Napoleon in caricature
The turn of the 19th century was a golden age of caricature across much of the northern Europe – from Russia in the east through Prussia and the Rhineland to France and Britain to the west. London, boasting artists like James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson, soon became the unofficial capital of European caricature.
English political cartoons were sold to the rich, admired in the shop windows of the Strand, and reproduced in other European languages.
Britain had been at war with France since 1793, and British cartoonists were unforgiving in their condemnation of the Revolution. When Napoleon seized power in 1799 he immediately came to symbolise France to English eyes. He was portrayed as a cruel and calculating usurper, as England’s most determined enemy, and – perhaps his defining hallmark – as a figure of Lilliputian proportions whom John Bull could hold in the palm of his hand. They mocked him, but fully recognised the threat he posed.
Britain’s caricaturists lampooned Napoleon for his inflated ambition, his love of imperial pomp and, above all, for his lack of any legitimate claim to the throne. Isaac Cruikshank drew him in 1804 wearing the crown that rightly belonged to Louis XVI. At the height of his powers he was shown sharing out the globe with the Russian emperor, a figure who could inspire fear as well as ridicule.
By the 1812, after the Russian campaign, he was mocked mercilessly. William Elmes drew him as the victim of a ‘Cossack extinguisher’; and cartoonists continued to chronicle his decline until, in 1814, they showed him caged and furious, a wild beast in George III’s royal zoo.
Only later, once he was safely on St Helena, did they allow themselves any sympathy for the fallen emperor, alone with only seagulls for company on his rock in the South Atlantic.