The Cartoon Emperor: The Impact of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte on European Comic Art, 1848-1870

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Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1808-1873), one-time President of the Second French Republic (1848-1852) and Emperor of the French (as Napoleon III, 1852-1870) exercised a profound effect on European cartoonists and the comic art they produced during his lifetime. As a real historical personality, Louis Napoleon feared the power of the cartoon to make him appear ridiculous and instituted one of the most effective and heavy-handed regimes of censorship of comic art in all European history. Beyond the boundaries of the French Empire, he pressured neighbouring states to protect his image in similar fashion, but in Britain and Germany and beyond, the cartoon Napoleon III became not only ubiquitous in the satirical press, but also served as a powerful touchstone for emerging national identities. The real Louis Napoleon's political and military influence was felt throughout Europe for over two decades, but his cartoon self was even more of a European phenomenon. Usually studied within national contexts, the 'Cartoon Emperor' needs to be studied transnationally in order fully to grasp his importance for developments in European history, as in European comic art.

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1808-1873), erstwhile President of the French Republic (1848-1852) and Emperor of the French (1852-1870), is one of history's great enigmas. By turns imagined as a great man of history, a Caesarist precursor to modern fascist regimes, or a forgettable anomaly in France's national tradition, it is difficult to see beyond the caricatures of popular and scholarly history, and perceive the real individual.1 Indeed, perhaps the most celebrated description of Louis Napoleon presents him as nothing more than a caricature, and his assumption of supreme power as little more than the playing-out of a farcical cartoon. Karl Marx, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, specifically used the German term karikatur in describing the man and his coup d'état of 2 December 1851, a word which is used interchangeably in translation to represent 'caricature' - an exaggeration and distortion of features to achieve a grotesque parody of an individual's appearance and character - as well as 'cartoon' - in the sense of a political burlesque, commenting ironically on an event or individual.2

Louis Napoleon's impact on European history was therefore partly due to his incarnation as a cartoon character. In this guise he not only provided a point of contention for competing versions of French nationality, but transcended the political and cultural boundaries of mid-nineteenth century Europe to help shape national and (apropos of Marx) other identities in Britain, Germany and beyond. In criticising Louis Napoleon, European cartoonists utilised a series of tropes and images that were remarkably consistent, despite the differing circumstances and cultural traditions from which their work emerged. Louis Napoleon is also one of the few rulers of modern times so to have feared the consequences of being turned into a cartoon character that he instituted a regime of censorship and repression specifically directed against comic art. He not only sought to restrict the freedoms of the great French cartoonists at home (and in this he largely succeeded) but also exerted diplomatic pressure on neighbouring states to prevent foreign cartoons from being created, or at least from entering France.

The impact of Louis Napoleon on cartoons and caricature has been relatively well studied to date. The debt owed to Robert Justin Goldstein and Elizabeth C. Childs for their explorations of Louis Napoleon's censorship regime in the French context is incalculable. They have shown not only how even the genius of Philipon, Daumier, and Gill was restricted almost to the point of impotence by the Second Empire, but also the ways the cartoonists circumvented and subverted the system.3 The imagining of Louis Napoleon in British cartoons has been dealt with in several works, with key analyses of his representation appearing in studies such as Richard D. …


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