Napoleon's farewell to the Imperial Guard (April 20, 1814)

Napoleon's farewell to the Imperial Guard (April 20, 1814)

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Title: Napoleon's farewell to the Imperial Guard in the Cour du Cheval-Blanc at the Château de Fontainebleau.

Author : MONTFORT Antoine Alphonse (1802 - 1884)

Date shown: April 20, 1814

Dimensions: Height 98 - Width 130

Technique and other indications: 20 April 1814 Oil on canvas After Horace Vernet.

Storage location: National Museum of the Palace of Versailles (Versailles) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Picture reference: 90EE1012 / MV 1775

Napoleon's farewell to the Imperial Guard in the Cour du Cheval-Blanc at the Château de Fontainebleau.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

February 1814: the campaign in France turns badly; the generals no longer follow the plans of Napoleon, who won his last victory at the Battle of Montereau on February 18. On Wednesday April 20, it is the departure for the island of Elba.

Image Analysis

The scene is located in the Cour du Cheval Blanc (also called Cour des Adieux in memory of this episode). We can see above and to the left the famous horseshoe staircase created under Louis XIII. Napoleon is in the center of the picture, face on, in boots, sword at the side, his head wearing the legendary hat. Behind him, to the left, the representatives of the victorious countries, hat in hand, looking grave. One of them lifts his hat with his left hand. The two generals of Napoleon, also discovered, supervise him very closely. The Emperor is very upright and shows no weakness. On the left in the foreground, soldiers brandish their caps. The standard bearer, towards which Napoleon extends his left hand and advances, hides his eyes with his left hand. The colors are predominantly dark. The portrayal of this scene, described by the various authors as being marked by intense emotion, is rather cold. Gravity, more than emotion, dominates here. The gestures are stiff, the faces frozen. The painter seems to be torn between two visions.


Horace Vernet (1789-1863), author of the original painting of which Montfort's work is a copy, did not witness the scene. It transcribes what popular imagery has conveyed. The scene takes place just as Napoleon has just finished his speech: "Soldiers of my old guard, I bid you farewell ...". Some men, hardened old grunts, cry. General Petit approaches, Napoleon is going to kiss the flag, hug the general, wish these kisses resound in the hearts of all his brave men. Accounts say that then General Koller put his hat on the end of his sword to brandish it: Vernet's painting, more sober, more restrained, just shows the hat held in his hand, raised above heads. The black legend, developed during the reign of Napoleon, fueled by England, is based on internal opposition and popular weariness in the face of incessant wars generating misery: the Eagle has become the Ogre. After the abdication, the black legend continued to circulate, as hundreds of anti-Napoleonic pamphlets appeared between 1814 and 1821. But a Napoleonic golden legend also developed with the return of the Bourbons. It is about a history revised and corrected by the accounts of the old soldiers or half-pay, the engravings and the popular songs which glorify the fate of the Small Corporal and the power given then to France. If the great authors contribute to fuel this imperial epic (Hugo, Lamartine, Musset, Vigny, Stendhal, Balzac, etc.), the songs and engravings maintain popular fervor. Thus exile contributes to making Napoleon a victim. And the first episode of this tragedy is certainly Napoleon’s farewell to his guard at the foot of the horseshoe staircase in Fontainebleau.

  • exile
  • Vigny (Alfred de)
  • collective imagination
  • Fontainebleau
  • Hugo (Victor)
  • Lamartine (Alphonse de)
  • Musset (Alfred de)
  • Balzac (Honoré de)
  • Stendhal (Henri Beyle, said)


Jacques BAINVILLE Napoleon Paris, reedited Balland, 1995.Juan-Carlos CARMIGNANI and Jean TRANIE Napoleon: 1814, the French campaign Paris, Pygmalion-Gérard Watelet, 1989. Paul NOIROT Napoleon Bonaparte: literary reflections and resonances from 1800 to 2000 Paris, Maisonneuve and Larose, 1999 Jean TULARD (dir.) Napoleon dictionary Paris, Fayard, reprint 1999.

To cite this article

Martine GIBOUREAU, "Napoleon's farewell to the Imperial Guard (April 20, 1814)"

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