Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Napoleonic paintings
Napoleonic paintings

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2.5 The emperor

With Napoleon's coronation as emperor in 1804, a new type of official image was once again required. Portraits of the emperor in his ceremonial robes were commissioned from several established artists; these all revived a traditional type of royal portraiture from the eighteenth century. The example shown in Plate 10 is by a former David student, Francois Gérard (1770–1837), by now a fashionable portrait painter (see Plate 12 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ). A portrait of Napoleon as emperor was also painted by a former David student of a younger generation, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), apparently on his own initiative. When Napoleon on the Imperial Throne (see Plate 13) was exhibited at the Salon of 1806, the catalogue stated that it belonged to the Legislative Body, but documentary evidence indicates that it had been purchased from the artist rather than having originated as a commission. Ingres had previously received a commission for a portrait of the First Consul for the city of Liege, and must have been disappointed that he had not been given the opportunity to exhibit the painting, which commemorates Napoleon signing a decree ordering the reconstruction of an area of the city that had been bombarded by Austrian troops (see Plate 14).

Click to see plate 12 François Gérard, Napoleon in his Imperial Robes, 1805, oil on canvas, 227 x 145 cm, Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon. Photo: Bridgeman Art Library

Click to see plate 13 Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Napoleon on the Imperial Throne, 1806, oil on canvas, 260 x 163 cm, Musée de l’Armée, Paris. Photo: Bridgeman Art Library

Click to see plate 14 Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Bonaparte as First Consul, 1804, oil on canvas, 227.5 x 147 cm cm, Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Arte Contemporain de la Ville de Liège. Photo: Bridgeman Art Library

Ingres may, therefore, have come up with the idea of painting a portrait of the emperor ‘on spec’ in order to attract attention and win acclaim. If so, the gamble did not entirely pay off; although Ingres did succeed in selling the picture, the critical reception was almost unrelievedly hostile. The question that concerns us is: why?


Compare Ingres's Napoleon on the Imperial Throne (Plate 13) to Gérard's portrait of the emperor (Plate 12), thinking about the difference in the effect conveyed. Consider the pose and, in particular, the way the figure relates to the viewer of the painting. How much sense of three-dimensional space do you get from each work? How much emphasis is given in each case to the ceremonial robes and imperial regalia?


The most basic difference is indicated by the title of Ingres's painting, which depicts Napoleon seated on a throne, whereas Gérard's is a full-length standing portrait. Also, whereas the latter work shows the emperor's body at a slight angle to the front of the picture space and his head turned slightly to face the viewer, Ingres shows Napoleon in a strictly frontal pose facing the viewer head-on. The image is not strictly symmetrical but almost so, with the two sceptres balancing each other on either side of the figure. The effect is strangely stiff and formal by comparison with Gérard's imposing but more natural-seeming image. The head-on pose used by Ingres also produces an impression of flatness: Napoleon is set slightly back from the front of the picture, distancing him from the viewer, but the figure seems rather two-dimensional, partly because of the way it is so swathed in robes that there is little sense of a body underneath them. Also, because the enthroned figure takes up most of the picture surface, allowing for only a hint of dark backdrop without much detail, there is very little sense of any depth to the scene. The effect is rather claustrophobic by comparison with Gérard's painting, in which the figure is set in a larger space, with the throne behind it and a stool to one side. The stool also provides a resting place for an orb and sceptre, so that the figure does not seem overloaded with regalia as he does in Ingres's painting, where he not only holds both sceptres but also has a ceremonial sword under his arm. Similarly, whereas in Gérard's painting Napoleon's chain gets lost in the ermine, it is completely visible in Ingres's painting where it forms a flat semi-circle that echoes other circular shapes around his face, such as the laurel leaf crown.