Napoleon Bonaparte and his chief diplomat, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, are usually seen as the oddest of history's odd couples. One personified boldness, ambition and overblown operatic passion; the other, subtlety, irony and world-weary cynicism. One displayed such restless physical energy that contemporaries repeatedly reached for that newly hatched adjective 'electric' to describe him; the other was sickly, pallid and had a club foot. Politically, one wanted to conquer the world, while the other thought France would do very well within its 'natural boundaries', and even conspired with the country's enemies to put it back there. The two most familiar images of the men express the contrast eloquently. First, there is David's brilliant portrait of Napoleon on his rearing charger in the Alps, seemingly master of the wind, rocks and sky; second, Chateaubriand's acid description of Talleyrand hobbling into the presence of Louis XVIII with the help of Napoleon's sinister police chief: 'A door suddenly opened. Silently, there entered vice, leaning on the arm of crime, M. de Talleyrand walking with the support of M. Fouché.'
LRB 16 November 2006 | PDF Download