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.

Buonaparte generalissimo de la Republiqua di Franci in Italia, September 1, 1796, by I. Marcelli (engraver S. Grobileti). Bibliothèque nationale de France

Buonaparte generalissimo de la Republiqua di Franci in Italia, September 1, 1796, by I. Marcelli (engraver S. Grobileti). Bibliothèque nationale de France.

This is perhaps slightly closer.

Buonaparte, ca. 1796, by Hilaire Le Dru (engraver Pierre Charles Coqueret). Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Buonaparte, ca. 1796, by Hilaire Le Dru (engraver Pierre Charles Coqueret). Bibliothèque nationale de France.

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).

Napoleon crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David (original version)

Napoleon crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David (original version)

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.

Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated at Fontainebleau, by Paul Delaroche, 1845

Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated at Fontainebleau, by Paul Delaroche, 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.

Bonaparte on the bridge at Arcole, by Antoine-Jean Gros

Bonaparte on the bridge at Arcole, by Antoine-Jean Gros

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)

Napoleon in his imperial robes, by François Gérard, 1805. Like so many paintings of Napoleon, this is an exercise in iconography rather than realism.

Napoleon in his imperial robes, by François Gérard, 1805. Like most paintings of Napoleon, this is an exercise in iconography rather than realism.

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)

Napoleon in his study, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812

Napoleon in his study, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812

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.

Bust of Napoleon by Antoine-Denis Chaudet

Bust of Napoleon by Antoine-Denis Chaudet

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.

Copy by George Catlin of the miniature portrait that Joseph Bonaparte said was "the best likeness" of Napoleon. Photo courtesy of The Andalusia Foundation. Used with permission.

Copy by George Catlin of the miniature portrait that Joseph Bonaparte said was “the best likeness” of Napoleon. Photo courtesy of The Andalusia Foundation. Used with permission.

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.

You might also enjoy:

10 Things Napoleon Never Said

10 Napoleon Bonaparte Quotes in Context

10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon

What did Napoleon like to read?

What were Napoleon’s last words?

What did Napoleon like to eat and drink?

What was Napoleon’s favourite music?

Was Napoleon superstitious?

Weird pictures of Napoleon

Napoleon in Alternate History

Napoleon in Historical Fiction

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.

  1. Antoine-Claire Thibaudeau, Histoire Générale de Napoléon Bonaparte, Vol. 6 (Paris, 1828), p. 330.
  2. Antoine Marie Chamant, Mémoires et souvenirs du comte Lavallette, Vol. 1 (Paris, 1831), p. 193.
  3. Philip Dwyer, Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power (New Haven & London, 2013), p. 38.
  4. 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.
  5. Louis-Joseph Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), pp. 90-91.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

21 commments on “What did Napoleon look like?”

  • Pam Keyes says:

    The death mask of Napoleon is, of course, the absolute truth of what he looked like (at least at the time of his death).

  • Timothy R Covington says:

    There’s a gentleman who first introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger into books & muscle magazines who was the big history fan of Napoleon. I met him once and he lives in Montreal Canada.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    That would have been Ben Weider, Timothy. He founded the International Napoleonic Society. He died several years ago – must have been interesting to meet him.

  • Nick Dransfield says:

    The death mask controversy is interesting. The one in the services museum bears a striking resemblance to Jerome Bonaparte and feature wise close to the hundreds of paintings of him. Also worth studying are the photos of count Walewska who was his illegitimate son, again the mouth is more like the lesser known death mask. Personally I’m inclined to believe the well known mask is that of Cipriani, again that’s just my personal opinion. Ben Weider was a great guy, I once attended a seminar on his discovery of the emperors poisoning, murdering Napoleon would have been to tempting a deed for the british, cui bono.

  • Lally Brown says:

    Shannon, did you read the entry of 7th May 1821 in my ebook The Countess, Napoleon and St. Helena? Fanny Bertrand writes in her diary “At four o’clock a plaster cast of l’Empereur’s face was made by Dr. Burton (Surgeon of the 66th Regiment) and Dr. Antommarchi. It was difficult, the necessary material was hard to find and His Majesty’s face was already disfigured. Henri says the body was emitting an extremely unpleasant smell. We intend to take the plaster cast of l’Empereur’s face to Europe. Dr. Burton may keep the back of the head and ears.”

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks Nick and Lally. Very interesting! Based on Fanny’s account, then (and she should know), even the original death mask is not a good guide to what Napoleon looked like alive.

      • Lally says:

        On the 22nd May 1821 Fanny says “I have received a letter from Dr. Burton who has requested the plaster cast of l’Empereur’s face to be given to him. He believes that as he assisted Dr. Antommarchi in the making of it, it therefore belongs to him. I shall leave Montholon to reply.”
        Incidentally, the lovely Ben Weider read my manuscript before he died and sent me an email saying “I congratulate you on your research efforts and dedicated work!” He is much missed by some of us.

  • michael collins says:

    Interesting… we often muse upon the subject of what “the man” was really like…
    I had always assumed that he had just “plumped up” as he got older – hence the appearance change from early to late representations.
    One may assume that David would have done a good job of portraiture, without too much flattery, but yet still depicting him in a noble and neo-classical manner that suited him and the fashion of the times pretty well.
    The miniature by Catlin looks very similar – it`d be interesting to see how they may both be compared using a facial recognition program…

    • Shannon Selin says:

      They do look similar, and Marchand’s and Joseph’s comments provide reassurance that they are fairly accurate representations of Napoleon. I’d like to know who painted the original miniature (on which Catlin based his copy), and where it is.

  • James says:

    Hi Shannon,
    I took the opportunity of studying the Dr Arnott wax caste of Napoleon this year, taken on the night of 6th May 1821 (it is signed and dated on the back). This is the ‘first edition’ death mask and is not dissimilar to the portrait by David or the bust of Chaudet. The fact that it was later owned by Jerome Napoleon and Napoleon 111 also suggests that this was the closest likeness to the Emperor. I have pictures of this momentous occasion I can send.

  • Anne Phillips says:

    Succeeded in catching attention in part because of the sense that we know Napoleon especially what he looked like. An imaginary construct.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Anne. I think we probably do have a good general sense of what Napoleon looked like. I just found it interesting that of the huge number of paintings and sculptures Joseph Bonaparte could have pointed to, he chose a relatively obscure miniature – and thus implied that none of the well-known images are “the best likeness.”

  • barrie hartley says:

    I’m most interested to discover your website and the existance of your book on Napoleon in America. I have not yet had the opportunity of reading your book so am not sure of the “life” you envisage for Napoleon in America.
    For many years I have studied this subject and now I am retired and find the time, I’m busy since 2013 in detailed research of history of central and north America in the period 1815 to 1845 and in writing my own book on Napoleon in America.
    My book 1 is set in 1815 when I succeed in Napoleon evading capture and going to America with Joseph and it is practically finished. Book 1 details the post Waterloo period in France and Napoleons decisions in La Rochelle; brother Joseph’s intervention to persuade his brother to trust in escape; and with the adventure of escape and arrival in New York in 1815.

    I have scenarios for 3 or 4 more books covering the periods from 1816 up to 1835 when I imagine his death. Book 2 will take him up to end 1820.

    The reviews of your book seem interesting and obviously you have achieved something well written and researched.

    PersonallyI feel Napoleon’s physical and psychological condition had by 1821 reached such a low level that I am not sure he could have been revived by then, and I doubt even he could have supported the long sea journey from St. Helena.

    I hope we can correspond as obviously we shaqre a common interest and the potential opportunites Napoleon would have found once in America are so immense so consider.

    Wishing you continued success, yours sincerely,

    Barrie William Hartley

  • BretagneBuonaparte says:

    I am overjoyed to discover all of you here. Looking forward to reading all of your ideas. I am proud to be a Buonaparte!

  • Pim Waakop Reijers says:

    Thanks for this interesting article. I have been breaking my head over what Napoleon and his siblings looked like an which paintings represent them best. There is one drawing, made shortly before his death by a British inhabitant of St. Helena, that, I think, could be very close to what he looked like, but I am not sure.
    I usually try to look for features that recur in portraits: shape of the nose, the mouth, the eyes, etc. And anecdotes that reveal something about the appearance of the Bonapartes.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Glad you enjoyed the article, Pim. John Tyrrell has posted some drawings by Englishmen of Napoleon during his final years on St. Helena: http://johntyrrell.blogspot.ca/2013/09/images-of-napoleon-on-st-helena-1818.html. He notes: “Napoleon ventured out so little in the weeks before his death that it would have been near impossible to have made an accurate sketch of him, and I would be surprised if he ever willingly posed for one of his captors.” He also wonders whether the artists were copying each other, be it consciously or unconsciously. I like coming across written descriptions of Napoleon and his family, and seeing how these compare to the portraits.

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Nobody knows if the portraits of great men resemble them. It is enough that their genius lives there.

Napoleon Bonaparte