By Richard Hoover
I hope my articles convey the satisfaction of digging up the past in order to help lay bare the soul of a great antique. Though it has been almost 20 years since I brought my first computer home, I am still amazed at how the Internet has ameliorated such time and resource-consuming effort.
Remember the draining train and Greyhound bus trips to the Library of Congress or the New York Public Library, the interminable note-taking and combing through card catalogues and library stacks? Today, it appears that semi-serious scholarship is possible anywhere and without toil -- simply with an iPad, while lying flat on one's back on the living room couch!
Maybe the Internet can never replace books and libraries, but each year it seems closer to doing so. For example: while investigating the lock of hair belonging to slain John Hampden, Cromwell's best regimental commander, I was bowled over to discover (while lying flat on the couch) obscure accounts of the obscure exhumation of Hampden's body in 1828. I used them to write the first of my obscure articles for you! Not long ago, this material might have taken months, even years to gather. All would have understood. Today, however, speed is the thing: the editor of the Daily will hardly be impressed by the promise of a sensational article whose completion is two years off!
Not using the internet risks imprisonment within one's expertise, within one's tiny store of knowledge. I recently obtained from a Mississippi antique dealer couple, on eBay, a portrait of French Gen. Georges Cadoudal. Subsequent correspondence revealed that the eBay description of the picture was based on consultations with professors -- James Bowie experts to the man -- from a history department of a prestigious western university (which shall charitably remain unnamed). The scholars advised the sellers that the portrait was either of Jim Bowie or his brother, Travis, in frontier garb. And the figure of Napoleon on the right symbolized Bowie's dreams of carving a western American empire from the Louisiana Purchase lands. Ouch!
Rather, here is what the Internet can accomplish when speed's the thing! I stumbled upon the portrait with 20 eBay minutes to go before "time's up." My thought train was this: but for the Bowie family resemblance, the accompanying story didn't add up. First, that was no Bowie knife in the subject's right hand, but a foil from circa 1800. Second, his murderous look made me recall good advice from Foreign Service Officer Class 101: if, when turning into your drive (the very spot where diplomats are most likely to get the works), you should spot some hang-about with that expression on his face, step on the gas and get the heck out!
Bingo! With minutes to go, I punched in "Napoleon Assassination." In a flash, I found recountings of attempts on Napoleon's life, with a General Georges Cadoudal at their very heart. These would include the famous "machine infernale," which exploded in the midst of Napoleon's procession to the Paris Opera, December 1800. The First Consul was accompanied by his wife, Josephine, her daughter, Hortense, and by his own sister, Caroline Murat, in her ninth month of pregnancy. The blast resulted in one of history's great examples of "cocooning:" inexplicably, all those in Napoleon's carriage survived, while scores around it perished or were terribly wounded.
Clicking on "Cadoudal" turned up articles, whole books and spitting-image likenesses. This was my man! With seconds to go, I pressed the "enter bid" button and knocked him down. Perhaps it was easy access to a grand library that had discouraged Bowie experts from consulting the common Internet!
More about Cadoudal and the portrait: Cadoudal led the royalist resistance to the French Revolution. He never gave up, even when Napoleon took power. A hero on both sides of the Channel, Cadoudal repaired to England to obtain financing for his activities in France. No doubt, his portraits hung both in Great Britain and in French émigré homes far outside France. In addition, Cadoudal championed physical culture as a requisite for military prowess -- tumbling, fencing and the like; hence, our subject's sports attire and foil!
Hunted relentlessly, Cadoudal was finally captured in 1803 and condemned to death. Probably intending to display some imperial mercy in advance -- his coronation was less than six months away -- Napoleon went to Cadoudal's cell to grant him a pardon. When the prisoner showed not the slightest remorse, Napoleon gave the signal. Cadoudal was taken to the courtyard and guillotined with his 11 companions on June 25, 1804.
In 1814, Cadoudal became one of the first heroes of the Bourbon Restoration. Louis XVIII made him a Marshal of France, posthumously. In fact, those are the Bourbon colors, the blue and the gold, that Cadoudal holds in his left hand!
Richard Hoover is a retired Foreign Service officer who resides in southern Warren County. Growing up near Cleveland, he was raised with antiques from the beginning and introduced early to shops, shows and auctions. He lectures on subjects ranging from Benjamin West and the Venetian Empire to Christian art and American Revolutionary War engravings. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org