What did Napoleon look like?
What did Napoleon look like? A silly question, you might think. Napoleon is one of the most painted and sculpted persons in history. When Matt Dawson was designing the cover for Napoleon in America, we agreed he didn’t have to show Napoleon’s face – the hat and coat would be enough. But remove those props and are you sure you’d recognize Napoleon if you met him on the street?
Reasons for thinking it’s hard to know what Napoleon really looked like
1. The artists didn’t have Napoleon as a model.
Napoleon rose to prominence when he began winning battles as commander of France’s Army of Italy in 1796. Artists who were eager to meet the demand for images of the conquering general didn’t necessarily know what he looked like. Their paintings and drawings were based on second-hand descriptions, or on pure imagination. For example, we can be pretty sure Napoleon didn’t look like this.
This is perhaps slightly closer.
But it got bastardized in copies, such as this one, which points to a problem with paintings of Napoleon based on other artists’ work. Like the game of telephone, what you start out with is not necessarily what you wind up with. (Click here to see more weird pictures of Napoleon.)
Even Jacques-Louis David’s famous portrayal of Napoleon crossing the Alps was not based on a sitting. Though Napoleon knew what he wanted in the painting (including a horse, rather than the mule on which he actually made the crossing), he had neither the time nor the patience to pose for it. This conversation supposedly took place between artist and subject:
Napoleon: ‘[Pose?] For what good? Do you think that the great men of antiquity of whom we have images posed?’
David: ‘But I am painting you for your century, for the men who have seen you, who know you: they will want to find a resemblance.’
Napoleon: ‘A resemblance! It isn’t the exactness of the features, a wart on the nose which gives the resemblance. It is the character of the physiognomy, what animates it, that must be painted. Certainly Alexander never posed for Apelles. Nobody knows if the portraits of great men resemble them. It is enough that their genius lives there.’ (1)
David later realized that he had got Napoleon’s eyes and mouth wrong, which he corrected in a later version of the painting (he produced five different versions).
A lot of paintings of Napoleon were done after his death. Those artists obviously didn’t use him as a model. This includes Delaroche’s well-known painting of Napoleon after his 1814 abdication, which was actually painted in 1845.
It also includes most paintings of Napoleon’s exile on St. Helena, such as the painting in the background of my website banner – St. Helena 1816, Napoleon dictating to Count Las Cases the Account of his Campaigns, by Sir William Quiller Orchardson.
2. Napoleon fashioned his image.
Napoleon was a master propagandist. Even when artists had Napoleon as a model, the final results were not necessarily an accurate reflection of the man they were looking at. When Antoine-Jean Gros painted Napoleon at Milan in 1796, he couldn’t get Napoleon to sit still. Josephine finally had to take Napoleon on her knees and hold him there for several minutes. (2) This did not give Gros sufficient time with his model, though Count Lavallette said the resultant painting was a good likeness.
The painting represents Napoleon at the bridge at Arcole (Arcola). Though Napoleon was not the first to raise the French flag on the bridge (he copied General Pierre-François Augereau), did not actually cross the bridge, and failed to rally his men to him (Napoleon got pushed into a water-filled ditch as his troops rushed to retreat) – one would never guess this from the painting.
As you may have gathered from Napoleon’s conversation with David, Napoleon was consciously cultivating his image as a great man. How he was represented artistically – as the victorious general, the saviour of the Revolution, the clement ruler, the man of peace, depending on the circumstance – was a big part of this. As Philip Dwyer, in his excellent two-volume biography of Napoleon says, “a true likeness was never the object of Napoleonic portraiture.” (3)
3. People who knew Napoleon well said his portraits didn’t fully capture him.
Betsy Balcombe, the daughter of the East India Company official at whose home Napoleon stayed when he first arrived on St. Helena, became a good friend of Napoleon and had many opportunities to observe him in unguarded moments. She wrote:
The portraits of him give a good general idea of his features; but his smile, and the expression of his eye, could not be transmitted to canvas, and these constituted Napoleon’s chief charm. (4)
Louis-Joseph Marchand, who served as Napoleon’s valet from 1814 to 1821, wrote:
Nothing…in the portraits I have seen of the Emperor matched the fine head I had before my eyes, except for David’s portrait; and the etching has something heavy about it that the Emperor did not have. Chaudet’s bust, in my opinion, must serve as model. (5)
Charles Jared Ingersoll, a friend of Napoleon’s brother Joseph (presumably echoing what Joseph told him), wrote:
Probably of no one that ever lived have so many likenesses been taken as of Napoleon, on canvas, in marble, ivory, and on other substances; which generally bear some resemblance of feature and form; but it was extremely difficult to portray or delineate Napoleon’s look. Its mobility was beyond the reach of imitation. (6)
What is the best likeness of Napoleon?
So what did Napoleon look like? The bust by Antoine-Denis Chaudet referred to by Marchand portrays Napoleon along the lines of an ancient Roman emperor. It became the official sculpted likeness of Napoleon. Twelve hundred marble versions were produced in Italy, for distribution throughout the Empire. These models were prodigiously copied – not always faithfully. Though Chaudet’s bust may bear a closer resemblance to Napoleon than David’s painting (which Napoleon quite liked), one suspects there was some image-doctoring involved.
For what Napoleon really looked like, perhaps we should listen to the member of his family who knew him best. According to Joseph Bonaparte’s friend Nicholas Biddle, Joseph said “the best likeness” of Napoleon was a miniature portrait that he had in his possession in the United States. (7) The artist George Catlin made a copy of this portrait for Biddle. The copy now belongs to The Andalusia Foundation (object #2006.01.05). Personally I think Napoleon looks a bit like Jeff Daniels in it.
For more about what Napoleon looked like, there are a huge number of written descriptions by people who saw him first-hand. Tom Holmberg has collected some of these on the Napoleon Series website. For an intriguing argument that many of the artists who painted Napoleon fused their own features with his, see this article by Simon Abrahams.
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With thanks to Usman Sheikh, whose question in the Napoleonic Historical Society Facebook group got me thinking about this topic, and to Connie Houchins, Executive Director of The Andalusia Foundation, for advising me of the location of the Catlin miniature and giving me permission to use the image.
- Antoine-Claire Thibaudeau, Histoire Générale de Napoléon Bonaparte, Vol. 6 (Paris, 1828), p. 330.
- Antoine Marie Chamant, Mémoires et souvenirs du comte Lavallette, Vol. 1 (Paris, 1831), p. 193.
- Philip Dwyer, Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power (New Haven & London, 2013), p. 38.
- Lucia Elizabeth Balcombe Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, during the First Three Years of His Captivity on the Island of St. Helena (London, 1844), p. 21.
- Louis-Joseph Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), pp. 90-91.
- Charles J. Ingersoll, History of the Second War between the United States of America and Great Britain, Second Series, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1853), p. 148.
- Nicholas and Edward Biddle, “Joseph Bonaparte as Recorded in the Private Journal of Nicholas Biddle,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 55, No. 3 (1931), p. 216.
Nobody knows if the portraits of great men resemble them. It is enough that their genius lives there.