Swiss by birth, the sculptor Vela is now considered by art historians to be one of the greatest of Italian sculptors. Together with Canova and his imitators, he produced neo-classical sculptures, and later turned to "verismo", the Italian sculpture movement that combined realism with psychological insight.
This piece is a smaller copy in bronze of Vela’s original. It exemplifies "verismo": the haggard face of the prisoner of Saint Helena shows regret and bitterness over past defeats. His fist on the map indicates the terrain of his doomed Russian campaign. Vela was sufficiently distant in time from his subject to be able to present a realistic, anti-romantic portrayal of the fallen Emperor, restrained and subtle. The marble sculpture caused a sensation at the Universal Exposition of 1867. The Franco-Prussian War was raging, and there was widespread nostalgia for the First Empire. Napoleon III purchased the work at first sight.