A tip of the emperor's old hat

How an article of clothing worn by Napoleon might advise us, if it could

Object Lesson


Napoleon's hat reposes like a dark punctuation mark at the end of the exhibit of Imperial relics, artifacts and exulted bric-a-brac now at the Explorers Hall of the National Geographic Museum in Washington.

It is among more than 250 objects, all collected by Pierre-Jean Chalencon, a Parisian obsessed with Napoleon from childhood. His Napoleonic stuff ranges from the august to the mundane, from the emperor's portrait by Baron Antoine-Jean Gros to the emperor's toothpick from St. Helena and includes a snippet of the emperor's hair acquired by Count Emmanuel de Las Cases while the emperor was getting a haircut.

million subjects, writes David Johnson, a Napoleon scholar.)

Then again, perhaps the real lesson here is, "Quit when you're ahead."

Napoleon pressed on and on through Europe to Moscow, where the Russian winter and the czar's armies crushed him and forced his armies into a disastrous retreat.

Napoleon was exiled to the Isle of Elba in 1814, escaped a year later, made one more try for la gloire and was smashed at Waterloo. Though exiled again to St. Helena, a barren island in the South Atlantic, he is depicted in a colored engraving included in the exhibition as still wearing his bicorn.

"It was a beautiful empire," he reminisced at St. Helena, a caption recounts. "I had 83 million human beings under my government, half the population of Europe."


One in a series of occasional stories in which we highlight an individual work of art, artifact or object used in creating art.

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