The Iconography of Napoleon’s Stomach Ache


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Contrary to what I have said earlier, and what many people actually think, the famous Napoleonic gesture has little to do with the Emperor’s stomach problems. This gesture has a very respectable classical provenance and descends from the statues to an Athenian orator and politician, Eschin. The gesture should be interpreted as a sign of Stoic reserve and profound contemplation. Its Neoclassical use in the portraits of Napoleon is due to a collaborative effort of a number of artists. The gesture is first suggested in the sketches of Jacques Louis David, who, as early as 1789, considers pressing General Bonaparte’s right arm against his chest to create some tension between action and apprehension; and already by 1801 a miniaturist, Jean-Baptiste Isabey, uses the magic formula by which the First Consul could be identified, even in the pictures that rend him unrecognizable. Isabey’s iconic formula is not immediately adopted, until Ingres makes the choice official by tucking Bonaparte’s left hand in, while using the right one for a pantomime gesture: Bonaparte was fond of his dainty little hands; and in the work of Ingres, unlike in that of Isabey, the right one is shown in all its splendor. And the belly…? As for the Emperor’s medical condition, his stomach ulcer manifested itself years later, when a copious but hasty meal could make His Imperial Majesty roll on the carpet in a rather undignified manner.

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