Napoleon at Fontainebleau, Château de Fontainebleau, Seine-et-Marne, France

Fontainebleau experienced a particularly sumptuous period under the First Empire (1804-1815), during Napoleon I’s visits (1804, 1807, 1809, 1810), which were full of political and family events, the Emperor’s deep attachment to the palace was confirmed. A new lease of life given to the palace, which had been stripped of its furnishings after the Revolution, and also thanks to the brilliant life that took place there.

Napoleon I brought the Château de Fontainebleau back to life after the Revolution. He had it restored and furnished and made into one of his residences. A visit to this monument is a chance to discover the different facets of the Emperor: the statesman, the warlord, the head of the family and the promoter of the arts. Fontainebleau is therefore a key stage in the history of Napoleon.

Every year, the Château de Fontainebleau is commemorating of Napoleon I with many highlights, notably: some historical re-enactment, temporary exhibition as well as guided tours in the château and in the gardens. Virtual tours will showcase remarkable works that once belonged to the Emperor. The Musée Napoléon I will unveil numerous, recent, never-before-seen acquisitions.

A renaissance was under Napoleon I, by having the former home of the kings of France restored at great expense, under the direction of the architects Charles Percier and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine, the Emperor showed the eminent place he wished to give back to Fontainebleau among the other imperial residences, such as the Tuileries, Saint Cloud, Compiègne, Rambouillet, etc.

As the Fontainebleau, the roofs were re-done, the interior decorations restored, the appartments extensively refurnished, the theatre renovated, the Louis XV wing fitted out for the princes, and the gardens renewed according to the taste of the time. Despite this uninterrupted activity, Napoleon’s work as a restorer, eminently respectful of the château, remains difficult to identify, especially as successive regimes, particularly the Restoration, have erased some of his contributions.

The aim of the exhibition is to highlight Napoleon’s work at Fontainebleau and to analyse the way in which the Emperor invested the château. More than two hundred works from the Fontainebleau collections (collections, libraries and archives), as well as from French and foreign public collections, reveal the sumptuousness of Josephine’s renovations, the luxury of the palace’s furniture, the Emperor’s extraordinary library, the transformation of the François I Gallery and the major projects abandoned after the fall of the regime. The exhibition develop themes as varied as architecture, painting, sculpture, gardens, decorative arts and libraries, while also illustrating “great history”.

Fontainebleau is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the only château to be inhabited by all the French sovereigns from the 12th to the 19th century. A unique experience awaits visitors who wish to follow in their footsteps.

The Château de Fontainebleau is unique in France. The complexity of its architecture and the variety of its decorations bear witness to the times and tastes of the sovereigns who succeeded one another there. Stroll through the galleries, admire the frescoes and stuccoes of the Renaissance, walk down the serried apartments of kings and queens, and discover the solemnity of the Throne Room, all stages on this journey to the heart of history. Each room resonates with the memory of the sovereigns and their court.

Following in the footsteps of François I, Henri IV, Louis XIII and Louis XV, Napoleon I also wished to leave his mark on Fontainebleau by restoring the château in the aftermath of the Revolution. His apartments and the museum dedicated to him constitute and display priceless testimonials to this imperial past. Fontainebleau presents Renaissance masterpieces, the refined interiors of Marie-Antoinette, Napoleon I’s ceremonial apartment and the “commodious” furnishings desired by Napoleon III and Eugenie. These monarchs were also aesthetes and invited the best artists of their time to shape this palace where family life, court life and the exercise of power coexisted.

Relive the residences of the Sun King, the royal wedding of Louis XV, and Napoleon I’s emotional farewell to the Guard on the horseshoe staircase. Nor should we forget the sumptuous balls organised during Catherine de Medici’s time, Marie-Antoinette’s promenades in the gardens designed by Le Nôtre, the firework display over the Carp pond, and the water jousting on the Grand Canal. Napoleon said that Fontainebleau was the “true home of kings”. This chateau embodies like no other the marriage of pleasure and power, intimacy and politics. Walking through its galleries and gardens, the visitor sees eight hundred years of art and history unfold over the course of a single day.

Napoleon and Fontainebleau
On the eve of his coronation in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte decided to make the Château de Fontainebleau one of his residences. He then ordered the renovation of the palace in order to accommodate Pope Pius VII, who had come to crown him: the château was refurbished in just nineteen days. He would continue the refurbishment of this “jewel in the Crown” until the end of his reign. By taking up residence at Fontainebleau, the former artillery lieutenant who had reached the pinnacle of power wanted to follow in the footsteps of the monarchs who had preceded him.

He saw this immense residence as an essential place to establish his legitimacy. He redesigned the gardens, luxuriously refurbished the Grands Appartements, and re-instated the traditional etiquette that had been one of the customs of monarchical life. The former King’s bedroom became the Throne Room, where one can find imperial symbols as well as emblems of the monarchy. The Petits Appartements [Small Apartments] on the ground floor bear witness to the private life of the Emperor and his two successive wives. This is where Josephine, who could not give him an heir, was informed of their inevitable separation. Later, Marie-Louise, pregnant with the future king of Rome, would take her quarters there.

Fontainebleau is also a reminder of Napoleon the tireless worker. The administration of the Empire kept Napoleon I constantly busy, so much so that he had a bed installed in his study. It was in the adjoining salon that he signed his abdication in April 1814 before bidding his famous farewell to the Guard at the foot of the horseshoe staircase.

First abdication of Napoleon I
In 1814 an alliance was formed between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland , the Russian Empire , the Kingdom of Prussia and the Empire of Austria . Despite a series of victories (battles of Champaubert , Montmirail , etc.) won by Napoleon at the head of an army of young, inexperienced recruits, Paris fell on March 31, stand the marshals force the Emperor to abdicate . Napoleon’s intention was to do this in favor of his son ( Napoleon II ), but the Allied powers demanded an unconditional abdication, that he sign on April 6, 1814.

Napoleon, who thought that the allies were going to separate him from the Empress Marie-Louise of Austria and her son the King of Rome , took, on the night of 12 to April 13, a dose of “Condorcet’s poison” which should allow him to commit suicide . In full discomfort, the Emperor complains of the slow effect of the substance he swallowed. At the visit of Doctor Alexandre-Urbain Yvan, Napoleon asks him for an extra dose of poison but the doctor refuses, saying that he is not an assassin and that he will never do anything against his conscience. The Emperor’s agony continues, Caulaincourt leaves the room to ask the valet and the interior service to remain silent. Napoleon tells Caulaincourt back, telling him that he would rather die than sign the treaty.

The effects of the poison wear off and the Emperor can resume his normal activities. On 11th April, Napoleon signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau, which had been concluded on 6th April in Paris between Marshals Ney, Macdonald, General Caulaincourt, his plenipotentiaries, and the ministers of Austria, Russia and Prussia. It was ratified on 14th April. In application of this agreement, Napoleon abdicated unconditionally. The emperor signed the declaration of abdication at Fontainebleau, and the room became known as the abdication room, and the interior decoration was preserved.

Napoleon reviewed the troops before leaving Fontainebleau, in the Cour du Cheval-Blanc, in front of the monumental staircase of the Château de Fontainebleau, Napoleon Bonaparte bid farewell to the Imperial Guard on 20th April. He emotionally kissed the flag presented to him by the old grenadiers and gave the following speech:

“Soldiers of my Old Guard, I bid you farewell. For twenty years you have been my constant companions on the road to honour and glory. In these latter times, as in the days of our prosperity, you have never ceased to be models of courage and fidelity. With men such as you our cause would not have been lost. But the war would have been interminable; it would have been a civil war, and that would have entailed deeper misfortunes on France. I have therefore sacrificed all of our interests to those of the country; I shall depart. But you, my friends, continue to serve France. Her happiness was my only thought; it shall continue to be the object of my desires! […]”

He was later removed by the Senate on April 3 and exiled to the Island of Elba , according to the Treaty of Fontainebleau signed on April 11, retaining the title of Emperor but reigning only over this small island. His convoy from Fontainebleau to the Mediterranean before embarking for the island of Elba.

Château de Fontainebleau Museum
Today, the Château de Fontainebleau houses a museum dedicated to Napoleon I. The sword and the tunic he wore at the Coronation, the Emperor’s famous bicorn, his campaign furniture and the King of Rome’s cradle can all be found there. From room to room, portraits, busts and art objets depict members of his family, dignitaries and officers of the Empire, the chosen ones to whom Napoleon distributed the thrones and entrusted the administration of the kingdoms of Europe. In total, more than 700 works, most of them commissioned to serve the Emperor’s political project, tell the story of the dazzling Napoleonic epic.

Pope Pius VII came to Fontainebleau to officiate at Napoleon’s coronation. The Emperor made a few visits to the estate between two military campaigns in the spring of 1805 and the in the autumns of 1807, 1809 and 1810. He held the Pope prisoner here between 1812 and 1814 and he spent his last days in the château before abdicating on 6th April, 1814.

Napoleon left the estate on 20th April, after the famous farewell ceremony during which he delivered a speech to his soldiers assembled before him in the Cour du Cheval Blanc. It ended with the following words: “Adieu my children! I would like to clasp every one of you to my breast: I shall at least clasp your flag”. And he did so before entering his carriage and leaving for Elba.

The most significant alteration undertaken in the palace was the transformation, in 1808, of the king’s bedroom into the throne room following drawings by Percier and Fontaine. It is the only French Royal throne room existing today which is complete with its furniture. The “Grand salon” and the Empress’s bedroom were also decorated in Empire style. Napoleon’s suite was entirely remodelled again in 1804.

The most spectacular room remains the Emperor’s bedroom which later on became the bedroom of all the sovereigns until 1870. The small bedroom, the private room also known as the “Abdication room”, the “passage to the bath-house” and the aides-de-camp’s common room complete this magnificent suite which was restored between 1987 and 1995. On the ground floor, under the François I gallery, the smaller rooms for the Emperor and his wife were altered in 1808 and 1810 and reserved for the imperial couple’s personal use.

In 1979, as a result of a donation of many objects by Prince Napoleon and Princess Marie-Clotilde, the state Napoleonic collections were redistributed within all State museums. A museum entirely devoted to Napoleon Bonaparte was thus created in Fontainebleau, its aim being to present a view of the Emperor and his family. It was set up in the Louis XV wing, a part of the château which had been restored by Napoleon in 1810 and which before that restoration (from 1803 to 1808) had been the headquarters of the the special military academy, later known as Saint-Cyr.

The exhibition begins by introducing Napoleon and Josephine and the splendour of the imperial regime, before turning to Marie-Louise, the King of Rome and Napoleon’s mother, as well as his brothers and sisters, all of whom played a part during this period. Special attention has been paid to the fabric on the walls and furniture in order to present the portraits, the memorabilia, the arms, the china, the gold and silver objects and the items of clothing in luxurious surroundings.

Fontainebleau also played a role in the Second Empire. With the return of the Empire with Napoleon III in the period between 1852 and 1870, Fontainebleau was once more an imperial château. This period is represented today by the Diane gallery (converted into a gallery) and the Empress Eugenie’s Chinese museum set up in the rooms of Napoleon III, restored and opened in 1991.

In these warm typically Second Empire rooms, this surprising collection of oriental art is made up of the spoils seized, during the Anglo-French campaign of 1860, from the summer residence of the Chinese emperors near Peking. There are also items which were given as presents by the Siamese Ambassadors during a reception in Fontainebleau on June 21, 1861. The current display preserves the arrangement designed by the Empress herself.