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Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power
Yale University Press, 2013
816 pp., $45.00
Delusions of Grandeur
For many people Napoleon is a recognizable and well-known figure, having to do with something something Waterloo something Elba something something St. Helena something else hand in jacket. And Josephine.
For anyone who wants to fill in all the murky details of things Napoleonic, this is the book. For those whose understanding is not so sketchy, this is still the book. Dwyer's work is high-level historiography, and there is a wealth of information here. A biography obviously ought to be more than recycled biographies, and a history ought to be more than a mash-up of earlier history books. This volume really is fine work. Many places Dwyer puts together his account of the events by relying on an impressive knowledge of private correspondence of both players and bystanders and then weaving that together with what might be called the "public history"—what everybody in principle knows about. The result is stunning and memorable, reading like an insider's account.
One of the most informative things about the book came out in Dwyer's expertise concerning the interpretation of 19th-century political paintings. When we think of political propaganda, we tend to think of shutter speed and things that move—Nuremberg rallies, or message movies, or street agitprop for the television cameras, or scrolling Twitter feeds. For the perennial handlers, who are always around somewhere, the populace always needs to be shaped, moved, and directed, so someone is always in the business of seeing to it that the populace heads off in the preferred direction. Dwyer spends a good bit of his time explaining how grandiose oil paintings played this role in Bonaparte's day. Modern visitors of art galleries may have wondered why this particular painting of a battle, or a coronation, or a dying colonel needed to take up a quarter of an acre. Whose living room was that supposed to fit in? But these paintings were designed to serve as the focal point for some very public events. They were designed ...