'The Death of Napoleon' captures the end of a tumultuous era

After carefully researching Bonaparte's time in exile, painter Charles de Steuben depicted Napoleon's deathbed and the witnesses to his dying moments in May 1821.

“The death of Napoleon” (1828) by Charles de Steuben. The Napoleon Museum, Arenenberg Palace, Switzerland.
ALBUM/AKG

Napoleon Bonaparte died on May 5, 1821, on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena. To the British, Dutch, and Prussian coalition who had exiled him there in 1815, he was a despot, but to France, he was seen as a devotee of the Enlightenment.

In the decade following his demise, Napoleon’s image underwent a transformation in France. The monarchy had been restored, but by the late 1820s, it was growing unpopular. King Charles X was seen as a threat to the civil liberties established during the Napoleonic era. This mistrust revived Napoleon’s reputation and put him in a more heroic light. (Beethoven was once Napoleon's biggest fan but became his biggest critic.)

Fascination with the French leader’s death led Charles de Steuben, a German-born Romantic painter living in Paris, to immortalize the event. Steuben’s painting depicts the moment of Napoleon’s death and seeks to capture the sense of awe in the room at the death of a man whose legendary career had begun in the French Revolution.

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