Tag Archives: Napoleon I

A Cradle Fit for a King (or Emperor or Duke)


When Consuelo Vanderbilt did her duty and produced the required “heir and a spare” for the 9th Duke of Marlborough, she rocked her boys in a regal cradle, which is still on view at Blenheim Palace.   Consuelo’s mother, the irrepressible Alva Vanderbilt, wasted no time in ordering this cradle from Italy.  She had moved heaven and earth to marry her very rich daughter to the Duke of Marlborough.  The birth of a male heir insured that the Vanderbilt bloodline would forever have a secure footing in the British aristocracy.

According to a placard about the cradle in Blenheim Palace, it was a near-replica of the one made for Napoleon Bonaparte’s long-awaited heir in 1811. I don’t see much resemblance, though. Consuelo’s cradle is ornate, over-the-top with fanciful figures and gilding. (Actually, a baby being rocked in this cradle would have gone straight over the top and onto the floor–the mattress is even with the sides. If Consuelo actually used it, she must have used it with a lower mattress).



Napoleon II’s cradle is now in the Imperial Treasury in Vienna, because the child’s mother was Napoleon’s second wife, Marie-Louise of Austria. It was never actually subjected to a burping, crying child.  It was a ceremonial object–a “throne cradle”– presented to Empress Marie Louise by the City of Paris. This cradle has a distinctly military look. It was fashioned of 280 kg of silver, replete with symbols of power and good government:  horns of plenty, the Roman Capitoline Wolf, a laurel wreath, a crown of stars, and numerous bees. Napoleon the Emperor took the bee as his personal emblem; it was also an old symbol of Paris, indicating diligence. The foot of the cradle has a small eagle; Napoleon II was popularly known as “The Eaglet,” with the hope that he would surpass even the glorious exploits of his father.

Napoleon’s only legitimate son had a short and tragic life.  The Emperor made his son the King of Rome the instant he was born.  Glory did not follow, though. After his father’s abdication in 1814, Napoleon II’s mother was forced to flee home to Austria with her toddler.  She remained married to Napoleon, but never saw him again.  The child died in isolation in Austria, where he had to be kept from the public for fear of his father’s admirers trying to rally around him.  I read somewhere that the unfortunate child’s only companion was a pet bird.  He was a frail, sickly child, kept indoors almost all the time. He died of tuberculosis at age 21.

Duke of Marlborough and His Family, John SInger Sargent, 1905, Public Domain

Duke of Marlborough and His Family, John SInger Sargent, 1905, Public Domain

Consuelo’s marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough was loveless and unhappy, but her older son, in the fullness of time, became the 10th Duke of Marlborough and her younger son lived out his days as Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill. Consuelo’s ancestors continue to occupy Blenheim Palace to this day.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun: Painter and Survivor


"Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat," Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun, 1782, Public Domain

“Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat,” Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun, 1782, Public Domain

Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun, in the self-portrait above, could be mistaken for a conventional 18th century woman, getting ready to pursue a conventional pastime like painting flowers.  But underneath the modest smile lurked talent, ambition, grit and a fierce determination to survive and thrive. She lived  through turbulent times when many others in her position lost their heads–literally. As a protege and friend of Marie Antoinette, Elisabeth adroitly escaped the horrors of the French Revolution, and even made the political turmoil work in her favor.

As a talented teenager, Elisabeth began painting portraits of society people, helped by her father, a fan painter, and later other teachers who recognized her talent. An important benefactor was Louise de Bourbon, wife of the Duke of Orleans. Early in Elisabeth’s career, everything in her studio was confiscated by the authorities–because she didn’t have a license to paint!  (In modern times, we often think our world is over-regulated. But at least in most places, being a starving artist does not require a government license). She applied for membership in the Academie de Saint Luc, and was somehow admitted.  It sounds to me like they didn’t realize they were dealing with a young girl. Maybe she just used her initials when she submitted paintings for approval.

"Marie Antoinette," Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun, 1783, Public Domain

“Marie Antoinette,” Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun, 1783, Public Domain

Her marriage helped her career.  At age 20, she married Jean-Baptist-Pierre LeBrun, a painter and art dealer.  His grandfather had been the first Director of the French Academy under Louis XIV, the Sun King. Soon Elisabeth was painting Marie Antoinette and her family members–about 30 royal family portraits in all.

When the French Revolution broke out, Elisabeth decamped to safer surroundings. She worked for several years in Russia, Italy, and Austria. Eventually, she was allowed to return to France while Napoleon I was Emperor. She continued to paint well into old age, once causing a minor scandal by painting a self-portrait with her teeth showing.  This was simply not done–probably for good reason, since most people had terrible teeth in those times. She died in 1842, at the ripe old age of 86. She left behind over 600 portraits, plus 200 landscapes and history paintings, which now appear in museums and private collections all over Europe and in the United States.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!