Bonaparte’s physical appearance in 1800

We are all familiar with images of a mature Napoléon after he crowned himself Emperor of the French in 1804: a portly, full-faced man.

Napoleon Bonaparte by Boilly

Napoleon Bonaparte by Boilly

But in 1800 Bonaparte, who was only 31, looked very different. Here is a description of Bonaparte by his valet, Constant:

“Upon his return from Egypt, [Bonaparte] was very thin and sallow-skinned, he had a coppery complexion, rather deep-set eyes, perfectly shaped limbs, though somewhat emaciated then… His forehead was very high … He did not have much hair, especially on the temples, but it was fine and very soft. It was brown and his eyes were a handsome blue and reflected incredibly well [his] various emotions, sometimes extremely gentle and caressing, sometimes severe and even harsh.

His mouth was very handsome, he had fine lips, a bit tight, especially when he was in a bad mood. His teeth, without being set with great regularity, were very white and sound; they never gave him any trouble. His nose, Greek in shape, was perfect, and his sense of smell extremely acute. In sum, his whole figure reflected a regular handsomeness.

However, at that time, his extreme thinness prevented one from seeing that beauty of his features, and the resulting effect was not a pleasant one… His head was very large… a little flattened on the temples. His ears were small, perfectly shaped…

His height was five feet, two inches, three lines; his neck was a bit short, his shoulders not prominent, his chest wide, with very little hair… his hands admirable, with fingernails to match; so he paid the utmost attention to them, as to the rest of his person, but without any foppishness. He would often bite his nails, but lightly, it was a sign of impatience or preoccupation.”

So Constant tells us that Bonaparte was slightly over 5 feet 2. But the valet is of course talking of French feet and inches. This is equivalent to 5 feet 6 inches and a half in the English system, the average height of a French male at the time.

Bonaparte was neither tall nor short. His outsize ambition, whatever its true cause, cannot be ascribed to a need to compensate for his stature.

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