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Napoleonic paintings
Napoleonic paintings

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4 The Decennial Competition of 1810

4.1 Inspiring loyalty to the leader

Official support for painting was motivated not simply by propaganda concerns but also by the belief that artistic achievements were crucial indicators of a regime's greatness. Part of the logic behind the emphasis on military painting, therefore, was the assumption that feats of arms and works of art both testified to the glory of Napoleonic rule. Traditionally, however, the most prestigious art form was the classical history painting, exemplified by David's Oath of the Horatii (Plate 1 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ). As noted in the introduction to this course, the superior status of this type of painting rested both on its idealized forms and on its elevated subject matter. From the later eighteenth century, however, depictions of modern history were defended and promoted on the grounds that they were more accessible and more relevant to a contemporary audience. More specifically, the claim was that subjects from national history encouraged patriotism. During the Revolution, these tensions between the ancient and the modern intensified. On the one hand, classical idealism, which seemed to transcend the specificities of time and place, was felt to accord with its universalist ideals; on the other hand, the need to uphold loyalty to the revolutionary cause encouraged the depiction of its principal actors and events. These tendencies are combined in David's Marat (Plate 9), which is as much a history painting as a portrait. The painting of national history triumphed under Napoleon, as revolutionary idealism (and republicanism) gave way to a pragmatic concern with promoting loyalty to himself as France's leader.

Click to see plate 1 Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, oil on canvas, 329.9 x 428.8 cm, Louvre, Paris. Photo: Bridgeman Art Library

Click to see plate 9 Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793, oil on canvas, 160.7 x 124.8cm, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Bel