On the eve of battle, a letter from Napoleon’s wife, Marie Louise and a portrait of their son arrived from France. The portrait had been recently painted by François Gérard and showed Napoleon II, also known as the King of Rome, in his cradle, playing cup-and-ball with the globe and an imperial scepter. Napoleon was delighted to see the portrait and set it on a chair in front of his tent so it could be publicly displayed.
Philippe-Paul de Ségur recorded the scene, “It chanced that very day the Emperor received from Paris a portrait of the King of Rome, the child whom the Empire had welcomed with as much joy as had the Emperor himself. Every day since the birth of his son Napoleon had been seen at his side in the palace, expressing the most tender of sentiments: and when on such far-removed fields, in the midst of such threatening preparations, he looked on the image of that gentle face again, his soldier’s heart was strangely softened. He set up the picture outside his tent and called his officers, even the soldiers of the Old Guard, wishing to share his feelings with those seasoned troopers, to show his private family to his military family, and display this symbol of hope in the presence of grave danger.”
This scene was also described in War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. The prefect of the Emperor’s palace, Beausset, arrived at the camp at Borodino. “‘Ha, what have we here?’ asked Napoleon, observing that all the suite kept glancing at something concealed under a cloth.
With courtly adroitness de Beausset half turned and without turning his back to the Emperor retired two steps, twitching off the cloth at the same time, and said:
‘A present to Your Majesty from the Empress.’
It was a portrait, painted in bright colors by Gerard, of the son borne to Napoleon by the daughter of the Emperor of Austria, the boy whom for some reason everyone called ‘The King of Rome.’
A very pretty curly-headed boy with a look of the Christ in the Sistine Madonna was depicted playing at stick and ball. The ball represented the terrestrial globe and the stick in his other hand a scepter.
Though it was not clear what the artist meant to express by depicting the so-called King of Rome spiking the earth with a stick, the allegory apparently seemed to Napoleon, as it had done to all who had seen it in Paris, quite clear and very pleasing.
‘The King of Rome!’ he said, pointing to the portrait with a graceful gesture. ‘Admirable!’
With the natural capacity of an Italian for changing the expression of his face at will, he drew nearer to the portrait and assumed a look of pensive tenderness. He felt that what he now said and did would be historical, and it seemed to him that it would now be best for him- whose grandeur enabled his son to play stick and ball with the terrestrial globe- to show, in contrast to that grandeur, the simplest paternal tenderness. His eyes grew dim, he moved forward, glanced round at a chair (which seemed to place itself under him), and sat down on it before the portrait. At a single gesture from him everyone went out on tiptoe, leaving the great man to himself and his emotion.
Having sat still for a while he touched- himself not knowing why- the thick spot of paint representing the highest light in the portrait, rose, and recalled de Beausset and the officer on duty. He ordered the portrait to be carried outside his tent, that the Old Guard, stationed round it, might not be deprived of the pleasure of seeing the King of Rome, the son and heir of their adored monarch.
And while he was doing M. de Beausset the honor of breakfasting with him, they heard, as Napoleon had anticipated, the rapturous cries of the officers and men of the Old Guard who had run up to see the portrait.
‘Vive l’Empereur! Vive le roi de Rome! Vive l’Empereur!’ came those ecstatic cries.”
Blogger’s Note: I also used this episode in my book Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army. In the story, 14-year-old Henri Carle, though not a soldier, is accompanying the Grande Armée on the invasion. His older brother is with the 18th Regiment of the Line in Ney’s III Corps. On the night before battle, Henri volunteers to fill some canteens. Earlier in the campaign, at Smolensk, Henri had run an errand for Marshal Ney…
After I had filled the canteens and started back, I came across a group of officers including Marshal Ney who called me over.
“Napoleon is going to issue a proclamation to be read to the troops, run over to headquarters and bring it back for me,” Ney said as he pointed to a spot behind the lines.
Even though I was weighed down by the full canteens, I ran as fast as I could. This was important. I was being sent to pick up a message from Napoleon. I found a large tent surrounded by officers and soldiers. The sight of so many men and the thought of being so near to Napoleon made me pause. I decided if you act like you know what you are doing, people will listen to you.
I adjusted the canteens and walked with purpose toward the tent. I looked for a clerk of some kind as I pushed my way through the milling crowd. Next to the tent, under the light of two lanterns, sat an officer writing at a field desk.
“I’m here to pick up the proclamation for Ney’s corps,” I announced in a voice a little too loud.
To my left, I heard someone say, “This one looks a little thirsty,” and the soldiers around him laughed at the sight of all my canteens. I turned to look at them and saw a short man in a grey coat with dark, straight hair that fell over his forehead. It was Napoleon. I’d seen paintings of him, but here he was in person. He was standing next to a chair that held a large, framed painting of a young child. Soldiers of the Old Guard, Napoleon’s finest troops, were gathered around admiring the painting.
“Come here,” the Emperor said holding out a hand to me, “I want you to see this. It is my son, The King of Rome.”
The soldiers made room for me, and I walked over to stand in front of the painting. “It just arrived today straight from Paris.”
He put one hand on my shoulder and held out his other hand to the painting. “What do you think?”
I didn’t know Napoleon even had a son. “I’m sure it looks just like him,” I said.
“Ah, a diplomat to be sure,” Napoleon laughed. “Someday he’ll be in the army, just like you, but for now, he is too young to witness his first battle.” Turning to an aide, he said, “Take it into my tent where he won’t see.”
He then dropped his hand from my shoulder and hurried into the tent. The officer behind the desk called out, “I have the proclamation for the Third Corps.”
I went to pick it up, and the officer said, “He’s feeling a little under the weather and sometimes needs to excuse himself to use the latrine,” as way of explaining the sudden end to my meeting with the Emperor.
Blogger’s Note II: The painting did not survive the retreat. The painter had made copies, however, although I could not find one for this post.
Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe-Paul de Ségur, p. 61
http://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/war_and_peace/216/, book ten, chapter XXVI
Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army, Scott Armstrong, p. 82