Whilst I love French satirical prints of the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, I will be the first to admit that my knowledge of them is somewhat lacklustre. This is partly because my understanding of the French language never extended beyond the level required to order a beer, but it’s also because there’s no French equivalent of the large online catalogues which have done so much to open up English eighteenth-century prints to independent scholars. C’est la via.
The subject of French caricatures has cropped up because this print caught my eye in an auction catalogue recently. It’s one of a surprisingly large number of anti-bonarpartist satires which were published in Paris during and immediately after Napoleon’s short-lived return from exile in 1815. It seems as though there were a number of Frenchmen, presumably those of monarchist or republican persuasions, who were less than enthusiastic about the Emperor’s return and were more than happy to see him bundled off to St Helena following his defeat at Waterloo. It could therefore be argued that these caricatures prefigure the internal tensions between monarchists, republicans and bonapartists, which would dominate French politics for much of the nineteenth-century.
The image is the work of an artist-engraver named Lacroix whose caricatures were frequently listed in the Bibliographie de la France between May and October 1815 . The entry for this print appears in the 19th August 1815 edition. Lacroix appears to have specialised in the production of prints attacking Napoleon and delighted in showing the emperor being humiliated by his foes in a variety of interesting and unusual ways. In one print Napoleon is being unceremoniously stuffed into a rubbish bin by Wellington and Blucher, whilst in another the allied generals forcibly shave his head in the manner of a restrained lunatic. This image is slightly tamer by comparison and shows Napoleon as a diminutive drummer boy fleeing before the Duke of Wellington. Napoleon says: “ma foi sauve qui peu”, which I think translates roughly as “my faith has saved me little”. Wellington responds “que diable faite vous dans vous battez la défaite”, which means something along the lines of “What the devil made is fighting in retreat.” The print’s title L’écolier battant la retraite devant son maître is The Schoolboy Beating the Retreat Before his Master.
- The Bibliographie de la France was a state journal established by imperial decree in 1811 and continued under the Bourbons. It was issued weekly and all publishers were required to disclose the details of any new publication within its pages