'Violettes du 20 Mars 1815'
This small and unassuming print – a hand-coloured etching – is perhaps one of the most laconic yet enigmatic objects to mark Napoleon’s return to Paris and the start of the 100 Days. Referring to the precise date of that event, 20 March 1815, in its title, it ostensibly depicts a bouquet of violets, a flower associated with Napoleon at this time: The origin of this association is unclear but popular myth quotes him as saying upon his defeat in 1814 that, just like the violets in the Fontainebleau palace gardens, he would return within a year, and he was said to have became known as Père Violette amongst his soldiers.
Echoing his emergence from exile, the negative space between the flowers and foliage appears to materialize into the silhouettes of Napoleon, his wife Marie-Louise and their son (here an English-speaking collector has written a key identifying them), while a leaf deftly morphs into the familiar form of Napoleon’s bicorn hat.
This print, the work of Jean Dominique Étienne Canu, belonged to a genre of ‘hidden silhouette’ imagery well established by 1815, and the portraits hidden in plain sight within the image were no secret to a French public well versed in how to ‘decipher’ such prints. Rather, this print offered a witty visualization of the political vicissitudes of the 100 Days. The training in and out of focus between the positive and negative planes of the image stages optically the emerging and submerging of dynasties that bookended the 100 Days, at once anchoring the image’s message and destabilizing it.
See also the use of violets in the print ‘Le Printemps ou le retour de la Violette’, our object for 3rd March.