University Archives


Napoleon's Death Bed: 2 Artistic Renderings, Ex-Nicholson Napoleon Collection

Two period artistic renderings showing French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) on his deathbed.
From the Nicholson Napoleon Collection.

Napoleon Bonaparte had been in exile on St. Helena, the tropical island in the south Atlantic Ocean, since October 1815. He died at his residence there, Longwood House, of suspected stomach cancer on May 5, 1821 at the age of 51.

The lot is comprised of:

1. A pencil on paper drawing, unsigned and possibly from life, depicting the prone Napoleon at left profile. Scattered foxing and discoloration, else near fine. Contained behind glass in an early gilt frame. Not examined out of the frame. The sight size of the drawing is 7.625" x 5.5" while the overall frame size is 9.75" x 7.875" x .75."

2. A color print depicting the deceased Emperor facing right published by G. Virtue (London, England). Entitled "Napoleon / ut in morte recumbit," with the caption "Taken at St. Helena in Presence of Countess Bertrand, Count Montholon, &c." The print was excised from a book; there are light typeset impressions overall and isolated foxing, else very good to near fine. The print is loosely encapsulated and mounted on a piece of cardboard. The print measures 8.125" x 5" while the overall mount size is 11.875" x 8.375."

Together, these artistic renderings provide a 180 degree panoramic view of Napoleon's corpse, given that the drawing shows the body from the left, and the print from the right. Other notable depictions of Napoleon on his deathbed include Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse, "Napoléon Ier sur son Lit de Mort, une Heure Avant son Ensevelissement" (Ca. 1843). [Translated title: Napoleon Ist on his Deathbed, an Hour Before Burial."] See the attached image for points of comparison.

After Napoleon expired, his body was cleaned, an autopsy was performed, and various postmortem rituals were undertaken, including the removal of certain organs and the taking of plaster and wax masks. The body was then dressed in the white and green Imperial Guard cavalry uniform that Napoleon loved so much, and the Legion of Honor medal, an award which Napoleon had created in 1802, was pinned to his tunic.

The artists have taken a few liberties in the depiction of Napoleon's corpse; for example, we know from accounts of Napoleon's tomb opening on October 15, 1840 that his bicorne hat was positioned over his thighs in the coffin, not on his head. There is no mention of a tricolored sash around his torso.

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.


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