For better or worse, history often paints its major players in ways that bear little resemblance to reality. Do any of us truly know what famous historical figures looked like? Was Napoleon really short? Was Anne Boleyn the beautiful seductress?
As historical retellings warp and change like a centuries-long game of telephone, firsthand descriptions by their contemporaries provide us with an understanding of how these famous figures appeared to their peers. Descriptive writings provide what portraits sometimes cannot. Maybe, like in the case of Charlemagne, there was no one in his time who developed their artistic abilities to perfectly recreate the human figure, or in the case of many kings and queens, their looks were enhanced in artworks they commissioned.
Not only do these firsthand descriptions give insight into how a person looked, but they also provide an understanding of the person's personality and stature.
Before the French Revolution, which claimed her life in 1793, Queen Marie Antoinette took full advantage of the opulence afforded by her royal status. Her hairdresser, Leonard Autie, enjoyed the fame that came with creating luxurious and increasingly audacious styles to adorn the head of his queen.
In his book, Recollections of Léonard, Hairdresser to Queen Marie-Antoinette, he stated:
see more on Marie Antoinette
Marie-Antoinette was then neither beautiful, pretty, nor attractive. There were only promises of beauty in her. Her figure, well-set, slender, but disparaged by an extreme thinness, still lacked grace, without however being disfigured by that Austrian stiffness, which Her Highness had fortunately left on the banks of the Danube. The hair of the daughter of Marie-Therese, which was then a pale blond, seemed to me very badly arranged; but perhaps people may think that this part of my judgment should be accepted with distrust as that of a rival of Larsen-neur. The eyes of the Dauphine were azure blue with a quick, witty, but somewhat bold, expression. She had a high forehead, a nose of a too pro-nounced aquiline shape, a small mouth, thick lips, but of great freshness, a complexion of dazzling whiteness and set off by natural but rather high color.
In 1760, 15 years prior to the American Revolution, Washington was merely a colonel in the colonial armed forces and the Fairfax County justice of the peace, but even then, he emanated an aura of great stateliness. His friend and brother-in-arms George Mercer wrote of him:
see more on George Washington
He may be described as being as straight as an Indian, measuring six feet two inches in his stockings, and weighing 175 pounds when he took his seat in the House of Burgesses in 1759. His frame is padded with well-developed muscles, indicating great strength. His bones and joints are large, as are his feet and hands. He is wide shouldered, but has not a deep or round chest; is neat waisted, but is broad across the hips, and has rather long legs and arms. His head is well shaped though not large, but is gracefully poised on a superb neck. A large and straight rather than prominent nose; blue-gray penetrating eyes, which are widely separated and overhung by a heavy brow. His face is long rather than broad, with high round cheek bones, and terminates in a good firm chin. He has a clear though rather a colorless pale skin, which burns with the sun. A pleasing, benevolent, though a commanding countenance, dark brown hair, which he wears in a cue. His mouth is large and generally firmly closed, but which from time to time discloses some defective teeth.
In a letter penned in 1429, Perceval de Boulainvilliers, Chamberlain of Charles VII, wrote of the 17-year-old girl who believed God had chosen her to lead France’s fight against England:
see more on Joan of Arc
This girl is reasonably good-looking, and with something virile in her bearing; she speaks but little, and is remarkably prudent, in what she does say. She eats little, and drinks wine still less; manages both her horse and her arms superbly well; greatly likes the company of knights and soldiers; scorns the company of the rabble; sheds many tears; has a happy expression; so great is her strength in the endurance of fatigue that she could remain completely armed during six whole days and nights.
see more on Henry VIII of England
His Majesty is twenty-nine years old and extremely handsome; nature could not have done more for him. He is much handsomer than any other sovereign in Christendom; a great deal handsomer than the king of France; very fair, and his whole frame admirably proportioned. On hearing that Francis I wore a beard, he allowed his own to grow, and, as it is reddish, he has now a beard that looks like gold.