Napoleon Orda was born in the village of Worocewicze (Varacevičy) in the Pinsk district of Minsk guberniya in his family manor (now Ivanava district, Brest voblast, Belarus). His father was an impoverished noble and the marshal of the powiat of Kobryn. After finishing a secondary school in Świsłocz in 1823 he started mathematical studies at the Vilnius University. However, his university career came to an end when he was arrested by the Russian secret police for taking part in an illegal polish patriotic organisation. Although he was released soon afterwards, he was not allowed to continue his studies.
Napoleon Orda took part in the failed November Uprising against Russia and served with distinction in the famous 4th Regiment (czwartacy). For his bravery he received the highest Polish military decoration, the Virtuti Militari. After the uprising his manor was confiscated and Orda had to flee abroad in order to avoid being imprisoned and sent to Siberia.
He travelled through many European countries, including Italy and Switzerland. Finally in 1833, he settled in Paris, where he became one of the prominent members of the Polish diaspora there and one of the close friends of Fryderyk Chopin. He studied piano play under the guidance of Chopin and Franz Liszt and wrote several mazurkas, waltzes and polonaises. While in Paris he also studied painting briefly with Pierre Girard and started to portray his long lost motherland in countless sketches.
In Paris, Orda married his friend Irene Bougle and worked as the head of a commission shop (Maison de Commission). He was also the director of the Italian Opera in Paris, until the institution was closed due to the February Revolution of 1848. He was also an active member of various Polish political and social organisations, including the Towarzystwo Historyczno-Literackie and the Committee of Polish Emigrants. Most of his spare time he spent travelling. He visited France, England, Scotland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Lorraine, Spain, Portugal and Algeria.
During the Post-Sevastopolian Thaw in 1856 he was pardoned by tsar Alexander II and was allowed to return home. He was also restored the rights to his village of Worocewicze, but in 1862 he moved to Wierzchownia in today's Ukraine, where he served as a manager of general Adam Rzewuski's domain.
In 1872 Orda started to travel throughout the partitioned Republic of Both Nations and document its historical landmarks and architecture. During his summer trips throughout the country he made more than 1000 sketches depicting various towns, cities and historical landscapes. He also depicted landscapes, urban and rural architecture, churches and palaces of partitioned Commonwealth - regions of today's Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, as well as several regions of France, Germany, Portugal and Switzerland. His works are pencil sketches tinted with watercolour, gouache and sepia. Between 1872 and 1874 he visited most of the notable castles, manors and towns in Volhynia, Podolia and Ukraine. Until 1877 he documented the historical heritage of Lithuania, Samogitia, Livonia and Belarus. In 1878 and 1879 he made a trip to Galicia, Greater Poland and Royal Prussia and finally in 1880 he portrayed the Kingdom of Poland. Approximately 260 of his sketches were turned into lithographies by Alojzy Misierowicz and published in Warsaw by Maksymilian Fajans in a series of 8 albums under the collective title „Album widoków historycznych Polski” (Album of Polish Historical Landscapes) between 1873 and 1883.
In his testament he bequeathed his sketches to the Polish people and currently most of his works are kept in the National Museum in Kraków and Warsaw. Besides their artistic value, they are a priceless source of information on the history and architecture of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine, whose historical heritage was largely destroyed by the Germans during World War II.
Napoleon Orda died April 26, 1883, in Warsaw. He was buried in the village of Janów near Kobryn (currently Ivanava, Brest voblast of Belarus). In 1997, a monument to Napoleon Orda was erected in the place of his burial by sculptor Ivan Golubev. In 2007 National Bank of Belarus issued silver and copper-nickel memory coins, devoted to the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Orda.