The Objects

25th Feb 1815

Source:, with permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Napoleon as Philoctetes

Contributed by: Philip Shaw

During the Empire very few satirical prints of Napoleon appeared in France but print makers took full advantage of the First Restoration to depict the former Emperor in exile.
This anonymous graphic satire, entitled ‘Nicolas Philoctète dans l’Ile d’Elbe (n’a jamais passé la Manche’) depicts Napoleon as the ancient Greek hero Philoctetes, dwelling in latter-day exile on the island of Elba. Here, wearing laurels, military uniform and an imperial cape, yet with his right arm curiously sleeveless and a crudely fashioned sandal on his left foot, the fallen warrior is shown with a bandage on his left ankle, a bleeding wound clearly displayed on the corresponding calf, in the act of claiming a white bird from the branch of a nearby tree in which a snake can be seen lurking within the foliage. The bow and quiver of arrows implies that the bird, possibly a white stork, symbolic of peace, has recently been shot by this composite figure. The detail of the rolled-up sleeve together with the print’s subtitle, N’a jamais passé la Manche, meaning either ‘always sleeveless’ or ‘never crossed the English Channel’, could be read as a sly commentary on the Emperor’s failure to fulfil his historical destiny. The derogatory use of ‘Nicolas’ in the title, which recalls the chants of the crowds in Avignon as Napoleon made his way to Fréjus to set sail for Elba (‘A bas Nicolas! A bas le tyran, le coquin, l’assassin des Français, le mauvais gueux!’), serves also to deflate the comparison between the Corsican usurper and the ancient Greek hero.


To find out more about the cultural significance of the period, see Philip Shaw's "Waterloo and the Romantic Imagination" (Palgrave, 2002) which offers a new and challenging look at the cultural significance of the Battle of Waterloo, and the impact it had on British Romantic culture. Drawing on a range of approaches it aims to redefine the Romantic period as an age of inter- and intra-national conflict, thus overturning conventional notions of 'The Romantic Project', and re-writing the period from first principles. Topics covered include: the impact of Waterloo on Romantic ideas of individual and national identity, the representation of the dead and wounded in poetry, painting and prose, the work of canonical and non-canonical poets.

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