Believe it or not Puss in Boots, or General Junot Taken by Surprise is part of Thomas Rowlandson’s collections of satirical prints about Napoleon. Confusing, I agree, as Napoleon is found nowhere in the print. Instead we see a young girl marching around in boots with a sword and a shocked General Junot, who has been stirred upright from bed, trousers in hand.
The story connecting Rowlandson’s print to the Emperor appears in the future Madame Junot’s memoirs, but occurred when she was just a girl and still called Martin de Permond. Back then the Bonapartes were close friends of the de Permonds, and when Napoleon visited one day, he took the occasion to put on his uniform for the first time. What resulted was a bit of girlhood fun and long-lasting grudge:
“I well recollect that on the day when he first put on his uniform, he was as vain as young men usually are on such an occasion. There was one part of his dress which had a very droll appearance–that was his boots. They were so high and wide that his little thin legs seemed buried in their amplitude.
“Young people are always ready to observe any thing ridiculous; and as soon as my sister and I saw Napoleon enter the drawing-room we burst into a loud fit of laughter. At that early age, as well as in after life, Bonaparte could not relish a joke; and when he found himself the object of merriment he grew angry. My sister, who was some years older than I, told him that since he wore a sword he ought to be gallant to ladies, and, instead of being angry, should be happy that they joked with him.
“‘You are nothing but a child–a little pensionnaire’, said Napoleon, in a tone of contempt. Cecile, who was twelve or thirteen years of age, was highly indignant at being called a child; and she hastily resented the affront by replying to Bonaparte:
‘And you are nothing but a puss in boots.’ This excited a general laugh among all present except Napoleon whose rage I will not attempt to describe. Though not much accustomed to society, he had too much tact not to perceive that he ought to be silent when personalities were introduced and his adversary was a woman. Though deeply mortified at the unfortunate nickname which my sister had given him, yet he affected to forget it; and to prove that he cherished no malice on the subject, he got a little toy made and gave it as a present to me. This toy consisted of a cat in boots, in the character of a footman running before the carriage of the Marquis de Carabas. It was very well made and must have been rather expensive to him considering his straitened finances. He brought along with it a pretty little edition of the popular tale of Puss in Boots which he presented to my sister, begging her to keep it as a token of his remembrance.”
Fast forward years later when Napoleon is married to Josephine [she is forty], and General Junot and his sixteen year old wife Madame Junot are dining with the couple at Malmaison. Old Nap has not forgotten the Puss in Boots slight of many years past, and had since developed what many thought of as a smarting wit:
Napoleon as First Consul by Jean-Antoine Gros (1802)
“Madame Bonaparte that day wore powder for the first time. It became her very well but the first consul [Bonaparte] did nothing but laugh at her, and said she would do admirably to act the Countess d’Escarbagnas [a diva countess in Moliere’s play who was subjected to provincial suitors, none worthy of her). Josephine was evidently displeased at this and Bonaparte added, ‘What, are you afraid you will not have a cavalier? There is the Marquis de Carabas[fictional nobleman/master of Puss in Boots],’ pointing to Junot. “He will offer you his arm I am sure.”
The first consul had often before this called both Junot and Marmont the Marquis de Carabas, but it was always in perfect good humor. It was, he said, on account of their taste for dramatic representation. They, of course, merely laughed at the joke. Madame Bonaparte, however, took it more seriously and betrayed symptoms of vexation. This was not the way to please Bonaparte. He took his glass in his hand and, looking towards his wife he bowed his head ,and said, ‘To the health of Madame la Comtesse d Escarbagnas.’
Empress Josephine by Andrea Appiani (1808)
The continuance of this pleasantry brought tears into Madame Bonaparte’s eyes. Napoleon observed this and he was, I believe, sorry for what he had said. To make amends, he again took up his glass and winking at me, he said: ‘To the health of Madame la Marquise de Carabas.’ We all burst into a fit of laughter in which Madame Bonaparte joined but her heart was nevertheless full.”
Which brings us full circle to why Rowlandon’s Puss in Boots print is part of his Napoleon collection. Mystery solved for today! If any of you come across a Rowlandson print that wants explanation and doesn’t appear readily available, send it my way. I might just be inclined to spent an afternoon looking it up.