Marguerite Gerard: Clemency of Napoleon to Madame de Hatzfeld
This painting depicts an actual incident, described in the memoirs of the Duchesse d'Abrante as follows:
The Prince of Hatzfeld [husband of the lady in the picture, and Governor of Berlin at the time], it was known, had remained at Berlin after the departure of the King and Queen of Prussia, and it was quite natural that a man of his importance, if he chose to reside under such circumstances at Berlin, should be strictly watched. It was therefore rather simple of him to put into the post a letter for the king, in which he gave an account of all that was passing at Berlin, and also of the movements, number, and sentiments of the French troops. I do not wish to exculpate the prince's accusers, but certainly he had committed himself very unwisely, and I would not aver that in our own France, in the year of grace 1814, we were not in the same measure subjected to the rigorous examination of General Sacken. The fact is, that the Emperor, on reading this letter of the Prince of Hatzfeld, flew into one of those fits of rage which acquired for him the reputation of being the most passionate man under the sky. He instantly gave orders that a military commission should be assembled, that the Prince of Hatzfeld should be brought before it, and that it should make its report before it separated. On hearing this dreadful news his poor wife, almost out of her wits, remembered suddenly that Marshal Duroc, on his different journeys to Berlin, had always been hospitably received and entertained by the prince and herself. She quitted her house in a state bordering on distraction, sought in vain for Duroc, but learned that the Emperor was at Charlottenberg and Duroc not with him. She continued her pursuit, and at length found Duroc, who was affected by her distress. He was convinced that the Prince of Hatzfeld was lost if the princess could not see the Emperor that very day. He soothed her as well as he was able, knowing the danger her husband stood in: but he also knew the Emperor: he knew that in similar circumstances his heart was capable of great and magnanimous sentiments, and he believed that in the present state of affairs an action of clemency would be of as much value as the addition of a hundred thousand men to his army. "You shall see the Emperor," said he to the princess; "rely upon me."The Emperor had been to a grand review of his guards; they were out of humour because they had had no share in the victory of Jena, and the Emperor, unwilling to give them the least pain, had been to visit them; this caused his absence from Berlin. On his return he was surprised to find Duroc waiting for him with an air of great impatience. Duroc had been much interested by the despair of the Princess of Hatzfeld; since his interview with her he had seen two of her husband's judges, and had learnt that there was no hope for him. He requested an immediate audience of the Emperor, and followed him into his closet:
"You are come to tell me that the town of Berlin is in revolt, is it not so? I am not surprised, but they will have a terrible example to-morrow to cure them of the mania of revolting."
Duroc saw that the Prince of Hatzfeld was in the worst case possible. He was convinced that the only successful advocate in his behalf would be the princess herself; he obtained permission to introduce her, and went to fetch her. The unfortunate wife, on being brought into the presence of the man who could kill or spare her husband, had only power to throw herself at Napoleon's feet . He raised her immediately, and spoke to her with the utmost kindness. Madame de Hatzfeld sobbed convulsively, and could only repeat, as it were mechanically: "Ah! Sire, my husband is innocent!"
The Emperor made no answer, but went to his Escritoire, and taking from it the prince's letter, held it towards his wife in silence. She looked at the unfortunate paper, then burst into tears, and striking her forehead with her clasped hands, exclaimed in consternation: "Oh yes, it is his writing!"
The Emperor was affected, it appears, by the frankness which in the hour of peril acknowledged the whole truth to him ; thus leaving him all the merit of the affair. He would not refuse it, but advancing to the princess put the fatal letter into her hands, saying with a graciousness which doubled the value of the favour: "Make what use you please of this paper, which is the only evidence against your husband; when it no longer exists I shall have no power to condemn him;" and he pointed to the fire which was blazing in the chimney.
The letter was burned, and its flame was a bonfire of rejoicing for the deliverance of the prince. I know not whether he continued grateful, but I hope so for the sake of humanity.
I have since learned from Duroc how much the Emperor was affected by the candour of the Princess of Hatzfeld. Her profound grief and reliance upon his mercy had penetrated to his heart. He had feelings of humanity and affection, whatever may be said to the contrary, and stronger, perhaps, than may be believed.
Another depiction of this incident was done by Louis Lafitte, as a drawing, shown below.