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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13 Comments to “Bonaparte’s physical appearance in 1800”

  1. Emily says:

    I love this description! he sounds so hot! i wish i could have met him!

  2. Maya says:

    thank you so much for the information. i appreciate it and just an idea, just, if u wanna make more also put a picture of him and then write the description under it that will be a good idea wouldnt it? aha,just sayin’ anyways,thanks.

  3. 草雨 says:

    thank you so much!!

  4. Catherine Delors says:

    Quite right, Penny!

  5. penny klein says:

    thank you for this information. for some reason Americans were taught that he was short. but then they also forget to teach elementary school children that revolution here would not have been won without the help of the French and the Spanish.

  6. I suspect that Napoleon’s more “portly” aspect as he aged came in part from enjoying a much better and in every sense richer diet after he hit the big time, so to speak. The food available to an impoverished artillery cadet and a junior officer with no established appointment or situation was probably not available in the amounts or quantities that would be available to a general, first consul or an Emperor. Still, most accounts indicate he looked on food as fuel, only.

    As for the height issue — I’ve never heard he was particularly short compared to contemporaries…but probably one should be careful in assessing WHICH contemporaries we’re talking about. Rich and well off generals, politicians and other movers and shakers would have better diets than private soldiers and otherwise average people…and that definitely affects stature.

  7. C Beccia says:

    Steckel uses both military records and skeletal data to get an average height of 5.4 in France. If he is right (which I personally think he is) then Napoleon was actually taller than the average man.

    Yes, Napoleon did get quite pudgy in his later years. Maybe that is why he looks so different.

  8. Eva – Yes, I think that Bonaparte had a lot of charisma and personal charm. Congratulations on a shared birthday, Elena!
    Julianne – Fracois I was a man of exceptional height and strength. I always loved the story of him thrashing Henry VIII, who was very proud of his own physical strength, at the Camp du Drap d’Or. A diplomatic incident. I found this portrait of Bonaparte by Boilly, painted around 1800 to be indeed very close to Constant’s description.
    Amanda – You are most welcome. Depends on which portrait by David. Look at Bonaparte crossing the Alps which is clearly idealized but reflects the same kind of almost emaciated face. Bonaparte must have put on much weight between 1800 and 1804.
    C Beccia – In the later portraits of Bonaparte the facial bone structure disappears behind increasing layers of fat and muscle. Not that different from the changes of JFK’s face over the years (though we know that those were due to cortisone treatment.) For average heights, true, those are always difficult to pin down, but at that particular time in French history, a draft was in effect, hence the precise military statistics that yielded the average height mentioned here.

  9. C Beccia says:

    Hi Catherine,
    Looking forward to your next book. I am in the middle of reading MISTRESS now.

    Ever notice how different Napoleon looks in every painting? I know many famous royals do, but his facial structure COMPLETELY changes from painting to painting. Why do you think that is? Or am I just looking at too many Napoleon paintings.

    Regarding Heights – Richard Steckel (google him) has done some really interesting research on heights throughout history. Averages are hard to pin point but his research has put the average height of men in France during Napoleon’s day at 5.4 and a half. (Using the English system).

  10. Amanda says:

    Wow! I’ve always imagined Napoleon as more portly, like the classic one painted by David. And I always thought he was 5 feet 2 inches in English system…but 5 feet 6 inches is not that short. Thanks for this interesting post!

  11. Five feet six inches was the average for French men during Napoleon’s time? Francois I must have towered over most of his courtiers, then–he was six feet tall two hundred years earlier.

    Thanks for the description of Napoleon. I know very little about him, so it was quite interesting. The portrait really corresponds with the valet’s words.

  12. What a fascinating man. He and I have the same birthday!

  13. Eva says:

    Wow-he’s much more good looking in that portrait than I tend to think of him! And good to know he was average height at the time. :) I’m short, but I’m a girl, so it doesn’t seem to matter as much!

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