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Napoleon: Personality, Routine through Art history

Updated: Sep 22

Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the most fascinating personalities in world history.

His incredible rise and fall reads like fiction, from humble beginnings on the island of Corsica to the halls of power, to his exile, then to his retaking of power before being exiled again on the island of Saint Helena.

Napoleon seized power in a time of change. The French Revolution deposed King Louis XVI, turning the other monarchies in Europe against them. Meanwhile inside the country, factional strife and violence caused political instability.

It was in this context that the military savant Napoleon became the last hope for the new Republic.

He ended up bringing nationalism and republicanism all around Europe — an influence that can still be seen today in the flags of the world, many of them based on France’s tricolor design.

But Napoleon ended up becoming an absolutist ruler, not so unlike the monarchy that the French Revolution had organized itself to end. It seems that the very personality that allowed this strategic mastermind to take control and save the revolution was the same that led to its ultimate failure.

Let’s dive into that personality, while also taking time to see what Napoleon’s routine and lifestyle were like. In the end, we’ll have a much more intimate view of this incredible character in European history.

1- Napoleon’s Personality

Many jokes have been made that Napoleon’s personality (particularly his character flaws) was all due to his short stature. But at five feet and seven inches, he was fairly average for his time. No, the “Napoleon Complex” had nothing to do with his height. It was a mixture of his class background, narcissism, and prudishness that led to his unique and history-making personality.

He grew up on the island of Corsica. It had just been annexed by France, and the culture there had yet to take on the French customs and language. While his family had some claim to noble status, they did not have any money. They lived in a camped home and mainly spoke Corsican and Italian.

That meant that when little Napoleon went off to the French military academy at Brienne (something he did on a scholarship thanks to his voracious reading), he found himself at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Unable to speak French well and being from a poorer family made him an outcast.

This gave him a compelling look at the society he would one day go on to lead. He grew connections to the servants who worked at the academy, but he also strove to rise on his own. Throughout his youth, he struggled to become as close to a true French nobleman as he could.

2- Napoleon and the Meritocracy

He was, in his own way, an example of the rising meritocracy that would go on to change Europe forever. That meritocratic spirit was born of a deeply felt sense of his own class inferiority, and a drive to make himself worthy of greatness.

That spirit and drive found a perfect home after the French Revolution, which began right as Napoleon was turning 20. In those formative years of young adulthood, he found himself in a country suddenly loose from the stultifying feudal relations.

He went on to become an officer in the military, and were it not for the clearing of the feudal class system, he never would have gone on to become emperor of France.

3- Napoleon and Love

Despite his bluster and boldness, Napoleon was a prude. Sexual freedom followed the end of the Reign of Terror, and so this prudishness met a world that was entirely foreign to his sensibilities.

Though he eventually went on to marry Joséphine — whose father was executed in the Reign of Terror — her frequent and flagrant infidelity led to a nasty divorce and a grim, hateful view of women.

It is speculated that this experience with Joséphine led to the extreme misogyny in the emperor’s laws, the Code Napoléon, which placed extreme restrictions on the freedoms and rights women.

4- Napoleon’s Grandiosity

But perhaps Napoleon’s most notable personality trait of all, especially for the impact he played in history, was his grandiosity. This was a man who never missed an opportunity to lionize himself.

As a military leader, many of his conquests led to tremendous plundering. One of his most egregious thefts was from Egypt, where his 1798 adventure led to the robbing of obscene amounts of artifacts and riches. He also brought scholars to study the culture, a practice that went on to form the foundation of many modern sciences like anthropology.

His grandiosity no doubt reached its high point when he became the self-proclaimed emperor of France on May 18th, 1804. This effectively ended the Republic and replaced it with perhaps the first modern dictatorship in Europe.

As emperor, he kept a tight control of the press — unable to handle criticism. And he often spun a narrative of his own military exploits that differed rather widely from the truth. His thin skin and defensiveness might be signs of narcissism, though you can’t really diagnose historical figures.

5- Napoleon the Man

These elements of his personality come together to paint a complex portrait, something with more depth than simply blaming everything on his height.

What we see is an incredibly intelligent and politically capable man — said to be able to convince even the strongest rulers to his side of an issue. But his all-too human traits led him to become a tyrant.

While the “Great Man” theory isn’t a great way to view history, in Napoleon’s case, it tends to work quite well.

6- Napoleon’s Lifestyle

When you mix this unique personality with the role of an absolute ruler, you get one of the most fascinating lifestyles in history.

Even after reaching the top of politics in his country, Napoleon’s drive to achieve was not satisfied. His lifestyle, while certainly posh, always made room for long hours of work when necessary, and it was often interrupted by military conquests and travel to attend to matters of state. Nonetheless, when working at home, he kept a strict routine.

7- Napoleon’s extreme Morning Routine

Napoleon was considered "Workaholic". He eats fast to go back to work as soon as he can. He had a strict routine and diet.

7 AM: Tea and reading the post and the reports by a warm fire as he hated being cold.

8 AM: Bathing, shaving, elaborate hygiene routine, and, dressing — sometimes lasting two hours

10 AM: Receiving visitors and giving orders to ambassadors and foreign representatives

11 AM: Brief lunch and coffee

After this, he had time to fulfill all the many duties of being an emperor while also, no doubt, enjoying the wealth and privilege this title brings.

8- Napoleon in Paris

Paris is filled with landmarks that trace the history of Napoleon’s rise and reign. As the center of French politics and the main stage of the French Revolution, the ruler’s life in Paris is an integral part of his story.

Before establishing his empire, he was named First Consul under the Directory (a committee created to get a handle on the Reign of Terror). While in that position, he lived at the Tuileries Palace in Paris. It was from here that he brought the first semblance of stability and order to the city in years. And it was in this time that he liberalized the government’s attitude to religion, allowing churches to open their doors again.

Already keen on seizing power, he removed the elected Mayor of Paris, replacing them with his own hand picked leaders. He used this authority to get the city in order at any cost — an approach he would use throughout his life.

Once he became Emperor of France, Napoleon gave Paris some of its most famous landmarks, including the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and the Place Vendôme’s famous column.

He led improvement projects to the city’s sewer and water systems, its roads, and public spaces. Though his improvements were not as expansive as he wanted, Paris would never be the same.

The full renovation of the city would be completed by Napoleon’s grandson.

And in this beautiful city, Napoleon remains. It is in the golden-domed Les Invalides that Napoleon’s tomb can be visited today.

9- Napoleon in Fontainebleau

Located some 55.5 kilometers outside Paris, the Château de Fontainebleau became one of Napoleon’s homes the same year he became Emperor. He later had the palace completely renovated to host the Pope.

The move was seen as an opportunity to link him to the monarchs — a grand home with exquisite works of art and luxury beyond belief. But he remained a dedicated, hard working leader, spending most of his time in the study.

The palace houses some of the greatest treasures in the world, and it stands as an embodiment of the incredible rise and fall of Napoleon. While it is here that he sat in his famous throne room as Emperor of France, it is also here that he signed his abdication in 1814, ending his reign.

10- Napoleon Bonaparte as a Human

It is fascinating to see such a prominent figure as Napoleon from this inside view.

His blend of intelligence and personality, created out of his life experiences, made him the perfect character to seize power when he did. He left his mark across the country and Europe as a whole, and it is a history we can step into today.

If you are interested in Art & Power, I can take you on a tour : Napoleon in the Louvre that explains how Napoleon used Art to access more Power.

We can also walk the streets that this emperor built, view the works of art he patronned, and see the city that played host to this incredible chapter in history.

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