Set Beggars on Horseback, They'll Ride to the Devil

rowlandson consular family.jpg

Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827), The Consular Family on Their Last Journey,
June 12, 1804. Etching with hand coloring. Graphic Arts Collection.
Gift of Dickson Q. Brown, Class of 1895.

1804 was a defining year for Napoléon (1769-1821), who began it as the First Consul and ended it as Emperor of France. During the winter, there was an assassination plot against Napoléon and although the leaders of the conspiracy were captured, there were lingering fears that the Republic would collapse should Napoléon be kidnapped or killed.

On May 18, 1804, the Senate passed a bill to establish a French Empire with Napoléon as its first Emperor. After many months of debate, Napoléon was finally crowned on December 2, 1804 by Pope Pius VII.

Rowlandson’s print shows Napoléon and his wife Joséphine (1763-1814), along with their family, riding in a carriage pulled by a monster and driven by a devil. The verse at the top begins with an old proverb: “Set Beggars on Horseback - they’ll ride to the Devil,” meaning if someone rises to power or wealth too quickly, they will become corrupted. Napoléon’s mother emphasizes this with her remarks, “My Dear Son Nap how charmingly we ride - but it seems very much down hill -.”