The Conqueror's Mask

French dominance during the first 60 years of Mobile’s existence certainly contributes to the expression that Mobile is a “French-ified” city. Glimmers of later 18th- and early 19th-century French influence shine throughout Port City history. Evidence still exists, if only you know where to look.

The Museum of Mobile has long housed a copy of the death mask of Napoleon. In a time before photography, this sculptural process preserved the image of a person after death. The deceased person’s face was oiled, and a plaster “impression” was made of it. Once the impression had hardened, more plaster was poured into its negative hollow to create a positive relief of the subject. In the case of Napoleon, powdered shell was used as a substitute for plaster when his mask was cast on the Island of St. Helena in 1821.

His personal physician, and the man credited for making the original mask, eventually moved to New Orleans. Through a change of hands of collectors, the relic was put on indefinite loan to The Museum of Mobile. As Pam Middleton notes, the mask’s authenticity as the original has remained “shrouded with mystery, despite … volumes of speculation on the elusive subject.”

Jacob Laurence

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