Paris: City of Light

Madame de Stäel versus Napoleon Bonaparte


Parisian Salons
 ~Salons of   Enlightenment
 ~Madame de   Stäel         
~Salons of the   Restoration
 ~The Salons of   Victor Hugo

Influence of Printed Materials
 ~Pre-Revolutionary   Timeline
 ~Post-Revolutionary   Timeline


Defining the Parisians
 ~Parisians Viewed   by Foreigners
 ~Parisians   Viewed by   Themselves
 ~Paris Fashion




Upon her first meeting with Napoleon, commander of the Paris garrison and soon to be appointed first consul of France's new government, the Consulate, here is what Mme. de Stäel had to say:


Figure 1.6 Portrait of Mme. de Stäel, François Gerárd, at Château de Coppet, date unknown (Bezard, 37).

"It was with a sentiment of great admiration that I first saw Bonaparte at Paris.....But when I was a little recovered from the confusion of admiration, a strongly marked sentiment of fear succeeded. He, at that time, had no power; the fear he inspired was caused only by the singular effect of his person upon nearly all who approached him. I had a confused feeling that no emotion of the heart could act upon him. He regarded a human being as a thing, not as a fellow creature. For him, nothing existed but himself" (Child, 41).


From Mme. de Stäel's first introductions with Napoleon, she tried to impress herself upon whom she believed like others at the time was the greatest military genius of the world. Even so, Napoleon resented her advances from the start.


Figure 1.8 Appiani-the Elder, Master of Europe, date unknown, (web source).

In the eyes of Napoleon, women could NOT:

  • try to lead conversations
  • meddle with the subject of politics
  • be passionate, assertive, ambitious, or too energetic


Unfortunately, this described Mme. de Stäel accurately and it comes as no surprise that she had these negative remarks to make of Napoleon:

"But nothing could overcome my invincible aversion to what I perceived in Napoleon's character.....His wit was like the cold, sharp sword in romance, which froze the wound it inflicted. I could never breathe freely in his presence. I examined him with attention; but when he observed that my looks were fixed upon him, he had the art of taking away all expression from his eyes, as if they had been suddenly changed to marble" (Child, 41).

In 1800, Mme. de Stäel came into direct conflict with Napoleon. With the aid of Talleyrand, Napoleon had been appointed first consul and drawn up a constitution establishing a senate and two chambers. Mme. de S's lover, Benjamin Constant, was elected to serve in one of the chambers.

One evening in her salon, a number of publicly active men such as Constant and Lucien Bonaparte, minister of the interior, were meeting. Constant mentioned that he planned to speak in opposition of certain government proposals the following day, and was strongly urged by those present to not do so. Constant asked Mme. de Stäel for advice who recommended that he act according to his own beliefs.

Following her advice, Constant gave his original speech opposing the government and by the end of the day, Mme. de Stäel had received ten letters of regret from friends invited to dine that evening. One letter was from her old friend Talleyrand whom she never heard from again. Although her friendship with the family of the first consul was not harmed, Napoleon was said to have never forgiven her for Constant's speech and continued to keep close watch upon her, looking for an opportunity to banish her (Watson, 121).

It is a wonder that Mme. de Stäel was able to hold her salon open as long as she did in spite of Napoleon. All her hopes of liberty were crushed as she noted that he was rapidly becoming a dictator. With all her talents, power, and might, she fought to continue her salon, the most "exquisite pleasure of her life," as it allowed her "the pleasure of conversing in Paris" (Hall, 121). But as time went on, her guests stopped coming, most likely afraid to stay.

In 1803, Mme. de Stäel's spirited opposition to Bonaparte caused her exile from Paris. She was banished by Napoleon to forty leagues (approximately 310 miles) from Paris. Mme. de Stäel was crushed as she believed "If one could not be in the capital there was no good in being in France at all. To be out of Paris was extinction!" (Hall, 121).

Mme. de Stäel retired to her châuteau at Coppet, Switzerland, on the Lake of Geneva, where she attracted a brilliant circle and continued to write.

In 1810, during her ten-year exile from Paris, Mme. de S published her principal work, De l'Allemagne. Her work was the result of a tour through Germany. Napoleon, who resented the book as an invidious comparison between German and French culture and mores, ordered the destruction of the entire first edition in 1811 on the ground that it was "un-French". Threatened by Napoleon's police, Mme. de Stäel fled to Russia and England and eventually returned to Coppet. Republished, De l'Allemagne tremendously influenced European thought and letters, which became imbued with Mme. de Stäel's enthusiasm for German romanticism.

With the demise of Napoleon in 1814 and the restoration of Louis XVIII to the throne of his ancestors, Mme. de Stäel returned to Paris and quickly resumed her high place in society as her name had accumulated much fame over the years.


Among the salons famous at the beginning of the Restoration were those of Madame de Stäel and Madame Récamier. Click here to learn more.



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