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Taxidermists Restore Napoléon’s Beloved White Horse

Vizir the horse in 2014 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Napoléon’s horse le Vizir in the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, as seen in 2014 (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Napoléon Bonaparte reportedly rode over 130 horses during his 14-year reign, but only one ended up as taxidermy: the Arabian stallion named le Vizir. The white horse has long been on view at the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, but the over 200-year-old specimen experienced significant deterioration, including a deep crack that crawled over his shoulder. Following a successful crowdfunding campaign called “Sauvons Vizir” (or “Save Vizir”) that raised over $22,000, le Vizir is getting a much-needed attention, with taxidermists at work in the museum to restore some of his former glory.

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissionier, "1814" (1862), oil painting. It's believed to depict Napoléon riding le Vizir (via Walters Art Museum/Wikimedia)
Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissionier, “1814” (1862), oil painting. This painting is believed to depict Napoléon riding le Vizir. (via Walters Art Museum/Wikimedia) (click to enlarge)

As the military museum shared on Facebook, conservators Yveline Huguet and Jack Thiney began the first phase of restoration work two weeks ago, focused on some initial cleaning. Visitors to the museum, AFP reported, will be able to witness le Vizir’s restoration. Previously, he was displayed in a quiet hallway that visitors might only discover while trying to find the restrooms, his case off to the side, the only distinguishing feature that might catch the eye being an imperial “N” topped with a crown branded on his thigh. The restoration project will include fixing the tears in le Vizir’s body, rehydrating the skin, restored coloration, and finally placing the horse in a new climate-controlled case.

Le Vizir’s gallop to fame began when an Ottoman sultan gifted the stallion to Napoléon in 1802. Just a couple of years later, his new owner was crowned Emperor (or, more accurately, crowned himself). Napoléon preferred small horses, and the svelte le Vizir quickly became a favorite. Albeit not as well-known as Marengo, who is believed to be rearing on his hind legs in the famed Jacques-Louis David painting “Napoleon Crossing the Alps,” le Vizir accompanied his master all the way to exile in Elba from 1814 to 1815. And he is thought to be portrayed in a painting by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissionier, the horse with ears alert boldly stepping forward beneath a tumultuous sky. Born in Corsica, Napoléon didn’t start learning to ride until his military career began, and in his portraits he’s often on a beautiful horse, a testament to his pride in this animal relationship. Five years after the death of Napoléon, le Vizir passed away in 1826 at the age of 33, in the care of imperial stable officer Léon de Chanlaire.

For most military steeds, that’s the end of the story, yet de Chanlaire decided it was important to preserve this faithful symbol of the late Emperor. However, after mounting the skin, he was concerned that the dead horse might be mistreated in post-Napoleonic France, so le Vizir was sent to England. His stuffing was pulled out so the horse could be flattened and fit into a traveling trunk, and le Vizir was puffed up again for display at the Manchester Natural History Society (now the Manchester Museum) in 1843. Those two taxidermy mounts, along with other restorations, caused the little horse to shrink even more. When Napoléon III, nephew of the Emperor, came into power, le Vizir returned from exile in 1868. The horse was in good favor until this Napoléon also tumbled from the throne, and le Vizir descended into storage at the Louvre. Three decades of obscurity followed before his worn body was unearthed and relocated to the Musée de l’Armée.

It’s quite a posthumous journey for a horse. Remains of Napoléon’s campaigns are strewn around Europe, including the skeleton of Marengo, who was seized as a war trophy at Waterloo and whose bones are currently at Britain’s National Army Museum. At the Musée de l’Armée, le Vizir remains close to his Emperor, buried at the nearby les Invalides, his remains a tactile connection to the many horses that served on the 19th-century battlefields.

An 1806 painting of le Vizir by Pierre Martinet (via RMN-Grand Palais (musée des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau))
An 1806 painting of le Vizir by Pierre Martinet (via RMN-Grand Palais [Musée des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau])
Le Vizir in the Musée de l'Armée in 1909 (via Agence de presse Meurisse/BnF Gallica)
Le Vizir in the Musée de l’Armée in 1909 (via Agence de presse Meurisse/BnF Gallica)
Vizir the horse in 2014 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Vizir the horse in 2014
Vizir the horse in 2014 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Vizir the horse in 2014
Vizir the horse in 2014 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Vizir the horse in 2014
Musée de l'Armée in Paris (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Musée de l’Armée in Paris

The restoration of le Vizir is currently ongoing at the Musée de l’Armée (129 Rue de Grenelle, 7th arrondissement, Paris).

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