“England had been fighting against France for over 20 years. Audiences there were jubilant about Napoleon’s defeat and receptive to anything that made fun of the fallen French Emperor.”
WHILE NAPOLEON Bonaparte provided rich fodder for caricaturists throughout his reign, his abdication and subsequent exile to Elba in 1814 occasioned a burst of gleeful activity among the cartoonists of the time.
England had been fighting against France for over 20 years. Audiences there were jubilant about Napoleon’s defeat and receptive to anything that made fun of the fallen French Emperor.
Here’s a look at some caricatures related to Napoleon’s 299-day sojourn on Elba.
Napoleon’s departure for Elba
This illustration by George Cruikshank was published in London on April 23, 1814. In it Napoleon stands locked in a cage on wheels, pulled by a mounted Cossack. At the top of the enclosure are the deposed emperor’s broken crown, sceptre and sword. “Oh! D__n these Cossacks,” says Napoleon referring to his disastrous Russian campaign. In the title, the word “Hell” is crossed out in favour of “El,” which becomes “El Baronian.”
Published in England in May 1814, this caricature shows Napoleon seated backwards on a donkey on the road from Fontainebleau (where he signed his abdication) to Elba. The ‘promenade des ânes’ was a traditional method of social punishment in France. Husbands who were thought to be battered or dominated by their wives were publicly humiliated by being trotted around backwards on a donkey while holding its tail. The text emerging from Napoleon’s mouth is one of his well-known quotes: “A throne is only made of wood and cover’d in velvet.” The donkey’s rear says: “The greatest events in human life is turn’d to a puff.” The saddle reads: “Materials for the history of my life and exploits” and “A budget of mathematical books for my study at ELBA.” The verse at the bottom reads:
Farewell my brave soldiers, my eagles adieu;
Stung with my ambition, o’er the world ye flew:
But deeds of disaster so sad to rehearse
I have lived – fatal truth for to know the reverse.
From Moscow to Lipsic [Leipzig]; the case it is clear
I was sent back to France with a flea in my ear.
A lesson to mortals regarding my fall:
He grasps at a shadow, by grasping at all.
My course it is finish’d my race it is run,
My career it is ended just where it begun.
The Empire of France no more it is mine.
Because I can’t keep it I freely resign.
Lest you think the English had a monopoly on poking fun at Napoleon, here’s a French etching from 1814. Above Napoleon are his titles: Emperor of the French, King of Italy, etc. In the background are Egypt, Elba and a burning Moscow, reminders of his defeats. The bees (one of Napoleon’s symbols) fly away from him. The signboard in the bottom right says: “La Chétive Pécore. S’enfla si bien, quelle creva.” This is a line from a French fable by Jean de La Fontaine about the frog that wished to be as big as the ox: “The silly animal swelled so much that it burst.”
Napoleon on Elba
This cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson (published April 25, 1814) shows Napoleon standing dejected on Elba, with its grossly caricatured inhabitants. “Ah woe is me seeing what I have and seeing what I see,” Napoleon says. The large woman standing with her arm on his shoulder says, “Come cheer up my little Nicky, I’ll be your Empress.” A man wearing a turban (a reference to Napoleon’s Mameluke valet) is seated next to “Boney’s Baggage.”
In this English caricature from June 1814, Napoleon stands outside a wooden hovel reviewing a motley crew. “Gentlemen my friends despise & d—n England Russia Prussia Germany & Sweden & obey me & I will make Kings of you all,” he says.
In this cartoon, published in London on April 20, 1814, Napoleon lights a straw cannon aimed at straw opponents identified as Russia, Prussia, Austria and Sweden. “Now these fellows shall know what the Conqueror of the World can do,” he is seen saying. “Corporal! D— you Sir, don’t you blow up the Bridge till I order you,” he adds. His companion says: “Ah Diable Mai you was, burn Le Materiel, you burn your playthings.” A fisherman watching from the shore complains: “He will frighten all the fish and burn my boat. I’ll be off in time.” Papers on the ground reveal a “Project to invade the Moon” and a grant of 600,000 from the Senate. The tower of “Elba Babel” stands in the background. The verse at the bottom reads:
So high he’s mounted in his airy Throne,
That now the wind is got into his Head,
And turns his brain to Frenzy. – Dryden
This caricature by George Cruikshank was published on May 12, 1814. Napoleon is seated on a chamber pot inscribed the “Imperial Throne.” A demon encourages him to take his own life. “If you have one Spark of Courage left! take this,” it says. Napoleon replies: “Perhaps I may, if you’ll take the flint out.” The book is inscribed: “A Triti – on the Itch! by Doctor Scratch.”
This cartoon by the Bavarian Johann Michael Voltz shows the representatives of England, Russia, Austria and Prussia watching Napoleon behind bars as he attempts to devour the world. The cages around Napoleon contain wild animals, and the whole display is labelled Malmaison – a reference to his former wife Josephine’s menagerie.
In this caricature, published in London on April 15, 1814, Napoleon sits crying on an island labelled “Elba.” Heavily guarded in the background is the “Continent of Europe.”
Napoleon’s Escape from Elba
This cartoon, published in England on March 17, 1815, shows Napoleon (the fox) running towards Paris as news of his escape reaches European leaders at the Congress of Vienna (the geese). The signs on the wall behind them read: “Vienna – Gazette extraordinary – Notice: The Bull Bait will begin at 4 & the Ball at 8 this Eveng” and “A Plan for the Security of Europe to be Taken into Consideration the first thing after the Bull Bait.” A man who is probably supposed to be Colonel Neil Campbell, the British representative on Elba, shouts, “Stole away!!! Stole away!!!” A goose asks, “What do You do when you have caught Vermin?” The owl replies, “Why—Kill ’em to be sure—you goose!!” The sign on the French coast reads: “Gentlemen accommodated to Dover for only 20 Guineas!! NB Pay beforehand.” The verse at the bottom says: “Return of the Host!!! / John Bull’s dinner lost / And a flight to the coast!!”
This caricature by George Cruikshank, published on March 21, 1815, shows Napoleon interrupting the rulers of Europe in a tailor’s workshop. “Don’t disturb yourselves shopmates,” he says. “I have only popped myself here as a cutter out. Where is my Wife & son Father Francis?” Francis I, Emperor of Austria, kneeling on the right says, “I will send an Answer shortly.” Bernadotte, Crown Prince of Sweden (standing at far left) says: “This looks like another subsidy.” Prussian King Frederick William (seated at left): “You have cut out a little work for us to be sure but D__me if you shall be foreman here.” Prussian General Blücher (holding a large pair of scissors): “Cutter out indeed!!! Yes yes I’ll cut you out Master Boney.” French King Louis XVIII (on the floor immediately in front of Napoleon): “Help! Help! Oh! Oh! I am knock’d off my Perch.” The text on the bag beside him reads: “Cabbage Bag—i.e Diamonds Precious Stones &c &c.” John Bull (stooping over King Louis): “Never fear Old Boy I’ll help you up again as for that rascal Boney I’ll sow him up presently.” Pope Pius VII (on the floor on the right): “Oh! Curse the fellow! I wish I had the Power of a Bull I’d kick him to hell. D__n me if it isn’t enough to make a saint swear.” The King of Holland (in the pointy hat): “Donder & Blixen das is de Devil.” Tsar Alexander of Russia (standing at far right): “I’ll take a few Cossack measures to him.” French Foreign Minister Talleyrand’s legs can be seen beneath the bench at the left, beside a book: “The Tailors A Tragedy For Warm Weather.” The verse below reads:
Hush’d was the din of Arms & fierce debate,
Janus once more had clos’d his Temple gate;
Assembled Congress fix’d the flattering Plan
For Europes safety & the Peace of Man
When like a Tiger, stealing from his den,
And gorg’d with blood, yet seeking blood again;
From Elbas Isle the Corsican came forth,
Making his sword the measure of his worth
Hence Plunder, force & cunning, blast his fame
And sink the Hero in the Robber’s name;
Hence guiltless Louis from his throne is hurl’d
And discord reigns triumphant o’er the World
Swift as the vivid lightning’s shock,
The Exile darts from Elba’s Rock!
And like the Thunderbolt of fate
Dethrones a King! transforms a State!
In this French cartoon from April 1815, Louis XVIII and his family (the Count of Artois, the Duke and Duchess of Angoulême, the Duke of Berry) watch as Napoleon steps from Elba to France. “Let’s get out of here,” they say. “Let’s send the Guards to put him outside”; “That man will make his way”; and “Let’s give him some calottes,” which is a play on words, as a calotte is a bonnet (as in Jacobin bonnets), but also slang for a slap in the face. The word is also similar to culotte, a reference to the radical mobs during the Revolution; and “Let’s make him a little war.
Shannon Selin is the Canadian-based author of Napoleon in America, which imagines what might have happened if Bonaparte had escaped from Saint 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.
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