Napoleon Bonaparte

by a contributor

from The Obscura, A Historical Canon in Four Parts, for Voice and Left Hand

Gabriel Blackwell

Commonly blamed for inventing that singularly pompous pose forever associated with his most famous subject out of some ridiculous depravity or artistic inadequacy, Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Bonaparte’s portraitist, vigorously denied such charges not with dodges but with salvos of his own. The stint at Elba and consequent reconquest made him wary of St. Helena, even the grave—he dared not go against the Emperor’s word—and so, out of necessity, he had become skilled at sensing imperfections in others, refusing to keep his tongue when slandered.

The 1812 canvas, Napoleon in His Study, is perhaps the most famous of these hand-in-waistcoat renderings, but, truth be told, all of David’s portraits of Napoleon I featured this pose. It was David’s peculiar misfortune to have been afflicted with such a stubborn subject in the first place.

“But, mon Empereur, why do you insist on hiding that, your right hand, even though it is there, in plain view? Anyway, it is quite handsome. Perhaps you could hold this piece of paper. Or this quill? C’est charmante, non? What a fetching and imperial pose it would make!”

“Non. Absolutement non.”

When David showed him his painting—just as the Emperor had sat it, with his right hand suspended from a cleverly constructed loop designed by itinerant Russian tailors (said to be angelically gifted)—the exasperated artist was nearly thrown in the stockade, accused of treason. The curious texture of the canvas at just that spot is the result of a second, yes, even a third coat of paint, covering the hand made of pigment in exactly two more layers than the hand made of flesh it was meant to depict. It is still slightly visible, mostly as an impression, a rough patch on the waistcoat in the shape of a hand, as though this one element of the painting had true depth. Napoleon’s despotic insistence was the peculiar result of his early steeping in the legends of Corsican oratory combined with the mendacious ministrations of the Russian tailors.

“Jacques-Louis, while you correct that idiotic mistake of yours, let me tell you of my history. I was not born here in Paris, you know,” the Emperor explained. “Non. It is from Corsica I come. There, we owe our culture to the Greek Aeschines, exiled to our island after losing an argument to Demosthenes, that preposterous windbag. It was apparently his second such campaign—easily prevailing in his first suit, he was not so lucky the second time. The greater the victory, the more crushing the defeat, ah? Do you already know the story?”

“Non, mon Empereur. Perhaps, if I may, if we were to just quite erase this strange loop your waistcoat has grown…”

Napoleon, attaining that musket-bore stare David had thought perfect for the portrait but now abjectly feared, ignored the inane request and instead carefully enlightened David on the illustrious career of Aeschines. Charged with treason by Demosthenes and his lackey, Timarchus, Aeschines returned their volley with arrows from his own quiver: Timarchus’s standing as accuser was seriously compromised by his rather raunchy behavior at Piraeus, was it not?  It was well known that the boy had played bottle to countless messages from foreign sailors too long at sea. Not exactly the man to be slinging mud, not when he was face first bottom up in it. The slander might have continued, but Timarchus slipped away and hung himself on the first pole he found, correctly guessing the orientation of the children of Astraeus. Demosthenes put away his accusations for another time.

It was not long in coming. Aeschines, sensing an Attic eruption, again prepared a complete reversal of the charges, accusing Demosthenes of the treason Demosthenes had accused him of. A matter of coin, this one, rather than flesh. In the event, it was something of a Pyrrhic victory, each increasing the other’s infamy until they were both nearly executed. Demosthenes prevailed only by the slimmest majority, a fact which Aeschines attributed correctly to one small but mortifying slip-up. Flustered at the baffling extent of Demosthenes’s oratory, at the third hour, Aeschines dropped his hand, decorously withheld in his toga until that moment, causing a report in colliding with his podium that swiveled all heads his way. Demosthenes broke off and everyone waited Aeschines, who, unprepared to riposte, had merely been surprised and was not even cognizant that he was attended. Gaping like a hooked mackerel, it took Aeschines several moments to realize eyes were upon him, whereupon, with consummate skill, Demosthenes rapped his own podium and picked up where he had left off, giving Aeschines the unsettling suspicion that he had just unwittingly ceded the upper hand to his opponent. Indeed, he had.

“It was the right hand, you see, cher Jacques-Louis, the hand of logic and reason. The hand of God. Dropping it heralded something ignominious, non? Everyone could see, plain as the tip of your thumb. To this day, to be shown a man’s right hand in Corsica is a slap in the face!”

“But you hide it from no one!”

“Zut alors! Jacques-Louis, in Corsica, this portrait would be counted a crime equal to Ham’s, and Noah’s curse would be handed down through your family. Attends! Those Russians are saints. The fiber they have woven this waistcoat out of, it is a miracle. It feels like the air, light as the light itself, but don’t be fooled by its lightness into believing it insubstantial, as I did. Non. I protested just as you do now, but they made a test.”

“What test?”

“They explained that this poor light of the candle—ha, even Lebon’s gas—is inadequate to illuminate the weave they have taken such pains to spin. Only the natural light of the sun is equal to the task. Unfortunately, they could not find a looking glass suitable for the parade ground, so we repaired to my apartments, where they closed all of the drapes until the room was as black as coal. Then, one turned a curiously shaped glass at the only open window, and voila, right there in front of me, through the magic of their glass, I could see myself, clear as day but much enlarged and everything as they had been telling me it was, with details sharper than the blade in my scabbard and their fine waistcoat in place. Ah, que c’est beau! If they hadn’t scampered off, I should have had them outfit a whole wardrobe for me.”

Sotto voce, the portraitist replied, “Be thankful they ran at the first hint of success, rather.”

“What did you say, Jacques-Louis?”

“Perhaps you will allow me to examine this glass you say they employed, mon Empereur? Purely for my own edification. Perhaps there is something yet to be learned.”

“Very well, monsieur. It is where the Russians left it, in my apartments. But I warn you: I tire of this sitting. The portrait ought to have been done long ago and there is the parade this afternoon to think of.”

The Emperor had his steward move the tailors’ glass into place. Once the curtains had been drawn and the sliver of light had spilled out of the prism, however, rather than the resplendent Napoleon, Marie Louise, missing both her bustle and her bodice, shone forth on the floor. She had been caught in the act of plucking a small cluster of three thick, black hairs from her enlarged and scandalously bared left breast. Dumbfounded, Napoleon stepped into his wife’s outline. His was but a blurred shadow moving over her finely detailed bosom, a vole set loose on the most jealously-guarded topography in the Empire. David could not suppress a nervous laugh.

The portraitist gloated, “You see it is not a matter of illumination or of reflection, mon Empereur, but of costume and plot. One of the tailors or perhaps a confederate must have been stationed in the Empress’s boudoir, dressed as you are in this so-called fabric, while you stood here, even as you are now, naked as the Empress and innocent as Adam in the Garden.”

Bashing the glass with his right hand, the Emperor bellowed, “Mon Dieu! Draw the curtains. Draw the curtains! I will not soon forget this insult, monsieur.” While David, taking care to remain penumbral, obeyed, Napoleon examined his bruised and bleeding member—pale, unlined, hairless, even a little atrophied from years of coddling in his waistcoat, it was that of a woman. He recalled the tittering he was certain he had heard coming from Ney and his fellow marshals during the morning’s oration. “Which direction did those tailors take?” the Emperor demanded.

Pursuing the Russians across steppe and frozen waste, Napoleon sought to make whole his pride, but realized with dismay that, though he was not particularly superstitious, with the fracture of the tailors’ glass he had indeed inaugurated seven years’ bad luck. He waited the end of this period as patiently as circumstances would allow, but as his shamefully exposed—and pitifully punctured—palm would have shown, his lifeline, though much longer than the several travel lines crossing it, was not more extensive than his fate line. Believing all along he would escape the island of his renewed exile and reconquer the continent, Napoleon instead contracted cancer, and, cursing fate, died long before the glass had finished exacting its revenge.

Gabriel Blackwell is the author of Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer (CCM) and Critique of Pure Reason (Noemi), both out in November. He is the reviews editor of The Collagist and a contributor to Big Other, among other things.

See Gabriel’s 5 Things You Should Read in our ongoing contributors’ series.