On August 11, 1858, the emperor Napoléon III arrived in Brest in his uncle’s boat, the Canot de l’empereur, rowed by twenty oarsmen, with a golden Neptune on the front (sorry, the prow), gold trim all along the edges and a huge golden crown on top.
The audio guide at the Maritime Museum (Musée national de la Marine) explained that Napoléon III was always eager to find connections between himself and his uncle, to bolster the legitimacy of his regime.
In this painting by Auguste Mayer (1805-1890), the ramparts of Brest are crowded with loyal subjects cheering the arrival of their emperor.
Of course not everyone was so enthusiastic. Victor Hugo, for instance, described Napoléon III as a sneaky little usurper and refused to have anything to do with him, preferring to go into exile for nineteen years until his nemesis was overthrown. (See my post on Hugoffenbach.)
If for some reason you would like to see the original, authentic Canot de l’empereur (Boat of the Emperor), you can do so at the Maritime Museum, in the west wing of the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. The boat is intact and is in excellent condition, having been carefully restored in 2002-2003.
The Canot de l’empereur was built in 1810 in just 21 days (without the ornamentation, which was added later) on orders of Napoléon I, who wanted it for a triumphant visit to the harbor of Antwerp.
For many years, the boat was kept in Brest, the main French military port on the Atlantic coast. It probably would have been destroyed in the bombings of Brest towards the end of the Second World War, but to prevent this it was moved to Paris by rail (with the cooperation of the occupying German army) and then by truck through the streets of Paris to the Palais de Chaillot. The entire operation was minutely planned and meticulously carried out, but when the boat arrived at the Palais de Chaillot they discovered there was no way to get it into the building, since no door was big enough for a boat of this size. For the next two years it was kept outside, in a makeshift wooden shed that had been built around it, until finally in 1945 a temporary gap was made in one of the walls, just large enough for the boat to be eased into the building.
One of the numerous paintings in the Maritime Museum is this one of the Battle of Ouessant on July 23, 1778. The painter was Théodore Gudin (1802-1880), who wasn’t even born until 24 years after the battle took place.
This painting of the Battle of Gondelour on June 20, 1783, is by Auguste-Louis Rossel de Cercy (1736-1804). This is not a very dramatic painting, but it shows how they liked to fight naval battles in those days, with the ships of the rival armadas lined up facing each other. To a notorious landlubber like me, it is a mystery how they managed to get all these ships lined up, which must have taken hours of maneuvering. Did they have a cease-fire or something until the line-up was complete? Perhaps some knowledgeable person can enlighten me on this point.
Address: Palais de Chaillot, 17 place du Trocadéro, 75116 Paris
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2018.
See more posts on Museums in Paris.