and destabilizing it.

See also the use of violets in the print ‘Le Printemps ou le retour de la Violette’, our object for 3rd March.


Further Reading

  • Gafner, Philipp, in Mathis, Hans Peter (ed.), Napoleon I. im Spiegel der Karikatur: Ein Sammlungskatalog des Napoleon-Museums Arenenberg (Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung: Zürich, 1998), pp. 386, no. 174. 

  • George, Mary Dorothy, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum (British Museum: London, 1949), vol. 9 (1811-1819), p. 516, no. 12511

  • Goudie, Allison, ‘Smuggled Silhouettes: Opacity and Transparency as Visual Strategies for Negotiating Royal Sovereignty During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars’, in Padiyar, Satish, Shaw, Philip, and Simpson, Philippa (eds.), Visual Culture and the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (Ashgate, forthcoming 2016).

  • Gretton, Tom, ‘David’s Portrait of Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte: Overt and Covert Napoleonic Subjects in the Summer of 1821’, in Ledbury, Mark (ed.), David after David: Essays on the Later Work (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute: Williamstown, MA, 2007), esp. p. 206 and pp. 213-14.

  • Journal de Paris, politique, commercial et littéraire, 31 March 1815, p. 1.

  • Rosset, Anne-Marie, Un Siècle d’Histoire de France par l’Estampe 1770-1871.

  • Collection de Vinck: Inventaire Analytique (Bibliothèque Nationale: Paris, 1938), vol. 5 (La Restauration et les Cent-Jours), p. 134, no. 9398.

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