From the Archives - Marshal Soult, Art "Collector"
Nicolas Jean-de-Dieu Soult (1769-1851) was among the best of Napoleonís marshals. He enlisted in the Royal Army in 1785, rose to sergeant early in Revolution, during which he passed into the volunteers as an instructor officer in 1792. By 1794 he was general of brigade, and by 1799 had taken part in the Rhineland, Swiss, and Italian Campaigns, while rising to general of division. Created a marshal in 1804, he commanded various corps during the campaigns of 1805-1807, before being spent to Spain, where he began a long duel with Wellington broken only by a brief tour in Central Europe in 1813. Although Wellington was generally successful in this protracted struggle, Soult gave him a good run for his money, almost winning the last battle of the war, at Toulouse in early 1814.
When Napoleon abdicated in 1814, Soult entered Royal service as minister of war. During the Hundred Days in 1815, Soult rallied to the Emperor, and served as his chief-of-staff, a post for which he had little aptitude, and would probably have served better commanding one of the wings of the army during the Waterloo Campaign. With Napoleon's second abdication, Soult went into exile for a time. Returning in 1819, he was restored to duty. After the liberal monarchy was established in 1830, Soult, again war minister, reorganized the army, for which he was created "Marshal-General of France," the fourth and last man to have received this dignity, and he later served as prime minister of France three times.
A good soldier, and certainly a survivor (having served Louis XVI, the Revolution, the Consulate, Napoleon, Louis XVIII, Napoleon again, Louis XVIII again, Charles X, Louis Philippe, and the Second Republic, under Louis Napoleon) Soult was also a looter of heroic stature, as can be seen from this description of the sale of his art collection, most of which he acquired in Spain, as taken from the pages of Robert Chambersí The Book of Days (London: 1869).
On the 19th May 1852, began at Paris a sale of the pictures which had belonged to the deceased Marshal Sault. The prices realized for some of the articles were of unprecedented liberality. On the first day, three pieces by Murillo were disposed of, the 'Jesus and Child,' at 63,000 francs (£2,520); 'St. Peter in Bonds,' at 151,000 francs (£6,040); and the Conception of the Virgin,' at the astounding price of 586,000 francs, which is equivalent to £23,440 sterling. The sums obtained for various articles on the ensuing days were on the same prodigious scale. It is understood that all Soult's valuable pictures were the plunder of Spanish convents, ruined during his occupation of the country. It was a brave show and enviable possession, but it was not without some accompanying qualms. When the [Second French] Republic was established in the spring of 1848, the wary old soldier became nervous about these interesting pictures, lest, in some democratic freak, they should be reclaimed. He accordingly had them all quietly removed to Brussels, where they found an obscure, though temporary resting-place, in a gentleman's stable. At that crisis, many of them were offered in England at sums comparatively moderate, but not purchased; the 'Conception of the Virgin,' for instance, which brought £23, 440 in 1852, might then have been had at £6,000.