The Objects

22nd Feb 1815

Source: Robinson de l'Ile d'Elbe courtesy of the British Museum;
Marty as Robinson, private collection.

Le Robinson de l'Ile d'Elbe: The Robinson Crusoe of Elba

Contributed by: Katherine Astbury

With the allied forces invading France from both the East and the South-West, Napoleon was forced to abdicate by the Senate in the spring of 1814. He signed his act of abdication 11 April 1814. Under the treaty of Fontainebleau, he was given sovereignty over the island of Elba and arrived there 3 May 1814.

A few weeks later, a satirical print was published of Napoleon as Robinson Crusoe. In the print, Napoleon is wearing a lion skin and holding an umbrella which bears a golden imperial eagle on the top. The image bears striking resemblance to an earlier print of the lead actor in an 1805 melodrama by Pixerécourt which was based on Defoe's famous novel. The first appearance of the character on the stage at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin had caused a sensation but the echoing of that performance in the political satire is perhaps surprising. The use of a theatrical reference point – that of a melodrama from 9 years before – is a reminder of how closely entwined culture and politics were during the First Empire.

Click below if you want to find out more about the link between the two prints.

Geolocation

The melodrama "Robinson Crusoe" had swept Paris by storm when it premiered – contemporary accounts mention how discussion about the play had filled the press for weeks before the first performance and the opening night was a huge success for Pixerécourt who was, at the time, the leading French playwright.

That a satirical political print in 1814 might make reference to a melodrama from almost a decade earlier might seem surprising but it reveals the extent to which successful melodramas infiltrated public consciousness and reinforces a recurrent discourse amongst restoration critics linking the genre to the Napoleonic regime.

Whilst modern critics often use theatrical metaphor when discussing Napoleon – Dominique de Villepin’s account of the 100 days is a good example – those who proclaimed themselves against Napoleon and for the restoration of the monarchy in 1814 and in 1815 likened Napoleon to a character in a melodrama. So, for instance, in Martainville’s play "Buonaparte ou l’abus de l’abdication" (Buonaparte or abusing abdication) (1815), the Emperor is presented as using the language of melodrama to inflame the people into supporting him once more (act 1, scene 9).

Similarly, Hapdé, in his treatise ‘Plus de mélodrames’ (1814) says that now that the people of France have ousted Napoleon, it is time to oust melodrama too, thereby explicitly linking the Emperor with the Empire’s most successful theatrical form.

Nevertheless, the image of Napoleon as Robinson Crusoe does not portray him as melodrama villain (and there were no shortage of those!) but as the hero of one of the most successful plays of the period. The print’s satirical intent is undercut by this.

The possibility of reading the print either as negative or nostalgic representation of the former Emperor is extended when the caption to the original print is considered. The 1805 print includes a line from early in the play – it was customary for prints of actors representing characters from plays to include a line of text representing a particular moment in the performance – and the line is not without ambiguity when placed alongside the Napoleonic image. The caption reads ‘relève-toi: ce n’est que devant Dieu que l’homme doit s’humilier ("get back on your feet: it is only before God that man should humble himself")’.

In the context of May 1814 when the Napoleonic Robinson print is published, the caption recalled by the similarities between the two prints can either be a suggestion of a new-found humility, as it was for the character in the Pixerécourt play, or an indication of Napoleon’s over-inflated sense of his own importance. Thus the print can bear opposing meanings – a technique often used by print makers to increase potential sales.


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