Thomas Prichard Rossiter
1818-1871 | American
Signed and dated "Rossiter / 1854" (lower left)
Oil on canvas
This exceptional work by the American painter Thomas Prichard Rossiter represents a masterful combination of American romanticism and historical genre painting. The subject is the tomb of the French Emperor Napoléon on the island of St. Helena, where he had been exiled by the British from 1815 until his death in 1821. Rossiter presents a romantic and idealized vision of Napoléon’s resting place, executed with a distinctively American eye for the romantic in its juxtaposition of light and shadow. Cleverly hidden between the trees is the silhouette of the emperor himself, gazing out towards the sea as though longing to return to France.
Having been imprisoned and exiled on St. Helena by the British following the Hundred Days and his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoléon died on the island of stomach cancer at the age of 51. His death was met by an outpouring of emotion. In a codicil to his will, he had expressed a desire to be buried on the banks of the Seine in Paris, but this wish was denied by both the British government and by King Louis XVIII, who believed the return of the remains would inspire civil unrest.
Instead, Napoléon was buried in a simple, unadorned plot beneath a willow in St. Helena’s Sane Valley. An island 1,162 miles from the west coast of Africa, St. Helena was chosen as the place of Napoléon’s final exile precisely for its isolation. Because of its remoteness, few were able to visit the tomb of their former emperor, and only a handful of sketches of his resting place beneath a willow tree were brought back to France. Rossiter likely would have used one of these images as his inspiration, though the scene is almost entirely a product of his rich imagination.
Napoléon’s remains would eventually be returned to France in 1840, when he was entombed at the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris. It was the same year that Rossiter first arrived in France. The removal of Napoléon’s remains was one of the most important political topics of the day, and Rossiter was certainly privy to the debates on the topic. This work is a testament to his understanding of and empathy for the sentimentality attached to the French reclaiming their Napoléon. It was well received in both France and America, and a lithograph by Nathaniel Currier based on the painting is currently held in the Brooklyn Museum.
Born in Connecticut in 1818, he learned his trade in New Haven, exhibiting at the National Academy of Design and eventually opening a studio in New York. In 1840, however, he decided to continue his studies in Europe, settling in Paris for several years and attending the École des Beaux-Arts. He soon became friends with a close-knit group of other American painters in Paris, including Asher Durand, George Healy, and John Kensett, with whom he shared a studio. He exhibited three works at the Paris Exposition of 1855, winning a gold medal for his Venice in the 15th Century. Shortly thereafter, he composed the present work, which is a stunning ode to his two homes – America and France.
Canvas: 25" high x 30 1/4" wide
Frame: 34 1/2" high x 39 1/2" wide