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Was Napoleon Short?

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"Napoleon Crossing the Alps" oil on canvas by Jacques-Louis David, 1800; in the collection of Musee national du chateau de Malmaison.
De Rocker/Alamy

At the beginning of the 19th century, Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Joséphine on December 2, 1804 (1806–07), the stepped platform from which Napoleon crowns his wife challenges any comparison with other figures, while The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries (1812) represents the subject standing alone at a desk. Works by contemporary artists show him similarly alone or sitting. One work by David’s student, Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa, March 11, 1799 (1804), commissioned by Napoleon, represents an episode from his Egyptian campaign in which he visited his plague-stricken troops in a makeshift hospital. By touching one of the victims, Napoleon defies the men around him, who hold handkerchiefs to their faces. He appears not only heroic but also average! All the men standing near him seem to be about the same height.

The English, however, were not so generous: their artists depicted Napoleon as diminutive. Around 1803 the celebrated cartoonist “Maniac ravings—or—Little Boney in a Strong fit,” Napoleon is shown in the midst of a tantrum, flipping furniture, wailing about the “British Nation” and “London Newspapers,” and shouting “Oh Oh Oh. Revenge! Revenge!” Gillray then played up juvenility through smallness, whereby Napoleon was represented wearing huge boots and, as one source put it, “trying to talk tough beneath an enormous bicorne hat dwarfing his entire body. Or struggling to pull a sword from an unwieldy scabbard that dragged along the ground as he walked.” Soon Napoleon was just depicted as being short. In “The Empress’s wish or Boney Puzzled!!” another cartoonist, Isaac Cruikshank, depicted a peevish Napoleon at about half the height of his wife and troops. A wee Bonaparte thus became the standard for representing the emperor in English newspapers.

Though it’s hard to say if and why the British invented the short Napoleon trope, there is some truth in Cruikshank’s representation: Napoleon was probably significantly shorter than his troops. Several sources note that his elite guards were taller than most Frenchmen, and thus Napoleon had the appearance of being shorter than he really was. Yet interpretations of Napoleon’s death certificate estimate that his height when he died was between 5’2” and 5’7” (1.58 and 1.7 meters). The discrepancy is often explained by the disparity between the 19th-century French inch, which was 2.71 cm, and the current inch measurement, which is 2.54 cm. Sources consequently estimate that Napoleon was probably closer to 5’6” or 5’7” (1.68 or 1.7 meters) than to 5’2”. Although the range may seem short by 21st-century standards, it was typical in the 19th century, when most Frenchmen stood between 5’2” and 5’6” (1.58 and 1.68 meters) tall. Napoleon was thus average or taller, no matter the interpretation.

Although Napoleon’s death certificate seems to suggest that he was probably taller than the typical 19th-century Frenchman, English cartoons, his nickname, and other hearsay left a lasting impression that the emperor was short. It was an impression that continued into the 21st century and one which no heroic painting by Jacques-Louis David could undo.

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