The coronation of Napoleon
On the second of December 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Napoleon I, Emperor of France.
Napoleon was given the title of Emperor to consolidate his position in France and abroad and to guarantee to his succession the right to power. The ceremony was immortalised by the artist David in the magnificent painting which is today the centre of a moving exhibition at the Louvre in Paris.
The 'Coronation of Napoleon' by David, a huge painting of 6.21 metres by 9.76 metres is itself a masterpiece with its composition, its play of light and the skill of the characterisation.
But it is also a work of propaganda, misleading in several details, and it leads us to reflect on the relationship between art and power. Sylvain Laveissiere is the director of the exhibition.
The occasion is of course the bicentenary of the coronation of Napoleon and the painting which represents it, so it was quite reasonable to make an exhibition around this painting. The project was a bit of... it's not to celebrate Napoleon, he does not need us, he's the best known person in history. We would make ourselves look ridiculous providing publicity for or against Napoleon. That's not the reason. On the other hand what is interesting is to examine how a person of this importance has a rapport with the painting and with the greatest painter of his time.
David is known for having been a fervent revolutionary republican, he was even... he was a member of the Committee of Public Safety, but also he was in prison following the fall of Robespierre, and so he was a victim of the Thermidorian Reaction and he obviously calmed down a bit during his participation. He saw what it cost him being very engaged, involved in the Reign of Terror, if you like, what had happened to Robespierre and Saint Just and he thought about that in prison. He made, coming out of prison, he made the painting of Les Sabines and the painting of Les Sabines is very important in the development of his art and also his politics; that is, the reconciliation of the French people. He saw also a country which was ripped apart for ten years and he preached a little the reconciliation of the French and the end of the Revolution. And at that time, the man who embodied the end of the Revolution and the resumption of business, the resumption of the arts, of peace etc was Bonaparte because he was a great person, a military man, a victorious general in Italy and who had finally had the French Republic recognised in the rest of Europe. After the Treaty of Campo Formio, France, which had been the ugly duckling of Europe for the foreign monarchs began to be respected and to be taken seriously with a great warlord like Bonaparte.
Furthermore at that time, he was a very romantic figure with, you see, the Portrait of Gros and the even larger portrait which David did in 1797. It was a young man with a distant look, very focussed. He has what we call dog ears; that is long hair that resembles somewhat May 1968. He was quite the opposite, but that makes a sort of genius, a sort of romantic hero and when David saw him... They met during a reception after Campo Formio in Luxembourg where the Director received Bonaparte and David was there. So he came back to his workshop and said to his students "Ah, what a beautiful head he has. They would have put him on an altar in antiquity. It is beautiful, pure, large, it's beautiful like antiquity."
So for the artist, the subject was like a dream come true:
In the history of painting after Greuze, after Diderot, painting must have a moral dimension. They thought that the chivalry of Boucher, the pastoral scenes, the stories of the bed chamber of the romantic 18th century, all that was immoral. It was linked to a dominating class that the French Revolution had moreover... had condemned; in any case historical painting should not serve these Sybaritics any more, but should give fine examples of virtue, of courage, etc. So painting, the Horaces are fine, but they died a long time before. The painting of the contemporaries was to have a bigger exemplary value and David thought that at its base, the modern hero, I have him in my hand, it's Bonaparte. So, some of the people shared his view. At that time, Bonaparte was a completely positive hero.
Napoleon's power was established on the field of battle and still in the youth of his career, he looked after his image meticulously, ordering commemorative paintings after each military battle to immortalise his glory. He became Consul and then in 1804, he decided to adopt the title of Emperor:
It was a way for Napoleon to show, to make it clear to everyone in Europe that he was the Emperor of France and that he was... he could see himself moreover as the only emperor in Europe. So the relationship with David, obviously, changed. David had been named as the principal artist of the Emperor. He had refused to be the government artist under the Consul, and now he did not resist, I think, the orders of Napoleon. But David saw that this position was going to give him, as he was already recognised as the best painter in France, it was going to give him an authority and he would be able, like Le Brun under Louis XIV, that he would be able to direct somewhat the artistic and cultural policy, as we would say today, of France and that was an ambition to which a person who really loves power and who has huge talent and who really loves power, could not resist forever. At anytime, and so you see, he accepted it thinking that he would be the Le Brun of the new Louis XIV. But he was going to be disenchanted very quickly because there was Denon, because Napoleon did not like that there be absolute powers other than his, and then he already had Denon as the Director of the Louvre, who was dealing with all these historical paintings, orders for paintings, aesthetics etc, who dictated the taste of what Paris would become, of what would be the imperial orders and he intended that David be the principal painter for making the paintings that he would ask of him. So David would in the end have lots of troubles with Napoleon. The enthusiasm of the beginning was no longer absolutely what it had been. At the same time he would stay faithful to him, he would remain faithful to the end of Napoleon, and he would think about these troubles coming from the administration which did not want to pay him the sum that he was asking. He would ask 100,000 francs per painting, for the paintings of the coronation.
It was the price to pay for re-writing history. Laetizia Napoleon, the mother of Napoleon, for example, was not present at Notre Dame for the ceremony and her absence was noted very much: some saw it is a sign of disapproval. Nevertheless we find Laetizia in central position in the canvas of David:
Of course, Napoleon did not pay for a large painting so that David might do only what he wanted to. As we do not know everything, because we don't know the secret of their conversations, but... there are not any documents, any letters saying 'do this, do that'. David had considered his subject in a certain way and he wrote... really, he wrote anyway that the Emperor had asked him to feature his mother even though she was absent that day, rather notoriously. Then we know too that when Napoleon came to see the finished painting, he asked him to have the Pope bless the coronation of Josephine, as David had represented him with his hands on his knees in a very concerted style, as in prayer, so that was a reflection, he was the spiritual power and that Napoleon was the power of the moment.
The big event of this painting also is its change of subject: we can see clearly in the drawings from the start that Napoleon was crowing himself. He was bending backwards and he had his left hand on his epee and his right hand... he was holding the small crown that he was going to put on the head of Josephine, he was holding it above his own head. He was demonstrating like that, that his power was coming from his epee and that... He was turning his back on the Pope, he was facing the people and he was really demonstrating then that he was the author of his own power, he was Julius Caesar. Then he painted that, he painted it on the canvas you can see in the painting, we very distinctly see behind the present Napoleon, we see a primitive Napoleon, a Napoleon who is bending backwards who is crowing himself. We see a trace... it's called a regret, a pentimento in Italian, and it is a painting which was made and then was covered over and changed by another idea. So what is quite extraordinary is that when he changed over from Napoleon Julius Caesar who crowned himself Napoleon French Knight, is... the expression of Napoleon himself, "you have made me a French Knight", and well between the two, instead of the former face, David painted a head, that he then added at the moment when he changed. That was not in the original plan. So this head, it is an Italian priest but it has given him the characteristics of the ancient bust of Julius Caesar, with good reason. Really, he did, and it was quit intended, we have the drawing of the ancient bust in his notebook dealing with the coronation, a notebook which is in the Louvre, he drew twice a bust of Julius Caesar and reproduced it like that in the painting; so he replaced, he replaced anyway the face of Caesar, no longer the style... in the action, but in the very characteristics of the person who replaced Napoleon.
It was his student Gerard who was the spokesman for Josephine herself, and without doubt for a group, we would say a press group, a lobby, which suggested to him one day: "Does this arrogant appearance that Napoleon has, crowning himself, like that, having a look of despising everyone, do you think that it will please him, or should you not, master, should you not have that the Emperor crowning Josephine?".
Josephine was herself cunning, the evening before the coronation, she warned the Pope that Napoleon and she were married in the town hall only and not at the church and the Pope said "Well, in that case, I don't want to bless tomorrow a couple in the name of God, a couple who are not even married religiously". So they woke up Napoleon, they woke up Cardinal Feche, and in the Tuilleries on the evening of the first of December 1804, they were married. And so this religious wedding had taken place, Napoleon was not very happy as Josephine had forced the hand of Napoleon like that. On the other hand she had always been afraid of divorce because she could not have children. She had had two children with her first husband, Beauharnais, the children who are in the painting, Eugene and Hortense, but she was no longer able to have children with Napoleon, and she had a terrible fear as the Empire was declared hereditary... Why did he have himself crowned Emperor? It was to assure a power which was passed on like that of the kings, so Josephine feared being rejected at any time and it seems that she... Napoleon on Saint Helena was going to say that in any case, he was going to say that, it's a little plot of Josephine and David: "she feared being rejected and she asked David to make a more graceful painting where there would be the crowning of Josephine and not my own crowing". Anyway Napoleon said "I let him do it, I was aware and I let him make the more graceful painting and so I divorced when I wanted to".
Napoleon loved the painting. But the irony is that he was never able to use it as the work of propaganda that he had wished. The problem, coincidently, came from Josephine:
The picture appeared in public in January 1808. In 1809 there was the divorce, in 1810 the marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria. So there was no longer any question of showing it in the palace in Paris or even in Saint-Cloud, or in Versailles or elsewhere, in Trianon, a picture which showed Napoleon with his first wife when he had just married another. We see the painting in the context of the Empire. We think that it is a picture which everyone always saw, but not at all, people saw it in the Salon, the workshop of David a little, they saw it for several months on exhibition at the Louvre, then for three months towards the end of the year 1808 at the Salon, always in the tiled Salon at the Louvre and then for several months more in 1810 in the same place for a competition where it won first prize for a painting of contemporary history, a competition which had been cancelled moreover by Napoleon. So I have estimated that during the Empire, the painting was seen for 6 months at most by the general public. So they engraved it, they talked about it, there were copies of it, there were drawings perhaps which were passed around, there were engravings obviously, with lists, but in fact it's a painting that was so popular, and so reproduced that it was a propaganda item which had no effect, if you like. It is as if you were to make a publicity film and that they did not let it go out, they did not show it on the television, it only went to a festival then that was it.
Today, it is one of the most visited pictures in the Louvre:
I think that first of all the people come to see Napoleon because everyone knows Napoleon. They know that there is a very large painting with Napoleon in the Louvre, and since, well it's a sort of French export product, Napoleon, a bit. So I think that the foreign tourists who come in very large numbers and who go right away to see this painting as they come to see the Mona Lisa. They come to see a celebrity. They do not know at all about David. They know who Napoleon is, that's normal. But I think also that when they see this painting they are dazzled by this painting, because it is not only a work of propaganda. We insist a lot on that subject, it's true, but it is also the masterpiece of a very great artist and he made a picture which was to rival those of Veronese, or Rubens who was to be in the hall of fame of painting. He made a painting like no picture had ever been made. He made a... and he had an absolutely extraordinary challenge of painting some... of making something come alive which is stationary with contemporary subjects in clothes which could appear completely ridiculous. These are clothes which are out of their time, which are from another time, which are from the renaissance and we see his contemporaries, a general who has become a Roman emperor and then people who are in the clothes of the court of Henry II, or Henry IV. All that is quite extravagant in a Parisian church and he managed moreover to give it dignity, a sort of silence, an appearance of quite extraordinary grandeur and colour and light qualities which are absolutely marvellous. This picture is also... - in the catalogue we have reproduced all the details of the painting - now they can see it, they can see it in their homes in a much deeper way, so all the faces, that's the first time that we have done that, in a catalogue which has been edited like that by the Louvre and the Cinq Continents. There is quite an overview of the painting and details more and more refined where we can see how it was a pleasure to paint and how David mastered completely the detail in this whole assembly which was not only a political work but also a great work of art.
The exhibition at the Louvre is strongly recommended if you are in Paris. But if that's not possible, the catalogue is also a real treasure. The stories in it around the painting are fascinating and richly illustrated.
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