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November 12, 2004

French Caricatures of Napoleon at Trinity College Library, Dublin

Posted by Christie Davies

Emperor to Exile: Napoleon in Caricature
from the Glucksman Collection of French political cartoons
Trinity College Library, Dublin
September - November 2004

Everyone has long been familiar with the British satires and savage caricatures of Napoleon. Here is something new, the work of French artists taking advantage of his fall and flight in his last two years in Europe in 1814-15 from Elba to Waterloo.

We may begin with Les Chateaux en Espagne, (Castles in Spain), showing Napoleon as a puppet-master pulling the strings to work his brother Joseph the King of Spain who is building houses of cards while Wellington blows them down. Napoleon is in military uniform and his brother in regal dress. Wellington is unrecognisable, the caricaturist can have had no idea what he looked like. It is followed by Qui trop embrasse mal étreint in which Napoleon is seized by a double-headed eagle and carried off to Elba dropping his broken sword on the way. Here in the east and in Spain are the two prongs of his defeat. Below him the globe is covered with corpses and we are reminded by the organisers that France lost 100,000 men at Borodino alone. They might have added that most of them were not Frenchmen. As many died from the criminal pride of French militarism in the time of Napoleon as did in the First World War.

Yet Bonaparte came back and in Je reprend mon bonnet et je te laisse ta calotte, (I am taking back my hat and I am leaving you in your skull cap), he and the briefly restored Bourbon Louis XVIII are shown as children fighting. Napoleon with a sword at his belt seizes the crown from Louis who is armed only with a token, ornamental, mini sword shaped like a fleur de lys. Louis is left wearing the skull-cap of the clerics with whom he was so closely associated.

Yet Napoleon's seizure only led to his defeat at Waterloo, the battle of Mont Saint Jean. One simple romantic picture of the battle on display shows the heroism of the Imperial Guard when deep in mot de Cambronne they chose to die rather than surrender. Another different in sentiment is called "Le Cesar de 1815 apres Vaterlo." "Je suis venu, j'ai vu. J'ai fuit." (The Caesar of 1815 after Waterloo. I came, I saw, I fled.) There is the Caesar Napoleon fleeing back to Paris carrying a broken eagle. An allegorical figure in the sky holds a scroll with a list of other times when Napoleon had legged it and left his troops in the lurch: Egypt, Madrid, Moscow, Leipzig. In tune with this is Voila ce que d’avoir du coeur, (that is what comes of having a heart). In a travesty of General Cambronne's "Merde! La Garde meurt et ne se rend pas", (the Guard dies it does not yield), Napoleon with unshaven chin is shown writing on a triumphal column in the Place Vendome "Napoleon se rend et ne meurt pas", (Napoleon surrenders and does not die). On the column are the names of the defeats from which he retreated faster than his men and a picture of a timid hare running away.

Finally in Enfin Bonaparte met a execution son projet de descente en Angleterre, (Bonaparte at last puts into practice his scheme for descending on England), Wellington sword in hand forces a dejected Napoleon in chains to leave a British warship and land on the shores of England. They even walk differently. Wellington's confident stride is contrasted with Napoleon's awkward shambling in thigh high boots with spurs. Napoleon crosses his arms and we can see his chains hanging down below his wrists. Wellington smart and agile in his bright red coat and wellies points Napoleon in the direction of where he must go.

It is all very satisfying to see the humiliation of a murderous French hero drawn by actual Frenchmen. Yet these are not the most telling caricatures exhibited. Pride of place must go to the French caricatures of the gluttonous soldiers of the British army of occupation in France and the drunken English tourists who now descended on Paris. In Les Anglais chez le restaurateur à Paris, (the English in a Paris restaurant), British visitors gnaw at entire fowls that they have picked up with their hands and in L'aprės souper des Anglais á Paris, they carouse coarsely late into the night with one being sick in his hat. The landlord comes in and points meaningfully at the clock whose numbers are arranged anti-clockwise so that the English can drink all night. Some things never change, such as the coarse misbehaviour of the British when abroad and French xenophobia. British yobbery and French snobbery will live for ever to delight cartoonists.

The best two caricatures in the exhibition come in this racist category. Marons Rotis, (roast chestnuts), shows a vendeuse roasting chestnuts. In a scene worthy of Donald McGill, a Scotsman gets too close to the fire and gets a hot wind up his kilt. An innocent young lady enquires in French "What is burning?" and is rebuked by her mother for taking an interest in such things.

The prize must go to L'envie réciproque. Here a gross Englishman is enjoying a huge meal in a French eating place, when a sad French veteran comes and begs for a morsel at his window. The Englishman's coarse, red, blunt face is filled with contempt and malice. His pudgy hands rest on his stomach and his fat dog crouches under the table for far more than crumbs.
French veteran:

"Je n'ai rien mangé depuis hier."
(I haven't eaten since yesterday).

John Bull:
"God-damn! Ce coquin d’être bien heureux d'avoir faim."
(This rascal is lucky to be able to feel hunger, i.e. not to be dead at our hands).

Here is a hearty, bloated distorted, dominant Englishman, much as Gillray or Rowlandson would have depicted him, treating a French starveling with scorn. It demonstrates the ambiguity of humourous caricature. For the French the Englishman is an unspeakably coarse and callous brute to be laughed at. Yet he is also a dominant male and a triumphant winner to be laughed with by his fellow-countrymen. "Vae victis, Froggy", says his growl and the other "God-damns" laugh. Thomas Hobbes would have seen the point.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations (2002) and of The Strange Death of Moral Britain (2004) both published by Transaction Publishers.


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I have a token bronze 14mm dia shows 3 mirror imaged picture of a baby a woman in geasian head dress and man napolian? Written under head andrew reverse has eagle with star and date mars 1815, have you any idea what it commerorates? regards dennis tyler

Posted by: dennis tyler at September 25, 2005 09:27 PM
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