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Napoleonic paintings
Napoleonic paintings

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5 Conclusion

The great advantage of history painting as a form of propaganda was that it could appear to be nothing of the kind. Whereas an official portrait of Napoleon fairly obviously served to focus loyalty towards the nation's leader, a depiction of a battle could be seen, on the one hand, as a work of art in its own right and, on the other, as an objective record of a historical event. This meant that the viewers whose attention was attracted by such a picture would be likely to absorb the version of reality that it presented without being aware of being manipulated. As we have seen, Napoleonic ‘reality’ involved extensive editing, both in terms of the selection of a particular moment and of the personages and actions to be included. A further example of this process is David's Distribution of the Eagle Standards (see Plate 30 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ), exhibited at the Salon of 1810, which shows Napoleon accepting the army's oath of allegiance after his coronation; it was to have included Josephine seated on a throne behind Napoleon, but she had to be edited out after their divorce. In fact, this is widely considered to be one of David's weakest works. Part of the problem is that he had planned to depict a winged Victory flying over the heads of the soldiers and showering them with laurel leaves, but Napoleon compelled him to remove this figure too, with the result that the upper right of the composition appears strangely empty. The painting was poorly received by the critics, who found the balletic postures of the officers holding the eagle standards awkward and absurd. It succeeded neither as propaganda nor as a work of art.

Click to see plate 30 Jacques-Louis David, Distribution of the Eagle Standards, 1810, 610 x 931 cm, Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon. Photo: © RMN/ P.Willi

Such interest and appeal as Napoleonic propaganda painting continues to have today depend on the extent to which it can be seen to transcend its original propaganda purpose – though, as we saw with Gros, this need not mean that it betrayed that purpose. The same might be said of another Napoleonic painting, Girodet's Revolt at Cairo (see Plate 31), also exhibited in 1810, the idea for which came from Napoleon himself and caused Denon some anxiety; he wrote that he wished the emperor had specified which moment of the revolt should be depicted. The subject – of insurgents resisting Napoleonic rule during the ill-fated Egyptian campaign – was disturbing and potentially subversive. Girodet's painting shows hand-to-hand combat in front of Cairo's main mosque; the composition sets a charging French hussar against a naked Arab warrior, who supports with one arm the collapsing body of a Mameluke. (Originating as Circassian slaves, the Mamelukes were a military order who dominated Egypt between the early thirteenth and nineteenth centuries. Renowned for being brave, fierce, proud and beautiful, for their lavish costume and their taste for sodomy, as such, they epitomized both the degradation and the fascination of the East for Europeans.)

Click to see plate 31 Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, The Revolt at Cairo, 1810, oil on canvas, 365 x 500 cm, Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon. Photo: Bridgeman Art Library

The painting could be read as an endorsement of colonialism, glossing over the brutal repression of the revolt and opposing French bravery and dignity to ‘Oriental’ cruelty and vice. Alternatively, it could be argued that the Arab and the Mameluke together constitute the main positive element of the composition, providing visual appeal and emotional interest. It is hard to pin down the significance of this violent and exotic spectacle either way, as promoting or subverting Napoleonic rule, as presenting Orientals as objects of disdain or desire. What does seem clear is that Girodet (who was probably homosexual and had royalist sympathies) brought his own personal agenda to the commission.

As we saw in the introduction with reference to Delacroix's Massacres at Chios, a concern with humble and anonymous figures, an interest in the exotic and the present-day and a fascination with violence and suffering are all characteristic of Romantic painting. In this respect, Girodet's painting represents a significant shift, despite retaining the hard-edged clarity and idealized nude bodies of Neoclassicism. More plausibly than with Gros, The Revolt at Cairo might be seen as embodying the artist's disaffection from the regime, his private concerns. Nevertheless, it remains the case that we are dealing here with official art, which allowed only to a limited extent for the expression of the concern with subjective experience that is fundamental to Romanticism. Equally, it is important to register that it would have been risky for an artist to give a critical edge to an officially commissioned work, given the highly repressive nature of the regime. This would have been especially true of paintings depicting Napoleon himself, such as Jaffa and Eylau or David's Eagle Standards, which has also been claimed to reveal the artist's disillusionment with Napoleon. According to the art historian who made this rather unlikely claim, David ‘used the deletions he was forced to make as an opportunity to render the composition even more politically and aesthetically subversive’ (Johnson, 1993, p.214). It is really only in English caricatures that we find a negative image of Napoleon (see Figure 5). Even after the fall of the empire, French representations are invariably positive, though now they showed him as a tragic hero, suffering in exile on St Helena, as well as continuing to promote the legend of the great leader who combined military genius with fellow-feeling for the common man.