Photographs of Napoléon’s soldiers

Yes, you read this correctly: photographs. Of course, photography did not exist in Napoléon’s time. Louis Daguerre and Nicéphore Niepce would not produce their first daguerreotypes until 1835, twenty years after the fall of the First French Empire, and the process would not become wildly popular until the 1840s.

Only then did these soldiers, already ancient, pose in the original uniforms of their youth. This makes these survivors of the horrendous bloodshed of the Napoleonic era so odd, and so moving. The Mamelouk is my personal favorite…

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22 Comments to “Photographs of Napoléon’s soldiers”

  1. Margaret Overton says:

    These are truly wonderful. We so often forget that history was made by REAL PEOPLE and that decisions and events and positions were not easy, clear, clean-cut things. It seems so when we look back; but the people making those decisions and doing those things had no idea what would happen as a result. They were not sure they were right. They were merely doing the best they knew how at the time they were living in. Thank you for these. I would have never in a million years known about them without you! (It is easy to fantasize falling in love with a couple of these guys! I refuse to say which ones!)

  2. Richard says:

    Truth be known since the uniforms are pretty much the same I think they probably belonged to the photographer. The Hussars are wearing the same uniform as is the Chauseur. Chauseurs did not wear a dolman, or a sabretache. The bearskin hat was a portion of dress uniform for officers and elite companies. The Grenadier of the Guard was from a regiment which almost died for the Ogre at Waterloo.

    They are remarkable if for nothing else they marched to the Eagle.

  3. Thanks for the info, Catherine. :)

  4. Catherine Delors says:

    Another amazing find, Susan!
    About the uniforms in this video: wearing them publicly under the Restoration (1815-1830) would have been a political no-no. The reign of Louis-Philippe (1830-1845) saw a revival of all things Napoleonic, with the return of Napoleon’s body from St. Helena to Paris and the building of the Arc de Triomphe. I would say those uniforms had been mothballed (and obviously treasured) for at least 15 years before they could be proudly worn again.

  5. Reaching even further back in time — here are 19th c. photos of veterans of the American Revolution of 1776. These men are much older than Napoleon’s soldiers (most are around 100!), but the same pride remains in their faces.

    http://www.historicalimagebank.com/gallery/main.php/v/album02/album21/album53/?g2_page=6

    Also – in regard to an earlier comment marveling how the 19th c. Frenchmen could still fit into their uniforms – I’d dare to guess that most of those uniforms had been worn before they were brought out for the photographer. Most patriotic events include decorated veterans, and I’m sure those glorious uniforms had been altered here and there over the intervening years, with buttons replaced, gold lacing refurbished, and waistbands let out. That said, they remain a most impressive group of older gentlemen!

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    So true, Richard!

  7. Richard says:

    Les vieux Grognards. Veterans all get older. If I got out my plates I could tell what regiments.

    It would have been great if their thoughts had been recorded.

    Richard

  8. Catherine Delors says:

    You are most welcome, Louise! Quite a range of uniforms here, too…

  9. Louise Kahler says:

    thank you for sharing that fantastic find. as an amateur costumer and history buff- those photos are priceless.

  10. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, all! Sorry for the delayed response, but my blog issues (now hopefully resolved) have been taking a toll on my timeliness.
    Christy – I don’t see any contradiction in living simply and enjoying, even remotely, the splendors of Versailles. In fact this is what I do myself. And what a great idea to settle in a French village! I would love to talk to you about it…
    Ellen – Unfortunately I haven’t seen this miniseries. I believe there is a vast difference between idealizing or sentimentalizing war, and honoring the sacrifices of soldiers. This is a distinction the film _A very long engagement_ pointed out very well.
    Mike – Funny, but I was thinking exactly the same: how trim and fit these elderly men look in the uniforms of their youth. Sadly such a feat would be impossible for most of us denizens of the 21st century…

  11. As both a lifelong photographer and student of history, I found this post utterly fascinating. These images are about as close as we’ll come in 2010 to time travel, a la Jules Verne. One particularly remarkable aspect of these photos is that these gentlemen were actually able to fit into the same uniforms they had worn 25-35 years earlier, and what can we learn about the health, diet and metabolism of early-to-mid-19th century Europeans, relative to our own. One wonders if such a photo shoot would be even possible today in the epoch of high-fructose corn syrup and trans-fats.

  12. ellen moody says:

    Very revealing, Catherine. Just now I’m watching a mini-series by Andrew Davies centering on a veteran of WW1. Our hero cannot endure monuments which heroicize or sentimentalize (which is to say take pride in) what happened in WW1. He sees it as an encouragement to war; he is shouted and reasoned and voted down. Ellen :)

  13. Penny says:

    I liked the background music. But those hats,
    looks like a toss up as to what was heavier their
    swords or wearing those monstrosities.

    I agree with the comment that the men look full of pride.
    It looks like these are men who are posing in their uniforms
    after the invent of photographs.

  14. Christy Somer says:

    Catherine~~~~

    I’ve going back a bit in time on Your blog~~~the lusciousness of Marie-Antoinette’s Bedchamber and all of the visually delicious wonders shown through the “Footsteps of Gabrielle” has been the most enjoyable of repast’s~~~It is almost too much~~~How do I reconcile and dare love all of these luxuries when my husband and I live now so simply and reclusively in the country~~~~~though lately both of us have been talking about the possibility of living in some quiet country village in France~to learn French~~~~~~~
    These pictures bring back many memories~~~~as an only child I would insist on so many weekends during the year to be taken to the “San Francisco(born & raised there) de Young Museum” at the Golden Gate Park~~~~always being drawn to the various ornately displayed *Rooms*~~I remember so much of the richly painted filigree’s and tapestry’s throughout~~~seeing these beautifully displayed posts brings some treasured past moments into focus again~~~~I am so pleased You’ve been inspired to providing a perfect visual backround for Your Historical Stories~~~

    Christy

  15. Christy Somer says:

    Hello again Catherine~~~

    What a fascinating YouTube *historical treat*~~always appreciate the early Photographs as they can so often *speak volumes*~~~~~
    I wanted to literally jump into that exquisite Fabric of Your “Marie-Antoinette and lilac”~~~~and am catching up on the rest of Your postings~~~enjoying them thoroughly~~~I am reading Your *Mistress of the Revolution* and finding it riveting and historically rich without being overwhelmingly so~~~~~so I’m definitely looking forward to Your “For the King”~~~
    How wonderful You are planning a book on “Eliza de Feuillide” ~~~It is certainly one that needs to be written~~~~~~
    Interestingly~~Gareth Russell’s thoughts and postings on Anne Boleyn bring back past memories of my teenage obsession with the original film “Anne of a Thousand Days”~~saw it about 25 times~~and it could only be seen in the theater at that time~~~~

    Christy
    P.S. had posted this inadvertently on an earlier blog~~~

  16. Utterly fascinating! I am so glad that someone thought to photograph them, and in uniform, too!

  17. Sue says:

    Fascinating! Especially so for me because I am currently reading Sandra Gulland’s trilogy of Josephine books so I am “living” in the Napoléonic era right now. I cannot even begin to imagine wearing that kind of clothing and going to war. I do agree with you though, the Mamelouk is my favorite too.

  18. Marg says:

    Fascinating. It is amazing to think that these soldiers fought wearing those uniforms. They seem very impractical. I would have been worried about losing my headgear for sure.

  19. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for posting this neat find! I find it hard to reconcile the photographs with something like Napoleon’s army because photography seems like such a modern thing (despite being more than 100 years old) and Napoleon seems (to me, at least) to represent something very ancient. I guess this is because he was trying to revive that grand old monarchy that was so powerful in France. And I agree with Susan that they look so full of pride – very poignant to look at and think of all they witnessed.

  20. Miss Moppet says:

    The Mamelouk looks the most comfortable to wear. I can’t believe the size of some of the headgear! Agree it could be a Second Empire thing, but maybe earlier – you can see the fascination the Napoleonic legend held in the 1830s and 40s in Balzac. Anyway, amazing photos. Thanks for sharing!

  21. Catherine Delors says:

    Excellent questions, Susan, and the truth is that I don’t know the answers! From the look of the images, they have a neat, polished finish and are not early daguerreotypes. Also it makes sense, from a political standpoint, that they would have been taken during the reign of Napoleon III (1848-1870). They could have been taken as a series, to bolster Bonapartist propaganda. Or maybe it became fashionable for veterans of the Napoleonic campaigns to be individually photographed in their uniforms at that time.

    I do wish I knew more. I only happened upon this video because YouTube placed it next to the book trailer of my For the King. Serendipity…

  22. I love this, Catherine. You are right: despite their age, these men are still so full of pride. Very moving indeed. What’s the date of these photographs? Were they done for as a series, or assembled as a collection at a later date?

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