Napoleonic Wars Memorabilia

– Ewa Manikowska

A collection of pictures held at the Brown University Library is considered the first photographic depiction of war veterans. Shot in an anonymous Paris studio, it presents the members of Napoleon’s Grand Armée (at that time between their 60s and 80s) wearing their original uniforms and insignia.

Presumably the pictures were commissioned on the 5th of May 1858, when the veterans, all in uniform, gathered in Paris to commemorate the anniversary of the battle of Austerlitz. Besides documenting the enduring and long-lasting cult of Napoleon, the pictures offer a rare testimony to the transnational phenomenon of collecting of the Napoleonic Wars memorabilia. For the witnesses and participants of the dramatic events, uniforms, arms, etc. were both personal souvenirs and prestigious objects of self-fashioning.

The Napoleonic Wars memorabilia were an important element of the Polish early-romantic aristocratic collections formed around 1900.

The Polish Legions, established in 1797 numbering several thousands of soldiers, fought in the main Napoleonic campaigns. Among them one can name officials of the highest rank already famous for their deeds and members of the main Polish aristocratic families, such as the general Jan Henryk Dąbrowski (1755–1818), the hero of the Kościuszko Uprising or Wincenty Krasiński (1782–1858), member of an eminent Polish noble family. The Poles fighting with Napoleon hoped that the campaigns would ultimately bring about the re-creation of the Polish state. The Duchy of Warsaw (1807–1815) established by Napoleon on the lands ceded by the Kingdom of Prussia was however disappointing in its size and durability. Despite the eventual downfall of the political concept of an independent Polish state brought by the Congress of Vienna, the deeds of the Polish Legions were considered as one of the founding stones of the political and national identity of the Polish elites.

For Dąbrowski and Krasiński, who in the aftermath of the Napoleonic defeat successfully continued their political and military career in the Russia-dominated Congress Poland, the Napoleonic Wars experience remained an important element of self-identity and self-fashioning. The years spent in France (Krasiński), Italy (Dąbrowski), and on the battlefields were also a time of sociability of which collecting was an important part.

Dąbrowski, who from the earliest years of his military career was an avid collector of military maps, books and albums, continued this passion while living in Italy. Most probably inspired by his cultural milieu he turned towards collecting of arms and military memorabilia of both the present-day events and of the past deeds. Arms and military memorabilia were also the focus of interest for Wincenty Krasiński. Collecting became an important common bond between these two personas. For example, Krasiński presented Dąbrowski with the ceremonial staff of one of the most famous 17th-century Polish military commanders, Stefan Czarniecki (1599–1665). For Dąbrowski it was a true treasure: despite his noble origins, he did not count kings and potent nobles among his ancestors and contrary to Krasiński he did not inherit objects related to the heroes of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. While in Italy, Dąbrowski did not take advantage of the Old Masters and antiquities market. Instead, he searched for memorabilia of Polish kings and military heroes, which as such expressed his political and social pretensions. Using his connections, he was able to secure for his collection, among others, the so-called Mustafa’s banner – a war booty from the Battle of Vienna (1683) presented along with other Ottoman insignia by John III Sobieski to Innocent XI and from that time on stored in the Basilica of the Holy House in Loreto.

Of equal value and importance were the objects of the present-day deeds. Dąbrowski and Krasiński shared the interest in memorabilia of battlefields, in arms, insignia or uniforms of the Polish legions with the most avid Polish collector of this period, Izabela Czartoryska (1746–1835), who used her close contacts with Polish and French officials to enrich the holdings of the Museum in Puławy. From Krasiński she received, among others things, one of the banners of the 1st Polish Light Cavalry Regiment of the Imperial Guard, which under the command of Krasiński fought in the battles of Wagram and Samosierra. Conversely, Dąbrowski, was not so eager in enriching the collection of the Puławy Museum. Indeed, the Napoleonic Wars memorabilia as well as their display became in this period an object of rivalry among Polish collectors.

The Museum in Puławy was one of the better known and highly appraised examples of such display of the Napoleonic Wars memorabilia. Up to 1830s it was eagerly visited by the Polish aristocratic, intellectual, and political elites. One could admire there a group of insignia, uniforms and memorabilia of the Polish Legion’s heroes and their exploits as well as a casket with souvenirs of the Bonaparte family and the main deeds of the Napoleonic wars. Such objects were considered as one of the founding stones of Czartoryska’s arrangement. An engraving from the early 1830s makes it very clear: the pavilions of the Museum in Puławy are juxtaposed here with Bertel Thorwaldsen’s monument to the Napoleonic wars hero: the equestrian statue of Prince Joseph Poniatowski.

Wincenty Krasiński initially had the idea of arranging his Napoleonic Wars memorabilia in the family residence in Opinogóra, thereby following Czartoryska’s example. His collection included among others his military uniforms from the time of the Napoleonic wars, the banners of the regiments under his command, and precious arms and insignia presented to him by high rank Napoleonic officials and by Napoleon himself. Finally, however, the memorabilia were arranged together with historic arms, banners, and insignia of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, its kings and generals, in his private armoury, organised in the Krasiński family palace in Warsaw (Krasiński armory), cherished and enlarged throughout the 19th century by his heirs. A portrait of his four-year-old son, Zygmunt Krasiński (1812–1859), points to the importance of the memorabilia in Wincenty’s self-fashioning and identity.

Born in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, Wincenty’s first and only son was given Napoleon as his first name (he used however his third name of Zygmunt). The Emperor was even considered as a candidate for the boy’s god-father. The painting was commissioned in 1816, that is, in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat. Henri-Francois Risener, the author chosen to paint the portrait, was one of the favourite portraitist amongst the Bonaparte family. Zygmunt is depicted in a garden pavilion of the Opinogóra family seat while ‘mounting’ one of the treasures of his father’s collection: the golden saber with lapis lazuli intarsia presented to Wincenty in Paris by Napoleon’s high rank officials.

Jan Henryk Dąbrowski’s Napoleonic Wars memorabilia along with other elements of his collection (books, engravings, the archive of the Polish Legions, Czarniecki’s ceremonial staff, Mustafa’s banner, masonic insignia, etc.) were arranged in Winna Góra (Greater Poland), in a residence presented to Dąbrowski by Napoleon in 1807. The collection’s character and arrangement, known only from its written descriptions, was the result of the fusion of Dąbrowski’s earlier, ‘enlightened’ collecting activities with the new romantic considerations. This is well evidenced in one of Dąbrowski’s later portraits. Depicted in his uniform of the general and with all his military decorations clearly visible, he is posing against a wall covered with military objects. This wasn’t probably an existing room (such a depiction falls within the nineteenth-century portrait conventions), but rather a general and symbolic representation of an armoury, a prestigious interior referring to the presumed ancient and noble origins of its owner and to his military and political position. Dąbrowski’s uniform and the size of his archive dedicated to the Polish legions point to the centrality of the Napoleonic Wars in his self-fashioning. The marble bust on the writing-table is a Roman copy of the head of Alexander the Great from the Uffizi, which hints at Dąbrowski’s neoclassical taste and probably alludes also to the Tsar Alexander I and the current political situation. Dąbrowski’s cabinet was the most symbolic of all interiors in the Winna Góra residence, the important element of its design was an illusionistic fresco decoration with an imaginative landscape and fictive painted neoclassical funerary monuments of the deceased soldiers of the Polish Legions in Italy. In the end, it all reflected the same considerations as the portrait and their origins lie with the culture of neoclassicism, the late 18th-century Italianate taste, and the romantic fascination with heroic military deeds.

Dąbrowski bequeathed the most precious elements of his collection to the Warsaw Scientific Society, the first Polish scientific organisation, bringing together nobles, aristocrats, scholars, literati, and artists. The collection was displayed in the seat of the Society only for a few years. Then, in the aftermath of the November Uprising the collection was sequestered by the Russian army. At the same time the holdings of Czartoryska’s Museum in Puławy was moved to Paris. The things left behind shared the fate of Dąbrowski’s collection. As for Wincenty Krasiński, he did not join the Uprising and his armoury was left intact in Warsaw – the Krasiński Palace in Warsaw became the main place for the Napoleonic Wars memorabilia in the Polish lands. The uniforms, banners, and arms were just a small part of a much larger group of objects from the family armoury, nonetheless, they maintained their prestige and exceptional character. In 1856 the most precious pieces of the armoury (including the rifle presented by Napoleon to Wincenty Krasiński) were displayed at the first Warsaw antiquarian exhibition. The rifle was photographed by Karol Beyer and the image in question became then part of the first Polish antiquarian photographic album, around the same time when the portraits of the Napoleonic Wars veterans were shot. Both the veterans’ images and Beyer’s antiquarian plates capture the moment of the entering of the Napoleonic war memorabilia into a larger public domain. In the 1850s, more than private souvenirs and objects of self-fashioning, they turned into elements of wider common patrimony. With that being said, the memorabilia never lost their personal connotations. In 1921 the exhibition organised by the Poznań Scientific Society presented the portraits of the Joseph Poniatowski and Jan Henryk Dąbrowski in a suggestive arrangement together with their own uniforms and insignia. As to Wincenty Krasiński’s uniform of the Imperial Guard, in 1905 it was immortalised in the guise of the Grand Armée veterans’ portraits. However, it was not Wincenty, but his great-grandson and the heir of the family collections, Adam, who posed in the uniform in at least two photographic studios. This implicates that in the third generation the Napoleonic War memorabilia were still an important element of the Krasiński family tradition and identity.

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Primary sources & literature

  • Inwentarz Muzeum Ordynacji Krasińskich, National Museum in Warsaw
  • The Iconographic Collection of the National Museum in Warsaw
  • Izabella Czartoryska, Poczet pamiątek zachowanych w Domku Gotyckim, Warsaw, 1828
  • Franciszek Pułaski, Inwentarz zbrojowni Ordynacji hr. Krasińskich, Warsaw, 1909