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October 13, 2005

Napoleon King - French Quarter Painter

I was 18 when I started school in New Orleans in 1984. In the Spring of 1985, I started hanging out in Jackson Square. I'd ride my bike down there pretty much every day, and just hang out in the square, teaching myself how to juggle. I cut open tennis balls and filled them with pennies to stop them from bouncing. Every day, I'd go into the square and practice in the shade of the trees.

Napoleon was an eternal figure on the square. If the sun was shining, he was out painting. When all the other tourists were doing caricatures for a few dollars, Napoleon would stretch out these massive canvases, set up his easel, and paint the St. Louis Cathedral, or the Cabildo, or Pirate's Alley in oil or acryllic.

He'd hang his art on the wrought iron fence of the square and then sit there painting with that little metal painting trowel that the artists use to spread oil based paint when money is not a concern.

Whenever I came down, I'd park my bike by his cart and lock it up, and he'd always say "Hey, Robbie! Hey man! How 'ya doing? It's a great day today, huh? Are you gon'na juggle your balls today?" And then he'd laugh. This huge, sincere, earth shaking laugh, with his gap-toothed grin. It really made you look around, to see if other people were staring at you. But Napoleon didn’t care. He was having a great time with what he was doing. You could always tell that about him.

Charcoal sketch of Pirate's Alley by Napoleon King - Photo courtesy of M. Hill

He experimented with his paintings. He’d do watercolors for a while, then switch to charcoals. Sometimes painting ante-bellum style characters, sometimes modern. Or he'd paint scenes of the swamps from his memory or his imagination, I never knew where those came from. He took on his nephew Leon as an apprentice, and began teaching him to paint. New Orleans is a hard place to grow up young and black, and you could see that he was trying to keep Leon out of trouble.

Napoleon really introduced me to the city. Not to uptown, in the Garden District, where all the Tulane crowd was hanging out. Napoleon introduced me to the black side of New Orleans. We went to places where I’d be the only white guy there, which was cool.

At lunch time, we’d take a break and go to Café Maspero’s for a muffuletta or Café Pontalba and have a sandwich. I’d get one of their one dollar daiquiris and he’d get a beer. Napoleon was the only guy I ever knew that had his own table in a restaurant. When we went into Café Maspero’s, his table was always open. The restaurant would be packed, and damned if they didn’t hold his table for him. And it wasn’t the kind of place that took reservations. It wasn’t like that. It was just some deal he had worked out with them. When we showed up, they sat us at the same table every time.

When I got better with my juggling, I started doing little shows on the square. I’d juggle two balls and an apple and eat the apple while I juggled it, which isn’t easy. So, I’d get a little money from the shows, never much, but just some change or a dollar or two. Whenever I collected enough money, we’d walk across Decatur Street and go to Café Du Monde for beignets and Café Au Lait. I’ve always loved beignets, but Napoleon wouldn’t touch them. “Man…I don’t know how you eat that shit.” He’d say. But he’d drink coffee with me though. And we’d sit there, me eating steaming hot beignets and both of us sipping coffee. It cost next to nothing. I think that back then, you could get an order of beignets and a cup of coffee for 35 cents.

Whenever I was back in New Orleans, I’d always walk around the square until I found him, and he’d immediately drop his painting and we’d go off and eat lunch together. Only, as I got older, I made him let me pay the bill.

At some point over the last few years, I finally purchased a few paintings from him, probably the only paintings I've ever bought in my life (I'm not big on decorating).

The last time I saw him was in the winter a year or two ago, he suggested we meet at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. I'd never even heard of the place, but it's this cozy, little old bar on Bourbon and St. Phillip with a big fire going in the fireplace. It was cold outside, which is pretty rare, so it was the perfect place to meet.

When I last saw him, he hadn’t changed much in the 20 years I’d known him. His beard was a little grayer, and he’d gotten his teeth fixed, but, other than that, he was just the same. “Hey Robbie. How ya’ been, man? Isn’t this weather crazy? It’s cold out there. This is nuts man. Really nuts.” The fire felt really nice. That's just the was Napoleon was, he knew every little nook and cranny of New Orleans, and was like my own personal tour guide of the city.

I was in New Orleans in August, about a week before the hurricane hit and I wanted to introduce my daughter to him, this timeless, eternal presence of the square. I drug my daughter all around Jackson Square looking for him, but he wasn’t out.

I learned today that he passed away in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. His sister said had been on dialysis and living with someone else over the last couple of years, as he could no longer live on his own. He was one of those people that was shuttled around between the different locations for the Hurricane refugees; part of the wave of humanity displaced by the storm. He passed away on a bus, while being bantied back and forth between shelters like a human shuttlecock.

The Time Picayune said this of Napoleon in 2003:

Self-taught artist Harold "Napoleon" King has painted French Quarter scenes on the square for 33 years. "I'm from Florida and I heard about the Mardi Gras," he said, "so I came to New Orleans on the bus. Unfortunately I came on the day after Mardi Gras. I heard about people dancing naked on the bar tops. And I found out about Buster Holmes (a famous former French Quarter restaurant) where I could get beans and rice for 35 cents -- which meant I could stay here a little longer than I would have. The history and the landscape hit me -- it was like a bomb dropped. Sales are extremely good on the fence (compared to other places he's painted in the Quarter). People come here looking for something to match their living style -- honeymooners, doctors, lawyers. School kids come by -- that's inspiring."

I’m sad that he’s gone, but glad that he was there to help make my time in New Orleans such a rich and fulfilling experience.

Napoleon King, a fixture of Jackson Square, New Orleans for 35 years, was born Harold Napoleon King in Florida on October 22, 1938 to Joe Brown King and Eloise Jessica Parker King. Rest In Peace, Napoleon.

Update: Here's an article on the web about Napolean King. The article is funny because it says he used to have pet rabbits and dress in a pirate's hat. I never saw a rabbit or a pirate's hat, as I met him in the Spring of 1985, 15 years after his arrival in New Orleans. So, he was probably past that phase when I met him.

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Posted by Peenie Wallie on October 13, 2005 at 12:39 AM


Sorry to hear about Napoleon. His illness must have been fairly recent for I visited with him the last time I was in NO.

Posted by: sl on October 13, 2005 at 06:44 AM

Thank you very much for the reminiscences of Napoleon King. There is a January 1975 article about him posted at TheCommunityStandard.com.

Posted by: Henry Mitchell on December 17, 2005 at 09:58 PM

Thank you for your article and information.

I've known Napoleon since the summer of '81... and off and on through the years, seeing him the last time in June of '01. He was a dear sweet man and the greatest artist on the Square. He had a smile and kind word for everyone.

My son and I were in New Orleans this past week; he was helping a family clean up and rebuild while I was filming in Alabama...

I asked about Napoleon and learned of his tragic and sad passing... from a reliable source, and was told this:

"He made it to the Superdome. Another artist made the effort to find him there, knowing he needed dialysis, and somehow got him to Tulane med center. There was no power, of course. She or someone later ID'd him in the morgue."

He and so many others did not need to go like this... We will never forget Napoleon.


Posted by: Shirley (Alexander) Morgan, Noblesville, IN on February 05, 2006 at 03:22 PM

I am so glad I found this sight. Sometime last year I was at an estate sale outside of Salinas, CA. In one of the old outbuildings, in a very cheap frame was a charcoal of an area I had never seen. Iron gates, couple walking down the street, looked like streetlamps on, looked like old church steeple in the picture. I thought it was some part of Europe. 3 times I walked away and 3 times I went back. It was not my style but I thought it had a charm to it....I could feel the street....it was $2.00. Took the risk. I tried for the longest time to find out who the artist was, from the internet I could tell he was from New Orleans, saw that some place had one of his oils for auction. Still did not know the history, his timeline, anything about him. For some reason I was again pushed to search for him and now I know the rest of the story.
I will say how sorry I am that he passed and under the horrible conditions that he went. What hits me more is that this man somehow found his bliss. I think he led the life he wanted and had friends everywhere. To think that so far away, I have a part of the poetry that was in his soul and now in a way, know him,,,,,he has impacted people far and wide....

Posted by: M. Hill on March 11, 2006 at 10:18 AM


I spent Mardi Gras 2001 with Napoleon, and a guy named Robbie- Was that you? He had spent several days doing a portrait of me, even though he usually did street scenes. We listened to his radio and fed his birds in the square. Mardi Gras night he painted my face, and the he and you (if it was you) painted other parts of other women.

In February, 2004 i was in NO for just a few days. I asked around Jackson Square for Napoleon and was told he was away for dialysis.

When I heard about Katrina, I tried to contact him, unsuccessfully. I thought about him often. I somehow believed he would be okay.

I just found your post. I am so sorry he went through that horror.

if you are the Robbie from Mardi Gras 2001, email me if you have the time. I have pictures of Napoleon and me from that night. I always wanted him to adapt the photo into a portrait of us together.


Posted by: Maureen on May 21, 2006 at 08:27 AM

Sorry, to hear about this sad news this wonderful artist. Was looking for his location to buy a piece of his work and I stumbled on this shocking news. If you know of a local studio with his work please let me know. Thanks and my prayers are with him.

Posted by: deborah rosser on November 05, 2006 at 07:09 PM

I have a couple of prints dated 1975 I was wondering if anyone knew how much they were worth or if anyone was interested

Posted by: Shelia on November 12, 2006 at 09:00 AM

I was in New Orleans in 1998 a vacation filled with laughter with my dearest friend and her mom. We went to the French Quarter to find art. I found art and the artist I will never forget. He had charm and charisma that fill the square and drew me back to him to buy a painting. I often wonder if he was safe from the hurricane. I am sad to find out about his passing. King made a lasting impression on me and I will never forget his smile. He is a King!

Posted by: Beth Stevens on November 22, 2006 at 09:23 AM

My ex and I bought a large oil painting (old French Quarter Street scene at sunset)from Napolean in the early 1980s. The paint was still wet when we took it home to San Antonio on the plane. I got it in the divorce. I've had it hanging over my bed for over 20 years and it always charms me as did Napoleon. He was so colorful I've never forgotten him. I did see him sometime in the late 1980s but not since. I am truly saddened to hear of his tragic death.
For some odd reason, I decided to try to find out about him for the first time tonight. Thanks
to Google, I found your story. My ex and I are still friends and he loved Napoleon, too. So, I will share your story with him. Thanks for posting it. I have always cherished this painting and now I will do so even more.

Posted by: Jodie on January 23, 2007 at 10:10 PM

My name is Paul Quirk. My girlfriend Brenda and I had been friends with Napoleon for over 10 years. We talked to Napoleon at length several times after he was evacuated from New Orleans; the last time was a day or two before his death.

We never knew him by any name other than "King Napoleon" and "Napoleon King"; he signed paintings using either name. Napoleon's real name was Harold King. We didn't find this out until he called me, out of the blue, after being evacuated. I told him I had been trying and trying to reach him after the hurricane and I asked him "why didn't you register your name at the Superdome like everyone else?" [there was a regestry online to get info on evacuaees]. He said "I did" and I told him I looked for King Napoleon and Napoleon King and he laughed and said "I used my real name Harold King." As many times as we went to dinner, lunch, and talked on the square and at his home, it just never came up.

A friend of mine here in California wanted to donate to Katrina victims so I told him about Napoleon and where he was staying, so he sent him a check. Several days latter he calls me and said his check was returned, did I have the right address? I told him my check didn't come back, so I immediately called the hospital and they reluctantly told me that he died in-route, by ambulance to Gretna. I belive Napoleon died with my check in his wallet. We were absolutely devastated to get the news.

Napoleon was quite weak and frail prior to Katrina. For those that don't know, about 5 or 6 years ago Napoleon tripped over a can of Jaso, a white liquid, artists put on their canvas' prior to painting, in his house. He passed out and had been breathing the fumes for sometime before his roommate, Jackie, found him. He suffered severe kidney damage, lost a lot of weight, and ended up on dyalisis 3 times a week.

We last saw him in the Spring, prior to Katrina and were concerned about his health. His right shoulder was so sore he could hardly lift his arm. He hadn't been painting for a while, he was very thin, and I offered to get his cart, which he stored near Cafe DuMonde. We got it to Jackson Square and it started pouring rain and he could only sit under the awning and watch, with a sad look on his face, as we had to say good bye and head back to California.

Napoleon was on his way to dyalysis, on his bicycle, when as he said "the next thing I knew, I was up to my neck in water". He waited on a porch until a Coast Guard truck rescued him and took him to the Superdome. He said he was there a short while, when he and other medical patients were bused to LSU in Baton Rouge, then to Alexanderia, and finally ended up in Leesville, LA at the Leesville Rehabilation Hospital.

Napoleon told us he was feeling great, his shoulder was better, he had energy, and he was painting at the hospital and had made friends with all the staff. He said he was going to be transferred to Gretna, to a faciltiy that had dyalysis equipment and he couldn't have sounded any happier. We couldn't believe how great and stroung he sounded. We were very relieved and excited for him.

Needless to say the last thing I expected to hear when I called the hospital was that he had died in-route to Gretna.

Please forgive this long carthartic post, but when I found this site, I felt obliged to share the most accurate information I had. I would be happy to talk to anyone who knew and misses our friend. He truly was a unique human being who brightned the lives of all of us who took the time to get to know him.

God Bless our friend Harold "Napoleon" King

Paul Quirk

P.S. If anyone knows how to reach either of his sisters in Atlanta or West Palm Beach, please let me know. Thank you.

Posted by: paul on February 13, 2007 at 05:17 PM

I am interested if anyone has any of Napoleon's work for sale.

Posted by: paul on February 13, 2007 at 05:33 PM

So sorry to of heard the sad news of Napoleon, I am from South Africa and my girlfriend and I went to New Orleans just before the hurrican struck, I saw Napoleon in the square and just had to buy some of his paintings Three in all and they hang in our new house ,he was a lovely man and the paintings will remind me of him for the rest of my life. God Bless him.
John Parry

Posted by: John Parry on April 28, 2007 at 10:32 AM

Thank you for placing this post on the web. We bought a large painting of the French Quarter from Napoleon in 1984 and I've always been curious about the history of the artist.
It's unfortunate to hear that he passed away after making such a strong recovery.
We will always remember him as the congenial and gracious artist that we met at Jackson Square.

Posted by: Jeff on October 07, 2007 at 08:12 AM

I have 2 charcoal drawling's from Harold "Napoleon" King. My great Aunt who used to live in New Orleans painted next to him on occasion. She bought these drawling's from him in 1975. In the 80's they were worth around 500. a piece.
In 2000, my aunt moved to Mississippi and then to Texas after her husband passed away.
In 2006 I googled Harold's name and found this devastating article that he had passed away. My Aunt was fond of him and talked highly of him. She just didn't have the room for these huge drawling's when she moved So, she sent them to my mom.
He was extremely talented and seemed to touch so many lives. May he rest in peace.

Thank you for your article.
Rita, NJ

Posted by: Rita on November 03, 2007 at 11:41 AM

Does anyone know of any collections or displays of Napolean King's works. We are lucky enough to have one of his haunting sketches. It's so sad to hear of his death. I would love to see other pieces of his work.

Posted by: George B on November 28, 2007 at 04:29 PM

I am not very computer literate. Is there a way to post pictures of his that we may have so we can share his work? I would love to see what else is out there that he did.

Posted by: M.Hill on March 05, 2008 at 01:07 PM

I moved to Nola a few months ago and one of the first things I did was go to Jackson Square to try and find this man. I had met him several times over the years and was a big fan of his art, but unfortunately those weren't the years when I had the disposable income to buy art. My art bears little in common with his but he has influenced me all the same. I've googled him before but for some reason I never found out what happened to him. Now I found him a little too late.

Posted by: Scott Moseley on April 07, 2008 at 05:08 PM

I have a hard time finding him when I Googled him. Possibly a site can be created under his name with reference to New Orleans and then guided to this site.....I tried using his name and artist. Very difficult to find someone who had been there that long. I wonder how many of his paintings still exist in New Orleans and surrounding towns....

Posted by: M. Hill on April 12, 2008 at 08:56 AM

I'm not sure how many of his paintings still survive. I have a few at my house. I'll try to post what I have.

Posted by: Rob Kiser on April 12, 2008 at 10:15 PM

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