How Napoleon Controlled His Image

It is interesting how Napoleon controlled his image to become a “master of spin.” He realized that to gain power and to stay in power, his popularity depended not only on his ability to achieve military success but also on his ability to ensure that he was politically popular with French citizens too. One way to insure the French public saw him in the best possible light was to control what the people saw and heard about him, and so he created an idealized view of himself.

“Napoleon crossing the Alps,” painting of Napoleon on horseback by Jacques-Louis David in 1801. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One of the first ways that Napoleon controlled his image was through the Paris Mint (Monnaie de Paris). It had been founded in 864 AD and was charged with issuing coins and producing medals and other such items. Napoleon began celebrating his accomplishments as early as his campaign in Italy, where he positioned himself as a brave heroic leader. Eventually a record numbers of medals honoring him would be produced that ranged from his military victories and peace treaties to hospital visits and his royal marriages.

This print belonged to the Count Primoli of Rome with the following written by the Prince Garielli stating: “Only portrait of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte that resembles him; brought in Paris by the Prince Don Pietro Gabrielli in December, 1809.” Public domain.

Most of the commemorative medals struck were created from copper and had a patina applied to prevent them from eroding and to make them look like they were bronze. Copper medals were usually 40mm in diameter, although the size could also be 27mm and 15mm. For the wealthy, there were also silver and gold medallions, 32mm and 15mm, respectively.

Napoleon medals in celebration of him as Emperor. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The exact number of medals or medallions struck is unknown because King Louis XVIII destroyed the mint’s records. However, Napoleon kept a gold copy of most of them in his personal collection, which was later sold off. One collector who produced a definitive catalog of Napoleon’s medals in the early to mid-1900s, showed that they numbered more than 2300, but the collection also included those struck by other countries.

Because Napoleon was so zealous in producing them, one English newspaper reacted negatively writing in 1837:

“[O]ne cannot be but struck with the egregious vanity of the man who seems to have been affected with the monomania of seeing his own face set forth in every practicable variety of form. The cocked hat — the laurel wreath — the iron crown of Italy — the Imperial crown of France — all are called into requisition as different modes of adornment for the physiognomy of Napoleon. This all seems very much beneath the dignity of a really great man … However, these were the absurdities of the man … The medals are so many monuments of an almost childish love of admiration.”[1]

Just as medals could ensure Napoleon’s image impressed the French and kept him in power, so too did prints. Printmakers in France were tasked with creating images that helped him maintain his popularity and power. Hundreds of prints were produced of Napoleon, his family, and his generals, and like the copper, gold, and silver medals, Napoleon was shown in a variety of scenes that included military victories, treasures obtained in Egypt, and his splendid coronation.

Although there are numerous prints, one engraving from these times shows the head of Napoleon pictured in an oval frame with a beam of light striking it while he is surrounded by peace and fame. Another engraving from 1806 shows a full-length portrait of him standing with a sword in his hand and lauds him as Emperor of the French and the King of Italy. A third lithograph printed by Charles Etienne Pierre Motte and titled, Passage du Mont Saint-Bernard (The Crossing of Mont Saint-Bernard), shows Napoleon on his march to Italy and spotlights him atop a small hill above his troops where he is depicted as both sympathetic to his troops and victorious as a leader.

Engraving in 1806 of Napoleon holding a sword and cited as Emperor of the French and the King of Italy. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Another effective way for Napoleon to manage his image was through his Bulletins de la Grande Armée (Bulletins of the Great Army). These were produced and designed for three distinct groups: Napoleon’s soldiers, French citizens, and Napoleon’s opponents. Napoleon used the bulletins to shape himself in a positive light and to make sure information presented to the public had a pro-Napoleon spin. This meant that the bulletins were not always accurate and his exaggerations (and sometimes outright lies) eventually resulted in the phrase “to lie like a bulletin.”

Typical type of bulletin produced by Napoleon. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite him stretching the truth, the bulletins were well-received in Paris, reprinted in newspapers, and reproduced and plastered throughout the countryside. Besides information about Napoleon’s accomplishments, sometimes they included information about the troops, certain heroes, or those wounded or killed in battle. They also tended to downplay Napoleon’s losses, reduce casualty numbers, and overstate his victories.

One example of him using a bulletin to his advantage happened during his return from Russia. Published on 16 December 1812, the twenty-ninth bulletin discussed the cold, the ice, and how cavalry, artillery, and baggage horses had perished by the thousands. Nevertheless, it ended on an upbeat note with the final line reading, “The Emperor’s health has never been better.”[2] While the Emperor’s health may have been of great importance to his French subjects, the bulletin neglected to mention the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in the disastrous Russian Campaign.

Another example of Napoleon using bulletins to create spin occurred in December of 1806 as he was battling the fourth coalition of Prussia, Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Great Britain. He wrote to Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, a man extremely trusted by him and a man whom Napoleon constantly consulted for advice. On 11 December he asked that Cambacérès create the following propaganda:

“Have all the bulletins of the Grand Army during this campaign and the last translated into Turkish and Arabic, and send large quantities of them to Constantinople. Get 6,000 copies printed. Have a short 10-page pamphlet produced in good style; revise it yourself, and call it ‘An Old Ottoman to his brethren.’ It is to be a manifesto against the Russians, depicting their policy and their aims. Have 10,000 copies of this printed in the same languages. It must be ready within a week. Send 1,000 copies to the Viceroy, who will distribute them in Dalmatia; 1,000 to Marseille, to be given to ships sailing for Levant; 1,000 to my minister at Constantinople; 1,000 to my minister at Vienna; ad send another 1,000 to me. When the work is written, see that the Turkish ambassador get a view of it, indirectly, so as to know what he says of it.”[3]

Image of Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Besides using bulletins to create a beneficial image, Napoleon used the press to show himself as brilliant, heroic, and capable leader. In fact, long before he became Emperor, he decided how he could use the press to his advantage. Le Moniteur (The Monitor) had been founded by Charles-Joseph Panckoucke in Paris on 24 November 1789 under the title Gazette Nationale ou Le Moniteur Universel. It became the main French newspaper during the French Revolution and, during this time, had a large circulation in France, Europe, and America.

Because Le Moniteur served as the official mouthpiece of the French government, a young General Napoleon probably knew it could help him become more than a general. His opening salvo in Le Moniteur as a young general in 1793 demonstrates how he was trying to build a favorable public image that would ultimately result in him becoming the First Consul in 1799 and then Emperor in 1804. Nearly two-thirds of the front page provides information about Napoleon’s exploits, and an extract of a letter he sent to the Executive Directory on 25 Germinal 1793 opens with the following lines:

“The campaign of Italy has begun. I have to render you an account of the battle of Montenotte.”[4]  

General Napoleon then proceeds to recount how his army achieved military success and declares how the army “spread death and terror.”[5] Also, on the front page is a dispatch from the military commissioner attached to the Army of Italy named Antoine-Christophe Salicetti. He reasserts Napoleon’s amazing military accomplishments and lauds how the French have achieved victory under Napoleon.

Another example of how important the press was to Napoleon, is demonstrated during his Egyptian Campaign. He took printing presses on the road with him and used them to produce newspaper reports not just for the French public but also for the local population where he was fighting. He wanted to influence locals about the importance of his mission, tell them how they would benefit, and encourage their support in his cause, which is aptly demonstrated by the comments of one twenty-first historian who notes:

“Amongst the equipment unloaded was the Arabic printing press, which was immediately put into action printing copies of Napoleon’s proclamation to the people of Egypt. An indication of the undeveloped state of Egypt at the time is the fact that this was the first printing press in the country. Napoleon’s proclamation went out of its way to reassure the people of Egypt that he came as friend of Islam, intent upon freeing them from the dictatorship of the Mamelukes.”[6]

Like the British, Napoleon acquired foreign loot, and like the British, he sent the best pieces back to his country to be put on display for the public to enjoy. To showcase these priceless foreign treasures, he established a new national museum to house all his plunder. At the time it was dubbed the Musée Napoléon but is better known today as the Louvre Museum.

During Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign, the army was accompanied by savants (technical scholars) known as the Commission des Sciences et des Arts, who were tasked with surveying Egypt’s geography, customs, and natural history. Also, to be studied were Egyptian antiquities and treasures, which were brought to an institute, the Institut d’Égypte, established in Cairo. Of all the treasures found and brought there, the Rosetta Stone appears to be the most notable.

The Rosetta Stone. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was discovered in July of 1799 by an officer in the French Army of engineers named Pierre-François Bouchard. He had been put in charge of rebuilding Fort Julien, which Napoleon had renamed because Thomas Prosper Jullien had been recently assassinated in Egypt. The fort was an old Mameluke fortification near the port city of what is today known as Rashid (Rosetta).

One nineteenth century newspaper described the find as “a block of black basalt of irregular shape, measuring about 3ft. 2in. long by 2ft. 5in. wide.”[7] In fact, it was not black basalt but a black granodiorite stele inscribed with three different scripts (hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek) and was quickly recognized as the key to enable the deciphering of ancient Egyptian scripts because Greek texts could be read.

Finding treasures such as the Rosetta Stone, created a love for everything Egyptian and it did not take long for Egyptomania to be the rage throughout Europe, and particularly in France. In general, people were fascinated by everything Egyptian, and the scientific achievements in Egypt also resulted in an interest in craniology or phrenology, whereby the human skull was studied in the hope of determine a person’s intelligence and characteristics.

After Bouchard’s find was announced and it was transported to the Institut d’Égypte, Napoleon himself inspected what was being called la Pierre de Rosette (the Rosetta Stone). The find was also announced in the Courrier de l’Égypte, the official newspaper of the French expedition, and prints were eventually created and taken to Paris so that European scholars could see the inscriptions and attempt to read them for themselves.

Finding the Rosetta Stone and other Egyptian treasures did not just enhance France’s scientific reputation, it also enhanced Napoleon’s. Every time someone thought of Egypt, it brought Napoleon to mind, particularly after he began promoting the use of Egyptian imagery in France after his return. Two architects Charles Percier and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine were appointed to create this new style that thereafter was closely associated with the Napoleonic period.

Bed from the Empire period 1804-15 of mahogany, gilt bronze in the musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris.

What the architects developed employed war and militaristic elements. It also embraced classical symbols from Roman emperors that included the eagle, palm leaves, and laurel wreaths. Also used in this new look were sphinxes, eagle heads, bees, the horn of plenty, and winged lions and, of course, the incorporation of Egyptian motifs. These symbols made a connection between Napoleon and the glory of earlier times.

Napoleon had a masterful approach to controlling his image and it is shown through the various methods he used. In fact, his ability to spin himself as a successful victorious military and political leader is still talked of today. People also still remember him for the commemorative medals that were struck by the Paris Mint, prints produced of him and his family, bulletins that inundated France and Europe, strategic publications by newspapers about what he wanted the public to know, and Egyptian motifs that have become synonymous with the Consulate and Empire periods.


  • [1] Morning Post, “The Napoleon Medals,” October 24, 1837, 3
  • [2] I. de Saint-Amand and T. S. Perry, Marie Louise and the Decadence of the Empire (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1890), 71
  • [3] J. M. Thompson, Letters of Napoleon (Read Books Limited, 2013), 340
  • [4] The Field of Mars: Being an Alphabetical Digestion of the Principal Naval and Military Engagements, in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, Particularly of Great Britain and Her Allies, from the Ninth Century to the Peace of 1801 v. 2 (London: G. and J. Robinson, 1801)
  • [5] The Field of Mars: Being an Alphabetical Digestion of the Principal Naval and Military Engagements, in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, Particularly of Great Britain and Her Allies, from the Ninth Century to the Peace of 1801 v. 2 (London: G. and J. Robinson, 1801)
  • [6] P. Strathern, Napoleon in Egypt (New York: Bantam Books, 2009), 74–75
  • [7] Congleton & Macclesfield Mercury, and Cheshire General Advertiser, “The Rosetta Stone,” April 16, 1892, 4

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