The famous ‘Napoleon complex’ needs to be reassessed: with a height of 1.69 meters, the emperor was about two centimeters taller than the average of his fellow citizens of the same sex. But where does this reputation as an angry and capricious dwarf come from, from which he seems unable to escape? From the treacherous Albion of course! To be precise, of its most ferocious and inventive caricaturists, who perfected the art of satire from the 18th century onwardse century.
It was James Gillray, a brilliant satirist considered the father of press cartoons, who opened hostilities. In June 1803 he was inspired by Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift to draw a Lilliputian Napoleon Bonaparte proudly held in the hand of King George III. The British monarch calls him “pernicious” and D’“odious little reptile”. The year 1803 marks “the unbridled and original starting point of Napoleon’s long caricature career, in England but also in Europe”confirms the historian Pascal Dupuy in his article “When Bonaparte was already Napoleon: the sources of the caricature image of Napoleon in Britain”.
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The attack is indeed innovative: although it had until then been the subject of hundreds of satirical drawings across the Channel, Napoleon was rarely ridiculed there. Sometimes it was even the opposite: last year (that of the signing of the peace treaty of Amiens) the consul was represented by a compatriot of James Gillray, Charles Williams, as a man of the world, his elegance and his courtesy contrasting with the ostentatious vulgarity of two Englishmen: John Bull, a conservative character presented as the antithesis of the sans-culotte during the French Revolution, and his wife. Ultimately, a certain guile was attributed to him, but also accompanied by a handsome presence.
Napoleon introduced as “Little Boney”, a nickname that corresponds to the image of a man-child with unbearable whims. | James Gillray via Wikimedia Commons
A cartoonist is more dangerous than an army
The nickname “Bonnie party” (Or “Rabbit party“according to the caricatures) with which John Bull adorns, the Frenchman will soon bring him another, given by James Gillray:”Little Boney», a nickname that corresponds to the image of a man-child with unbearable whims – and perhaps even born by the devil himself, the Germans are emboldened, emboldened by the British rebellion.
James Gillray was then at the height of his glory; his talent earned him a solid reputation in Europe. He has a certain gift for mocking the excesses of the times, and he does so with great freedom of tone. His role as an influencer was not lost on the British government: between 1797 and 1801 he secretly received an annual pension of 200 pounds sterling (20,000 pounds at today’s rate, or 22,800 euros), paid to encourage him to attack, in his caricatures, the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic madness of grandeur.
For years, James Gillray waged a merciless ‘war of images’ against Napoleon Bonaparte. To the point that the latter, exiled to the island of Elba in 1814, would have regretted the damage done to his reputation by the caricatures of the British, more important, in his opinion, than that caused by a dozen generals: we would think of him as a short-legged and frustrated tyrant, thirsty for power because of this lack of height.
For years, James Gillray waged a merciless ‘war of images’ against Napoleon Bonaparte. | James Gillray via Wikimedia Commons
Taken at his own game
But the French emperor himself played a role in the spread of violence “graphic attacks” of which he was the victim, Pascal Dupuy recalls. “If the debate still rages today and if the paper continues to sell, it is because Napoleon was able to largely build his own glory during his lifetime, while at the same time orchestrating a black, political, satirical and visual legend whose roots are in Britain.
A cleverly orchestrated and largely visual propaganda: the official painter, Jacques-Louis David, immortalized him as a dashing hero crossing the Great Saint Bernard, before the climax of the coronation. “The images he made or the distribution of which he enjoyed promoting generally underline his qualities, […] his military sense, his courage or his knowledge of battle, or […] his magnanimous and peace-making character.”
But just as radiant with glory and power as he was, Napoleon Iuh failed to prevent the spread of James Gillray caricatures. It was not for lack of trying: infuriated, he even wrote a series of imperious diplomatic letters to the British government demanding censorship of this press, which was far too brazen for his taste. Missives to which British ministers would not even have bothered to respond.