The Paris Review

Napoleon’s Chamber Pot: Propaganda and Fake News

Charles Steuben, Napoleon’s Return from Elba, 1818.

A few weeks ago, shortly after the news broke that the curator of the Guggenheim Museum had offered President Donald Trump a gold toilet as an artwork-commode for his private quarters in the White House, I found myself in Montreal, examining a toilet meant for another powerful rump.

The cream-colored chamber pot had been custom made for the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte when he was a prisoner of the British on the island of Saint Helena after his 1815 defeat at Waterloo. The English furniture maker commissioned to design the former emperor’s household furnishings had come up with this elegant Grecian chamber pot. But it turned out to have a fatal flaw: a neoclassical laurel wreath encircled its rim. Out of the question, said the scandalized British authorities when they laid eyes on it. Fearing their hostile prisoner would misinterpret the laurel as a symbolic nod to his long-gone imperial status, the pot was, so to speak, never pressed into service. 

George BullockChamber pot for Longwood House, on Saint Helena, 1815–1817. Photo: Nina Martyris.

The British knew what they were doing. Their captive was no ordinary mortal but the master propagandist of the age, a man who had conscripted everything from the press, opera, theater, and music to art, porcelain, coins, medallions, uniforms, furniture—in short, every communication device available—to burnish his image as hero and savior of the French Republic. In such protean hands, even a lowly chamber pot was in danger of being weaponized.

The motif of the laurel carried an especial goad. It conjured up Napoleon’s coronation portrait, a sumptuous neoclassical confection of the new emperor with a gilded laurel crown around his head and forelock carefully arranged à la Caesar. By choosing a Roman power haircut instead of the powdered wig favored by the recently guillotined Louis XVI, Napoleon had effectively managed to establish a distance from France’s corrupt ancien régime while simultaneously offering himself to his adoring as heir to the noble Augustus. The portrait radiated a seductive message:

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