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Napoleonic paintings
Napoleonic paintings

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4.2 Purpose of the Decennial Competition

These tensions came to a head in the Decennial Competition of 1810, which was intended to reward the major artistic achievements of the decade since Napoleon came to power. Prizes were offered for the best history painting and for the best painting ‘representing a subject honourable to the national character’ (Wrigley, 1993, p.338). There were also prizes for sculpture and architecture. The jury consisted of members of the National Institute, the official body that regulated scholarship and the arts. In the first category, the front-runners were David's Intervention of the Sabine Women (see Plate 25 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ) and Scene from a Deluge (see Plate 26), by Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson (1767–1824), another former David pupil. The fact that the decision went in favour of Girodet indicates how far taste had moved away from the formal perfection of the classical ideal. By contrast to David's Sabines, with its poised antique nudes and overall sense of harmony, Girodet's Deluge represented a new extreme of violence and suffering; the moment depicted is one of high tension, since the splitting branch warns us that the family are about to be hurled into the abyss. Although the nudity and generalized drapery are conventional enough, the scene is not based on a literary text, as history paintings were supposed to be. It is tempting to speculate that Girodet's vision of humanity at the mercy of vast forces beyond their control had a particular resonance at the time, given that the French people were themselves helplessly caught up in the workings of the Napoleonic war machine.

Click to see plate 25 Jacques-Louis David, The Intervention of the Sabine Women, 1799, oil on canvas, 386 x 520 cm, Louvre, Paris. Photo: Bridgeman Art Library

Click to see plate 26 Jacques-Louis David Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, Scene from a Deluge, 1806, oil on canvas, 431 x 341 cm, Musée Magnin, Dijon. Photo: Bridgeman Art Library

In the second category, it was widely expected that the prize would go to Gros's Jaffa, which can be seen to represent a fundamental challenge to the classical traditions of history painting. The heroic male nude who dominated Davidian painting is here transformed into a helpless plague victim; the central figure in Girodet's Deluge is similarly helpless, but the difference in this case is that Gros also offers a new kind of hero, the modern military officer, in his tight, bright uniform. A further point of contrast between these two types of figure is that, whereas the male nude is a supposedly universal figure, the military officer's uniform identifies him with the particular nation that he serves or, of course, leads. This opposition can be brought into focus by reference to Canova's huge sculpture, Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (see Plate 27), which had been begun in 1803 but only arrived in Paris in 1811. It flatteringly portrays Napoleon in the guise of the god of war turned peacemaker and, on the sculptor's insistence, heroically nude; Canova had rejected Napoleon's proposal that he be depicted in his uniform. The rationale was precisely that nudity best befitted the hero by making his glory timeless. Napoleon's refusal to let the statue go on display was no doubt because he feared that its ‘too athletic’ forms would present an unflattering contrast to his own short and increasingly stout figure (quoted in Johns, 1998, p.101). More fundamentally, in view of his original proposal, his response can be seen to reflect his resolutely modern, pragmatic outlook, which meant that he had little time for classical idealism as such.

Click to see plate 27 Antonio Canova, Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, 1803, marble, Apsley House, London. Photo: Victoria and Albert Picture Library, London/ Daniel McGrath/ Sara Hodges

In the event, the jury decided that the prize in the second category should go to David for his Coronation (see Plate 28), which had been exhibited, like Eylau, at the Salon of 1808. There it had excited considerable interest, as Boilly recorded in one of his scenes of contemporary Parisian life (see Plate 29). In general, attendance figures for the Salon were high during the Napoleonic era, indicating that the regime's propaganda painting owed its success to the way it combined the traditional ambitions of high art with the spectacular appeal of popular entertainment. David had been commissioned to commemorate the coronation in his capacity as First Painter to the Emperor, a title he had been awarded in 1804. The title was a reversion to traditional royal practice (the Bourbon kings had also had their ‘first painters’), just as the coronation ceremony itself was based on Bourbon ceremonial. The resulting painting demonstrates just how far the classical tradition had been undermined by the demands of Napoleonic propaganda. In it, David wholly abandons the visual austerity and sculptural simplicity of his earlier work in order to capture the magnificence of the ceremony in a riot of colour and a mass of detail. The actual moment that it depicts is crucial with respect to the new emperor's problems of political legitimation. Napoleon had had the Pope brought from Rome to crown him, but in the event, presumably partly to placate republican opinion by avoiding too overt connotations of divine right, placed the crown on his own head, thereby demonstrating that his ultimate source of legitimation was himself and his deeds. David originally intended to paint this provocative, give-away gesture, but was discouraged from doing so and instead showed Napoleon crowning Josephine.

Click to see plate 28 Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon, 1802-07, oil on canvas, 621 x 979 cm, Louvre, Paris. Photo: Bridgeman Art Library

Click to see plate 29 Louis-Léopold Boilly, The Grand Salon of 1808, Viewing the David ‘Crowning of Napoleon’, 1808, oil on canvas, 60 x 81cm, Private Collection

In the end, the whole Decennial Competition collapsed and no prizes were awarded. First, the minister of the interior and then Napoleon himself challenged the jury's decisions, declaring that the winners ought to be David's Sabines and Gros's Jaffa. This turn of events confirms that competitions were inherently problematic for the regime because they did not allow for the degree of control that it required. It also suggests that the authorities felt obliged to pay lip-service (if no more) to the traditions of history painting and the superiority of the classical ideal, as exemplified by the Sabines. Napoleon also wanted the top prize to go to David as the greatest painter of the day, just as he wanted the main sculpture prize to go to Canova as the greatest sculptor (he had not then seen Napoleon as Mars); the acknowledgement of their genius would, he thought, do honour to the greatness of his rule. It also seems likely that the Coronation was considered an insufficiently patriotic picture to merit the other prize, given that all the other short-listed entries in the category focused on Napoleon's military exploits. Jaffa could be seen to be a truly national subject, dealing as it did with the achievements and suffering of the French people as represented by their army. By contrast, David's painting was primarily a dynastic picture, focusing as it did on the monarch, his wife and family. Part of the reason, in fact, that crowds gathered around it at the Salon was no doubt that the ceremony itself had been closed to the public. In the competition, as in Napoleonic propaganda painting generally, the regime's problems of legitimation made it politically necessary to balance ruler against people and, in however token a way, to represent them and their concerns as well as to glorify him.