The Many Faces of Napoleon Bonaparte — What did the French Emperor Actually Look Like?

Vancouver-based Novelist and MHN's resident Napoleon expert explores what the famous conqueror really looked like.

Vancouver-based novelist and MHN’s go-to Napoleon expert explores what the famous conqueror really looked like.

By Shannon Selin

A mask of Napoleon cast shortly after his death. While the likeness offers a glimpse of Bonaparte's appearance, it fails to capture what the French emperor looked like in his prime.

A mask of Napoleon cast shortly after his death. While the likeness offers a glimpse of Bonaparte’s appearance, it fails to capture what the French emperor looked like in his prime.

WHAT DID NAPOLEON LOOK LIKE? A silly question, you might think. After all, Bonaparte is one of the most painted and sculpted persons in history.

When artist Matt Dawson was designing the cover of my novel, Napoleon in America, we agreed that 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 passed him on the street? Probably not. Here’s why:

1. Most artists didn’t have him to use as a model.
Napoleon rose to prominence when he began winning battles as the commander of France’s Army of Italy in 1796. But artists who were eager to meet the growing 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 of the man, or on their own imaginations. For example, we can be pretty sure Napoleon didn’t look like this (see below):

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 more accurate:

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

“Buonaparte” circa 1796. By Hilaire Le Dru (engraver Pierre Charles Coqueret). (Image source: Bibliothèque nationale de France.)

But such likenesses were bastardized in reproductions, such as this one. This illuminates 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 in the end.

Even Jacques-Louis David’s famous portrayal of Napoleon crossing the Alps was not based on a sitting. Bonaparte knew what he wanted in the painting (including a horse, rather than the mule on which he actually made the voyage). But he had neither the time nor the patience to pose for the picture. This is the conversation that 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 — something which he corrected in a later version of the painting (interestingly, he produced five different versions of the work).

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

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

Many paintings of Napoleon were done after his death. Those artists obviously didn’t use him as a model. This includes Paul Delaroche’s well-known painting of Napoleon after his 1814 abdication. It was completed in 1845.

Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated at Fontainebleau, by Paul Delaroche, 1845. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated at Fontainebleau, by Paul Delaroche, 1845. (Image source: WikiCommons)

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 an artist had him as a model, the final result was not necessarily an accurate reflection of the man they were looking at.

Antoine-Jean Gros painted Napoleon at Milan in 1796, but he couldn’t get his famous subject 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, although Count Lavallette did say the resulting painting was a good likeness. The work represents Napoleon at the bridge at Arcole (Arcola), though the future emperor was not the first to raise the French flag there (he copied General Pierre-François Augereau), nor did he actually cross the bridge. He also failed to rally his men to him (Napoleon got pushed into a water-filled ditch as his troops rushed to retreat). Yet no one would ever guess any of this from the painting.

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

Bonaparte on the bridge at Arcole, by Antoine-Jean Gros.(Image source: WikiCommons)

As you may have gathered from his 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 – was a big part of this. As Philip Dwyer, in his excellent two-volume biography of Bonaparte says, “a true likeness was never the object of Napoleonic portraiture.” (3)

Napoleon in his imperial robes, by François Gérard, 1805. Like most 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. (Image source: WikiCommons)

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 to the deposed emperor and had many opportunities to observe him during his 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?
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 the French ruler. Twelve hundred marble versions were reproduced in Italy for distribution throughout the empire. These models were prodigiously copied – but 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. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Bust of Napoleon by Antoine-Denis Chaudet. (Image source: WikiCommons)

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 his famous brother was a miniature portrait that he had in his possession in the United States. (7) The artist George Catlin made a copy of this image for Biddle. The reproduction 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 number of written descriptions by people who saw him first-hand. Tom Holmberg has collected some of these on the Napoleon Series website.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: 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. 

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Shannon Selin is the Canadian-based author of Napoleon in America, which imagines what might have happened if Bonaparte had escaped from St. Helena in 1821 and wound up in the United States. She blogs about Napoleonic and 19th century history at shannonselin.com. Follow her on Twitter @ShannonSelin.

You might also enjoy:
10 Things Napoleon Never Said
10 Napoleon Bonaparte Quotes in Context
10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon
Napoleon in Alternate History
Napoleon in Historical Fiction

 

NOTES
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.

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