Napoleon King at work on Royal Street: “I get along with the public.” (Photo by Henry Mitchell.)
In the French Quarter, mention of the name “Napoleon” no longer conjures up the image of a short, power-crazed Corsican. Napoleon Bonaparte has been superseded by a taller version from Miami. This modern Napoleon is less pretentious, although he was christened a King.
Harold “Napoleon” King was born in Miami, Florida, on October 22, 1940. Brought up in Florida, New Jersey, and New York, he comes from a large family — five brothers, four sisters, and two foster children. His nickname was given him by fellow high school students. “They called me ‘Napoleon’ because I was ambitious, and had lots of part-time jobs after school.” He was also a talented artist and did illustrations for the school paper.
Napoleon King on the courtyard at the Devéze-Henderson House, 612 Royal Street. (Photo by Patricia Mitchell.)
After high school, Napoleon went to New York and Greenwich Village to develop his skills, doing portraits on weekends. He is “self-taught, all natural talent, but I worked at it.”
He worked hard, creating images in charcoal and pastels, and what emerged was a dramatic style. “I call it ‘Napoleonic Impressionism.’ I work with masses, but with deep awareness of lines, giving the viewer a creative edge to see what's not there.”
His subjects are often from the past — even his self-portraits, which include exotic props, such as a turban or his plumed pirate's hat. “I find I have a sense of awareness and appreciation for the past; I can still see the past in today.”
Napoleon came to New Orleans in 1970. “I was very impressed with the congeniality of the people, and I liked the landscape.” He immediately contributed to the scene as he worked at his easel on the corner of Pirate's Alley and Royal Street, dressed in flamboyant clothes that were out of fashion a century ago, often accompanied by lively pet rabbits. He attracted an incredibly diverse assemblage of nervously expectant portrait customers, gawking tourists, spaced-out street people, scrambling children, and yelping would-be-rabbit-hounds. Asked about his extraordinary appearance as a street artist, Napoleon explained, “I felt comfortable.”
“I can still see the past in today.” King's oil-on-canvas New Orleans streetscape in the background hangs on the brick wall of a gallery located in the original slave-quarter portion of the Devéze-Henderson House. (Photo by Henry Mitchell.)
Napoleon likes working outdoors with the public. His goal at the moment, however, is to develop his art, and his concentration on his work conflicts with setting up his easel on the street. “I've been enjoying freelance art work, and I get along with the public. But I see the need right now; drawing has become important to me and is helping me in my painting. Since I've been progressing so extensively in my work, I've been paying more attention to it. But I still have my bunny, Honey Bun. As soon as I'm caught up in my work, we'll be out again.”
Napoleon does put in his appearance on the streets of the French Quarter, usually in the evenings. His wardrobe has changed with his schedule. Dressed in a dark conservative suit, white shirt, black tie, and black Derby hat, he looks as though he might be a Baptist preacher who has come to purge this sinful city. “Night life intrigues me. At night, I feel better as one of the crowd, so I don't wear my pirate clothes anymore. Again, it's a matter of being comfortable. Preacher? My stepfather's a minister, but it will be a long time before I go into the ministry!”
Napoleon King, seated at Pirate's Alley and Royal Street, 1974. His displayed artwork is out of view to the right, along the iron fence. A rabbit is perched on each shoulder; Honey Bun is to the right. (Photo by Patricia Mitchell.)
Copyright © 1975–2008 Henry H. Mitchell.