His face is a tangle of corpses, his collar a blood-red sea, his jacket a country map where a spider weaves its web as a medal. This caricature is the one that Mark Bryant chose to illustrate his book "Napoleon in caricatures" which completes the collection on this theme with "The First World War in caricatures" and "The Second World War in caricatures".
The pen stronger than the sword?
At a time when there was of course no question of radio waves, writing, song, theater and image were the essential weapons of a veritable war of opinion, of which it would be awkward to estimate the importance in post-revolutionary Europe. Pamphlets have flooded Europe, against the Corsican opportunist, against European tyrants, against the fat Louis XVIII ... But to reach the common people, those who are not familiar with letters, it is the caricature that was honored. An adversary had to be ridiculed, to legitimize his cause and also to ensure that defeat was impossible. And then, don't we say that a drawing is better than a long speech? Napoleon so unleashed passions that caricatures representing him abound, translating a virulent mockery in which one nevertheless sometimes feels a certain fear. Here is Napoleon as a helpless little man in front of Saint-Jean-D'acre, as a crocodile on 19 Brumaire, as a Corsican sleuth devoured by an English bulldog, as a dragon struck down by Saint-Georges, as a hare escaping from Russia, as a child pampered by the devil , as a plucked jay, as a snake, as a top whipped by the allies, as a roast, as a drum… English cartoonists are unleashed against the man who has made a ruined France into a dreaded empire. And we must not doubt that the caricature played, to a certain extent, in the fluctuating image of Napoleon initially victorious general, man of the Revolution for some, impostor for others, Caesar for some, Attila for the others, ogre in 1813, Prometheus in 1815 ...
However, the Emperor of the French is not the only target of these fighters who spilled more ink than blood. The king and the members of the English government also bear the brunt of it, in particular William Pitt the younger represented sometimes as a grasshopper, a mushroom or a monkey, when it is not the rider of the Apocalypse….
A well-constructed structure ...
As with the other books in this series on caricatures, the large format allows for the highlighting of drawings from the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the University and the Library of London. Each page has on average 2 or 3 caricatures which allows them to be kept in a fairly large format and therefore to take advantage of the many details which make the richness of these works. However, we can still regret that some are not represented in a larger size, or with a stronger contrast when it comes to black and white engravings. Indeed some sentences written in small characters in tortuous bubbles are at the limit of readability for those who do not have an eagle eye. It is also regrettable that very many bubbles have not been translated into the language of Voltaire. Gentlemen of the English, know that if the worthy heirs of the Grognards of the Empire were defeated they were not submitted and that they still speak this language that the Norman nobles made you discover ...
Strong point of this book: contextualization. Indeed, we do not have here a simple iconographic collection, Mark Bryant has judiciously endeavored to present to his readers a clear and simple summary of the events which upset Europe from 1789 to 1815. He shines all the caricatures. throughout his speech and the reader is delighted and amused by seeing the vision that cartoonists seek to give of such and such an event.
We sometimes regret that we almost never see French cartoons attacking the enemies of the Empire. It would have been interesting to see this image warfare, these cartoons flipping back and forth like two artillery batteries launched into a frenzied duel! But this does not appear to be the author's bias. As the title of the book clearly emphasizes, it is above all Napoleon himself who is the subject. And naturally if we are looking for the anti-Napoleonic caricature, we must draw almost essentially from the side of the coalition forces. Mark Bryant, however, takes the initiative to present from time to time an image of Epinal to contrast the mythical image offered to the French to the satirical image offered to the English.
... and versatile
To conclude, this book offers a particular and original approach to the history of the First Empire: the image of Napoleon disseminated by his enemies. The quantity, the quality and the contextualization of the caricatures make of this work a formidable tool, certainly essential for any amateur of the period and in particular for the researchers. This is a great starting point, a great iconographic database. The quality of the drawings, the omnipresent humor also make it a beautiful recreational book that we will enjoy browsing in the evening with a cup of tea. And if you ever end up not being able to stand Anglo-Saxon humor any longer, all you have to do is empty your cup of tea, pour yourself a glass of Bordeaux and take out of your library one of these many books that will remind you that the Empire is above all a formidable epic, unique in its kind in the history of France. Maybe that's also why cousins from across the Channel are jealous of us….
- M. Bryant, Napoleon in caricatures, Hugo & Cie, 2010, 160 p.