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Happy Birthday Napoleon!

Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748 - 1825 ), The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812,by Jacques-Louis David, image from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Happy Birthday Napoleon!  

Napoleon Bonaparte was born 246 years ago today.

Three years ago I wished Napoleon a Happy Birthday and began a series of posts about  Napoleon the soldier and politician, Napoleon the lover, and  Napoleon the estate planner.  I needed a break from the Napoleon saga but I couldn’t stay away from the man for long.  This post is about the return of Napoleon’s remains to France and how the French people have honored him with one of the grandest resting places on earth.

In his will, Napoleon asked that his remains be returned to France, so he could be buried on the banks of the Seine “in the midst of the French people whom I loved so much”.


“I Wish That my Ashes Lie on the Banks of the Seine” by Jean-Pierre-Marie Jazet (1840) my photograph at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Instead, his British captors buried him under some willow trees in the “Geranium Valley” on St Helena, the island he despised.

Soon after his death, on his birthday, Napoleon’s mother wrote an impassioned letter to the British government stating “The mother of the Emperor Napoleon demands from his enemies the remains of her son….” She ended her letter with this wonderful lineI gave Napoleon to France and to the world; in the name of God, in the name of all mothers, I beg you, my Lord, not to refuse me the body of my son“.

naps mom

Napoleon’s mother, Letizia Ramolino Buonaparte, click for source.

In addition, Napoleons’ executors sent a formal request for the release of the body. The British were like, sure, you can have him, but the French government has got to ask us, not just his family or friends.

For the next nineteen years, Napoleon’s body stayed on St. Helena because the French government under King Louis XVIII didn’t want Napoleon back – the king was afraid his return would encourage more revolution. Once Napoleon’s only legitimate son died in 1840, the king felt safer and finally asked for the return, suggesting it would encourage friendship between France and England.


King Louis XVIII, image from Wikipedia, click for source

The British agreed that the French could come fetch Napoleon’s remains, but there was no friendship created.  In fact, on the return voyage, the Frenchmen threw most of their furniture overboard so they could set up cannons in case the British attacked them at sea!

The return of Napoleon’s remains to France was a huge deal for much of the population, who called his return the “retour des cendres (the return of ashes) even though Napoleon had not been cremated. The French government agreed to spend a bundle on the return and they sent three ships and some important people to fetch Napoleon’s remains.

The expedition was headed by the king’s son, the Prince of Joinville,  who commanded the main ship, the frigate Belle Poule. He didn’t want to go because he felt that fetching the body was a chore for an undertaker, but he made the trip fun by stopping off and partying all along the way.

Prince Joinville took along several people who’d gone into exile with Napoleon on St. Helena.  They included Napoleon’s executors Bertrand (and Bertrand’s son who had been born on the island) and Marchand. The third executor, Montholon, couldn’t go because he was in jail for trying to overthrow the government in aid of Napoleon’s nephew,”Napoleon III”.


Model of the Belle Poule, cllick for source

When the ships finally got to St. Helena, there was a ceremonial exhumation that began at midnight in the rain. Every second of the ceremony has been described in excruciating detail by several of those present. Napoleon had been buried in a series of coffins made of tin, lead, and mahogany and the delegation brought several more coffins to hold the original ones.

Once they dug up and opened the coffins, a doctor described Napoleon’s remains. His written description of the condition of Napoleon’s body continues for several pages. Here is a sample ” The chin itself had suffered no change, and still preserved the type peculiar to the face of Napoleon. The lips, which had become thinner, were parted; three incisor teeth of extreme whiteness appeared under the upper lip which was a little raised at the left side. The hands left nothing to desire, there were not altered in the slightest degree; although the muscles had lost their power of motion, the skin seemed to have preserved that peculiar colour which belongs only to life; the nails were long, adherent and very white”.

The doctor wanted to inspect the containers that held Napoleon’s stomach and intestines, but by then most of the French contingent were crying and they wouldn’t let him continue.
The Belle Poule and two other ships sailed for France in October, 1840. It took them more than a month to reach the French city of Cherbourg where they put Napoleon’s six coffins on a decorated steamship, the Normandie, and brought him to the harbor city of Havre.  There, they loaded him onto another ship, the Dorade that brought him up the Seine to Paris to be placed on a funeral barge.

The planners in Paris weren’t ready for Napoleon, and according to some, the final preparations were rather slap-dash.  When the barge arrived in Paris, Napoleon’s coffins were placed on an amazing funeral carriage. This carriage was 88 feet high, 88 feet long and 90 feet wide. It had so much stuff on it that it took 16 horses to pull it.


My photograph of the funeral carriage from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

They pulled Napoleon into Paris on a really cold day. People lined the route – fans had camped out the night before for good spots (some even froze to death). They brought Napoleon to his final resting place of Les Invalides (a military hospital) where the royalty and politicians were waiting. There was a funeral mass with a choir of hundreds of singers from the French opera.   According to some accounts, the royalty in attendance on the day of Napoleon’s return acted badly, with disrespect for the Emperor – they were rightly worried about the return inciting new coup attempts.

Les Invalides was orginally built to house sick and old veterans. King Louis XIV later added a grand royal domed chapel where they put Napoleon’s remarkable sarcophagus.


Dome des Invalides. Image from Wikipedia.

Napoleon’s tomb is breathtaking. There are beautiful paintings on the ceiling of the dome.

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Napoleon’s gigantic brownish-red stone sarcophagus is mounted on a huge green stone pedestal in the middle of  a circular mosaic floor, surrounded by statues.  It is majestic.

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Napoleon is not the only one entombed in the church.  Two of his brothers, (parts of) his son, and many generals and French war heros are there as well.


My photograph of another tomb at Les Invalides.


My photograph of another tomb at Les Invalides.

You can take a virtual tour of Napoleon’s final resting place at the Les Invalides website. The tomb is a massive tourist draw, despite the rather steep entrance fee.

In New York City, you can get a sense of Napoleon’s tomb by visiting Grant’s Tomb in which was modeled after Napoleon’s, but is not nearly as grand.


The Lavoisiers by Jacques Louis David

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and His Wife (Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836) Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A while ago we spent another wonderful hour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art contemplating just one  painting.  This time, our guide, Kathryn Calley Galitz, Associate Museum Educator, focused on Jacques Louis David’s stunning “Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife”.

You probably know that Lavoisier is considered the “Father of Modern Chemistry”, but there is a lot more to his biography!  Lavoisier was born to a very wealthy French family in 1743.  A little-known fact is that the famous chemist actually went to LAW SCHOOL and earned a degree in law although he never practiced.  Instead, he became a tax collector and commissioner of gun powder in addition to studying and writing about chemistry.

Lavosier married Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze, when she was 13 and he was 28.  She studied painting with Jacques Louis David and she sketched everything in Lavoisier’s laboratory.  Her drawings are in Lavoisier’s canonical Treatise on Chemistry.

mrs lav

My photograph as are the rest below.

David’s painting is unusual in many ways.  It’s size (8′ by 6′) is remarkable because it is so much larger than portraits of non-nobles during that period. Admittedly, the Lavoisiers were a celebrity couple but, it was  also very unusual to have a woman placed higher up on the canvas than a man. And check out Madame Lavoisier – she’s looking at her teacher, David, rather than her spouse!

David paid a lot of attention to accurately painting the scientific instruments – Ms. Galitz pointed out the mercury in one of the flasks that actually reflects other objects in the room.

The glass globe on the floor reflects the windows (to show off David’s genius, according to our guide).

lav glass

The Lavoisiers paid David an enormous sum for the painting. David had intended to show the painting in the Paris Salon (a prestigious art show) in 1788 but the French Revolution was beginning and Lavoisier rapidly fell out of favor. In fact. the painting was not seen publicly for 100 years after it was completed!

In 1794, Lavoisier was sent to the guillotine.

Execution of Marie Antoinette, but it must have looked much the same for Lavoisier, image from Wikipedia

Execution of Marie Antoinette, but it must have looked much the same to Lavoisier, image from Wikipedia

 David voted in favor of the death penalty for Lavoisier!

Madame Lavoisier’s father was guillotined the same day as her husband, but she was spared. She remarried another scientist, Benjamin Thompson (Count Rumfort), an eccentric physicist.  Apparently that wasn’t such a happy marriage.  Marie-Anne kept the name Lavoisier and hung the David portrait in her room for the rest of her life.


Since elementary school, I’ve remembered the saying, “Remember the Maine” without any idea of what it meant.  Finally, a few weeks ago after a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, I learned the story behind the saying!

The Maine was a U.S. “dreadnought” battleship that exploded in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898.  More than 260 (of the crew of approximately 350) sailors were killed in the disaster.


USS Maine entering Havana harbor. Image from Wikipedia, click for source.

The ship was in Cuba at the time because the U.S. was hoping to force  Spain out of governing Cuba so that we could take over. U.S. zeal to kick Spain out of Cuba was fueled by “yellow journalists” who hoped to sell more newspapers by stirring up anti-Spanish sentiment.  The journalists told lurid stories about how the Spanish mistreated the Cubans and the American public got really riled up at Spain.

How Spain viewed U.S. imperialism. Image from Wikipedia, click for source.

When the Maine blew up, most Americans assumed that Spain was at fault. A slogan popular at the time was “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain” and two months after the explosion the U.S. declared war (the Spanish-American War).   A few months after that, Spain ceded us not only Cuba, but Puerto Rico, Guam and the Phillipines!

Although the sinking of the Maine certainly contributed to the start of the war, it is unlikely that the Spanish intentionally exploded the ship. There have been many investigations into the cause of the explosion and none have proven that it was caused by the Spanish.  In fact, many believe that the Maine exploded because the coal it used spontaneously combusted.

Originally, the bodies of the sailors who died were buried in Cuba but in 1899, more than 151 coffins were disinterred and brought to Arlington National Cemetery for reburial.  There was a first memorial to the sailors that consisted of a big anchor and two mortars we took from the Spanish.


First Maine Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. Image from Wikipedia, click for source

Many people believed that there were still more bodies on the Maine so in 1910, the Maine was raised and more bodies and body parts were recovered. Eventually 34 more coffins containing remains were brought to Arlington where a second, grander memorial was built. The second memorial is powerful.  At its base is a “receiving vault” (used to store decedents when it was too cold to dig graves in the olden days) that is meant to look like the turret of a battleship.  On top of the vault is the actual mast from the Maine itself.


Image from Wikipedia. Click for source

The remains of the sailors (whose identities are mostly unknown) are buried near the memorial.  Some of them are buried together under the same headstone.  It is heartbreaking to think of all of the young men who died on the Maine.  It is good that they are commemorated so beautifully.

IMG_20150426_103942794 (2)

My photograph.

My photographs.


This story begins in Papua New Guinea, which was thought to be an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean until World War II.  Then, the world discovered that there were tens of thousands of inhabitants there who still lived in the Stone Age.

Naturally. all kinds of scientists jumped at the chance to study these people who had never been corrupted by outside influences.  One of the scientists who arrived was Dr. Robert L. Klitzman whose lecture I greatly enjoyed at the Guggenheim Museum’s Works and Process program this week.

Nowadays. the mesmerizing Dr.Klitzman is a  Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Masters of Bioethics Program at Columbia University, but when he was still a student in the 1950s, he went to Papua New Guinea to study an epidemic of a  fatal neurological disease that the locals called kuru.

A Disturbing Video of a Kuru Victim/  You Might Not Want to Watch This.

The doctor explained that kuru is caused by weirdly folded proteins called prions that are as fatal as some viruses.  One of the scary things about prions is that the diseases they cause can have really long incubation periods – prions can hang out in the human body for 20 or even 40 years before disease appears. Typically, kuru would start with a headache, followed by tremors and increasing weakness until death.  The victims were almost exclusively women.

Dr. Klitzman studied precisely how the prions were being transmitted because it had been discovered that kuru was caused by cannibalism, particularly the ingestion of brains  (loaded with prions) at “feasts” that occurred when members of a group died. He actually interviewed people about who had partaken of whom and what they had feasted on.

More women than men contracted kuru because women were always the ones to eat decedents’ brains but they also fed bits of brain to children.  Thus some men also contracted kuru because they ate brains as youngsters. Did they cook the brains first? Yes and you can read more about that here.

Cannibalism is against the law in Papua New Guinea now and no one has died of kuru since 2005. Good news for the women of the island!

Dr Klitzman explained that prions cause other diseases that kill brain cells and thus make brains look spongy (“spongiform encephalopathies”). Sheep get scrapie, so-called because the prions make them try to scrape off their wool.

Until 1996, cows (mostly in the United Kingdom) were getting “mad cow disease” from eating prion-packed sheep.

Humans who ate mad cows may get Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, a fatal, incurable, degenerative, neurological malady.  So far, the only suspected cases of Creutzfeldt–Jakob caused by eating mad cows (over 100 victims) have occurred in the United Kingdom and Canada but the American Red  Cross is not taking any chances.

A while ago I went to a blood drive and was turned away because I had lived in England for more than three months between 1980 and 1996 and thus I may have picked up prions at tea.  Ironically, I first went vegetarian in London in 1986 after too many meals with meaty surprises like kidneys with the steak and ox-tails in the stew, but it may have been too late.   Scientists suspect my blood is dangerous and sometimes when I forget a student’s name, I wonder whether prions from an old Wimpy burger are coming back to haunt me.





The Death of Socrates


Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Click for source

Recently I had the great pleasure of attending a fantastic gallery talk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The talk was devoted to a 70 minute contemplation of one of my all-time favorite paintings, The Death of Socrates, by the French artist, Jacques Louis David. (If you want to sound artsy, pronounce his last name Dah-VEED).

Our fantastic guide, Alice W. Schwarz, MMA, Museum Educator, told us that the average museum-goer spends 17 seconds looking at a painting. Thus, our 70 minutes was unusual, but it was so worth it to finally understand some of what is going on in this gorgeous 1787 painting which many consider to be David’s finest work.

You probably know the story of Socrates:  He was an Athenian teacher charged with two felonies – refusal to acknowledge the proper gods and corrupting the young.  In 399 BC  he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death.  He could have renounced his beliefs or escaped but he chose death instead.

Ms. Schwarz explained what’s going on in the painting:

Socrates (age 70 and quite fit-looking) and the others are in a prison/dungeon that resembles an 18th century French prison.


Old Plato and Mrs Socrates.  My photo as are the others below.

The old man at the foot of the bed is Plato (although in real life he would have been 29 years old when Socrates died). Socrates’ wife is ascending the stairs and waving goodbye in the far background. Ms. Schwarz intimated that Socrates did not have the happiest marriage.


The saddest guy in the painting (in the red toga) is not one of Socrates’ students.  He is a young jail attendant who is handing Socrates a kylix (cup) of poison.  Notice that there are shackles on the ground and there is a red mark on Socrates’ ankle where they recently had been fastened.  Socrates has been freed so that he can walk around after he drinks a tea made from hemlock leaves.  Hemlock, a weed that only grows in areas near the Mediterranean, is so poisonous that a tea brewed of five leaves will kill a human. They allowed Socrates to walk around after drinking the hemlock in order to speed up his death.  Apparently death by hemlock is more protracted and horrible if one merely reclines after ingestion.

socrates students

The rest of the men, of various ages, most of whom aren’t even looking at Socrates, are his students. They are distraught and unafraid to express their anguish.  I think that is why I love this painting so much – it is so heartwarming to see such devotion of students to their beloved teacher.  One can only dream.

Student Work – Mario Cuomo and Rasipuram Krishnaswami Laxman

Mario Cuomo by Michelle Daniels


Mario Cuomo – Image from Wikipedia. Click for source

















Mario Cuomo was the 52nd governor of New York City and an attorney by profession, but to many he became much more.  Born to Italian immigrant parents he knew the struggles of everyday hard working people and became a voice for those who were less fortunate.

In his early beginnings he tried his hand at a baseball career but due to an injury he could no longer play the sport.  What then became his chosen career path was working as an attorney. He showed great promise early on as an attorney.

In an eminent domain dispute case he helped save 69 families who lived in Queens and were facing eviction from their homes by the city. In order to make way for a school.  He was able to work on behalf of the families and save 55 of the 69 families facing eviction.  Working as an attorney eventually lead Mr. Cuomo to pursue a career in politics.

In his three terms as governor he continued to be star for those who were the less fortunate.  He is best known for his speech given on the night of July 16, 1984 which to some may be known as the “tale of two cities speech” which was given at the Democratic Convention. In his speech he gave voice to those less fortunate and showed the world he was a man of compassion and kindness and he never forgot that he was the product of hard working parents.  His speech spoke to poverty in America and shined light on President Regan and what he was neglecting to see with his own eyes which was an unequal and unfair divide between those who had money and those who were struggling to make ends meet.

Mario Cuomo died on January 1, 2015 in his home due to a medical condition.  Mr. Cuomo is survived by his wife Matilda Cuomo and five children Andrew Cuomo, Dr. Margaret I. Cuomo, Maria Cuomo Cole, Madeline Cuomo O’ Donohue and Christopher Cuomo and 14 grandchildren.


John Cassidy, What is Mario Cuomo’s Legacy? , The New Yorker (Jan. 5, 2015),

Adam Nagourney, Mario Cuomo, Ex-New York Governor and Liberal Beacon, Dies at 82, The New York Times, (Jan. 1, 2015),


Rasipuram Krishnaswami Laxman by Tashi Haskin

R.K. Laxman. Image from India City blog. Click for source.











Tashi Haskin

Tashi Haskin



On January 26, beloved Indian cartoonist Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer (‘R.K.’) Laxman passed away in Pune, India. Internationally known for his satirical cartoons, his career spanned more than 5 decades.  Doctors confirmed that his death was due to multiple organ failure. He was 93.

Mr. Laxman, born on October 24 1921, was the youngest of 7 children. His mother was a homemaker, while his father was a school headmaster. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree from the University of Mysore, he began his career in the city of Mumbai, working for The Free Press Journal. He also provided illustrations for novels by his brother, R.K. Narayan, who became one of India’s most famous writers.

In 1951, while working for the Times of India, Laxman created the cartoon that would bring him worldwide acclaim. Known as “You Said It”, it featured The Common Man, a character who represented everyday people. The Common Man never spoke- he simply observed the goings on. “You Said It” was an almost daily fixture in the lives of Indians and focused primarily on political and societal issues.

The Common Man became so embedded in Indian culture that a television sitcom based on the character was produced. Entitled Ki Duniya, it ran for over a decade.  The character has also been featured on a postage stamp.

In addition to cartoons, Laxman also authored essays, short stories and his autobiography, “The Tunnel of Time” which was published in 1998.

Laxman was the recipient of the 2005 Padma Vibhushan award, which is the second-highest honor that a citizen may be given. There is also a statue of The Common Man in his hometown of Pune.

He is survived by his second wife, children’s book writer Kamala Laxman, and his son Srinivas.



The New York Times

Pandya, H. “R.K. Laxman, Cartoonist Who Amused India for Decades, Dies at 93.” The New York Times. Retrieved February 3, 2015 from

George, N. “Acclaimed Indian Cartoonist Dies at 94.”

Retrieved January 30, 2015 from







The Pagans of Iceland


Icelandic Pagans. Image from BBC World News. Click for source.


Recently I learned that a pagan temple is being built in Iceland for the first time in a thousand years. According to the BBC World News.

The temple will provide followers of Iceland’s old Norse religion with a place to hold their communal “blot” – or feasts – as well as marriages, name-giving ceremonies, funerals and rite of passage ceremonies for teenagers. Until now, ceremonies have mostly been conducted outdoors during the summer.

“At last, our long journey across the desert is at an end,” says Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, a composer and high priest of Iceland’s neo-pagan Asatru movement.”

The news reminded me of my visit to the National Museum of Iceland a few years ago when I learned about the earliest settlement of Iceland by the Norse during the Viking Age (around 870 AD).


Skeleton of an Early Settler with Gravegoods

Just like the modern day “neo-pagans” who are building the new temple, the original settlers worshipped the Norse gods – Thor, Odin, Freyja, Loki and others.  An exhibit at the museum explained that an ancient writing, The Prose Edda of Snorri Snurlson, describes the settlers’ beliefs about death:  men who died in battle would join Odin in his great hall at Valhalla.  Men who died in bed joined the being,Hel, for eternity in Hel and  “no indication is given as to where women went after death”.

Both sexes did believe in a life after death though. They buried many gravegoods with decedents including entire boats and horses as well as implements they might need in the afterlife.


Drawing of settler buried with horse, shield, sword, spear, knife, lead weights and stones.

Iceland adopted Christianity circa 1000 AD and paganism was outlawed until 1972.  One of the most significant objects at the museum is this tiny bronze figure of a man that dates from around 1000.  Most believe he is Thor, holding his hammer but some argue that he is Jesus, holding a cross.  What do you think?


Image from the National Museum of Iceland. Click for source.

  • While you ponder enjoy a video by Skalmold, a Viking metal band from Iceland!