Napoleon, Stories, and the Arts

Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons
Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons

If anyone ever tries to tell you that stories don’t matter or that the arts aren’t important, point them at Napoleon Bonaparte.

During his meteoric rise from republican army officer to ruler of France, Napoleon was always telling a story. It was the story of his triumphs.

He sent reports home from campaign before anyone else could, portraying his actions in the best possible light. He commissioned pamphlets and paintings. He made sure that everybody knew that he was the best. His campaign in Egypt was a disaster in which he ended up leaving his battered army behind, but he spun it as a triumph. This was a large part of how he gained power.

As First Consul and later Emperor, Napoleon continued this trend. He backed newspapers. He sponsored art competitions. He filled the salons of Paris with depictions of his greatness, tying France’s successes firmly to his own. Many of the most famous paintings of the period were commissioned by him, and they all make him look triumphant. Even as he over-stretched and a foreign coalition closed in, France believed in him.

You could say similar things about Donald Trump. Despite bankruptcies and court cases, he has told a story of himself as a success. Enough people believe it to make him president of the USA.

Stories matter. Art matters. They shape the way we view the world.

Just ask Napoleon.