Napoleonic paintings
Napoleonic paintings

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Napoleonic paintings

2.7 Legitimating the regime

The failure of Ingres's painting is revealing of the problems of political legitimation faced by the regime. If it was difficult to justify the authority of a ruler who had seized power, it was even harder to justify a monarchy based on usurpation (the authority Napoleon had usurped being either that of the Bourbon dynasty from a royalist point of view or that of the people from a republican one). Ingres's image of timeless, otherworldly majesty can thus be seen as compensating, or rather trying to compensate, for the all too recent and highly dubious origins of Napoleon's imperial rule. Its failure was not simply a matter of bad timing but, on a deeper level, bound up with the opportunistic, improvisatory response to the problem on the part of the regime, which seized at any and every identity (Charlemagne, Brutus, etc.) that could serve a propaganda purpose and cast them aside as soon as they lost their relevance and usefulness. Furthermore, while it was not bothered about the overall consistency and coherence of its propaganda, the need to appeal to different shades of political opinion meant that the image of the emperor would ideally balance contradictory elements, reconciling sacred and secular, monarchical and revolutionary, traditional and modern, irrational and rational. The problem with Ingres's painting was that it focused exclusively on one side of the equation; the same can be said of David's Napoleon in his Study of 1812 (see Plate 15 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ), which otherwise could hardly offer a more different image of Napoleon.

Click to see plate 15 Jacques-Louis David, The Emperor Napoleon in his Study at the Tuileries, 1812, oil on canvas, Private Collection. Photo: Bridgeman Art Library

Figure 4
Figure 4 Jan van Eyck, Christ of the Mystic Lamb, detail of the Ghent alterpiece, 1426, oil and tempera on wood, 208 × 79 cm, St Bavo Cathedral, Ghent. Photo: © Paul M.R. Maeyaert


Which of the previous portraits we have looked at does Napoleon in his Study most closely resemble, and in what ways does it depart from this model? What kinds of claims does David make here on Napoleon's behalf, and how do they differ from those made by Ingres's portrait of Napoleon enthroned?

Note: the word ‘Code’ that appears on the document on the desk indicates that it is a copy of the Civil Code or Code Napoleon of 1804.


This painting returns to the iconography (the study of the meanings of images;) of Napoleon as First Consul, showing him standing in an interior in close proximity to official papers. More precisely, the portrait refers back to the period of the consulate, during which the Civil Code was drawn up, though it shows him stout and balding as he would have appeared in 1812. If anything, the image is more sober and businesslike than Gros's 1802 portrait, since Napoleon is wearing a relatively plain military uniform rather than an opulent ceremonial one. Also, since the papers are lying not on a table but on a desk at which he has evidently been working, there is an even stronger emphasis on his executive role. The clock giving the time as 4.15 and the guttering candles indicate that he has been working through the night. Another contrast with the consular portrait is that Napoleon is looking out at the viewer; this, combined with the fact that he is standing in close proximity to us rather than staring down from a great height, makes him seem more human and accessible to the viewer who, as we saw earlier, can be identified with the French people (see above). Thus, instead of an all-powerful and unapproachable monarch ruling by divine right, such as Ingres depicted, here we have the ruler as enlightened bureaucrat who labours on behalf of ‘us’, his people.

Like Ingres's painting, David's portrait of Napoleon in his study does not simply offer a certain image of the emperor but is bound up with a broader crisis of political legitimation. It acknowledges that, without a sacred basis for its authority, power has to keep working to justify itself. A ruler who lacks divine right is judged on his performance. In this respect, the problems faced by Napoleon were only an extreme version of those that the Enlightenment critique of established authority posed for more venerable monarchies. They, too, now needed to justify themselves in rational, utilitarian terms, on the basis of the benefits they brought their subjects. It is also important to note that Napoleon in his Study was another unofficial portrait, having been commissioned by a Scottish admirer, Alexander Douglas, the future Duke of Hamilton. Just as Ingres overcompensated for the instability of the regime, so David's modern, rational and functional image went too far in the opposite direction to be effective as imperial propaganda. Despite presenting an entirely positive vision of Napoleon (not least in showing him conscientiously labouring on the Civil Code by himself, when in fact his contribution largely took the form of chairing a legislative committee), it lacked the mystique and glamour needed to capture the popular imagination. Its sobriety stands in marked contrast to the propaganda images of the emperor commissioned by the imperial administration.


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Emma Barker
In December 1799, Jacques Louis David, the most famous French painter of the day, put his recently finished painting, The Intervention of the Sabine Women, on show in the Louvre.
It was an ambitious history painting depicting a scene from classical antiquity.
David's painting offers a moral lesson to the spectator, and shows the aftermath of the famous episode from ancient Roman history, of the abduction of the Sabine women. The story goes that the women, who were by now married to their abductors and had children by them, intervened to stop a battle between their Roman husbands and their Sabine relations.
The plea for peace that the Sabine's embodied was of direct relevance to the contemporary political situation in 1799. The painting can be read as a call for reconciliation to end the conflict of the revolutionary years.
What particularly interests me however, is that this plea for peace is made by women, and, more particularly, by women in their role as wives and mothers. Notice the children in the foreground, and the kneeling woman whose bare breasts served to emphasise her nurturing role.
The characterisation of the female figures in the Sabine's accords with the ideas of one of the most influential thinkers of the eighteenth century, Jean Jacques Rousseau, who insisted that motherhood was woman's destiny, and paid particular emphasis on the importance of maternal breastfeeding.
This meant, Rousseau argued, that women should keep to the private sphere, to the home and the family, and leave the public realm - the world of government and politics - to men. These structures had been defied by some actual women who, during the Revolution, sought to engage in political activity. Even though the women here are intervening in public affairs, they’re not defying Rousseau’s idea of proper feminity because they are doing so purely in defence of the sanctity of family ties.
The appeal of David’s painting was not entirely moral however. One person observed that the central female figure was dress in white “a la grec”, that is according to the present fashion. In fact, her white shift dress is very similar to the simple tunic dress worn by the society ladies whom David painted, such as Madamme de Verninac.
Aileen Ribiera,
There was very much a taste in the late 1790's with the neoclassical, we see it in theatre, we see it in period design, most of all we see it in clothing. It's not something that appears out of the blue in the 1790's, it does first appear in the 1780's when women at the French Court, and particularly Marie Antoinette, popularised the wearing of loose shifts made out of linen or muslin, tied high under the waist with a sash, but this style of dress which equates
to new ideas of hygiene and simplicity in dress really comes into its own with the French Revolution because the whole ethos of the French Revolution the ideas behind it, are really largely related to the admired ideals of classical Greece and Rome, and so this style of dress which paradoxically starts out as a Royal informal dress becomes the dress of the French Revolutionary period.
The kind of icon figure of the late 1790’s – turn of the century – was Madame Recamier by David and there she sits on her chez long, looking very neo-classical, in beautiful white Indian muslin. But if we look at her closely what appears again to be a simple draped tube of white fabric, is actually a much more constructed dress. We can see that the bodice has got seams at the back, it’s a very taught, very tight, manages to hold the bust in place, so its really not a loose tube of fabric as we see in de Henriette Verninac’s portrait.
Emma Barker
The simple dress worn by Madame de Recamier in David’s portrait, is matched by the austerity of the whole composition. She does not look here much like a fashionable beauty, renowned for her ability to conquer men’s hearts. Her stiff pose reveals little of her charms and her gaze is blank and solemn. It’s important, however, to note that some of the austerity of David's painting comes from the fact that the painting is unfinished.
It has often been claimed that the reason for his failure to finish it was that Madame Recamier disliked the image and quarrelled with the artist. The evidence for this is not clear cut.
It does look very different from another portrait of Madame Recamier, by David's former pupil Gerard, which presumably was to her satisfaction.
In Gerard's portrait her body forms a sinuous curve, her eyes are coquettishly lowered, her lips gently smiling. Painting portraits of fashionable women, such as Madamme Recamier, paid well, but was much less highly regarded at the time than history painting.
Dr. Tony Halliday,
The Salon, the public exhibition of art held every two years during the Revolution every year in the Louvre, most portrait painters had been excluded from that, and in the eighteenth century it was dominated by big history paintings paid for the by the government or by the Church. Under the Revolution these official commissions faded away, and the Salon was dominated by the market, that is chiefly by commissioned portraits, so the Revolution changed the public face of art. When people went to this exhibition which showed them the state of art in France in the 1790's after the Revolution, what they saw was not by and large grand history paintings with a message for everybody, but portraits of private individuals which, most of which under the old regime would not have been exhibited.
Emma Barker
Among the many portraits exhibited in the Salon of 1800, was one of a black woman by Madame Benoist, a former pupil of David.
Prof. Helen Weston
It was a very dramatic work, it's a very brave painting really, it's a very strong forceful image, and even an engraving like this of the hang of the 1800 Salon, you can discern it amongst these small paintings, and even amongst these large history paintings, you can actually pick it out. And it's this contrast really between the dark figure silhouetted against this very light background, and it gives it a strong three dimensionality a strong sense of her presence, the presence of the sitter.
We don't know a lot about the sitter, but we think she was a domestic servant in the household of the artist's brother in law. Most artists consult the sitter about how they want to be presented, but she would have had no say about whether a breast should be revealed or not or, whether she should be smiling or have a stern expression and so on. What we do know is that she was perceived by the critics at the time of the 1800 Salon as extraordinarily ugly, and a very general point is made about black people as being ugly. And a number of critics say how much they would have preferred to see the artist herself. She was known as this very very beautiful woman, and adored and admired by many suitors. This is a portrait of her supposedly by Gerard, which shows her just about at this time 1799/1800, and she does indeed look very attractive very plump, curly hair, a really rather unpleasant contrast, between her, her beauty, her status in society, and that of the sitter.
Many portraits shown in the Salon were of obscured sitters, but usually these were wealthy, private individuals, for example this portrait by Ingres, another former pupil of David, shows Madamme Riviere, wife of a bureaucrat in the Imperial Administration.
Emma Barker
The overall effect is more than a little claustrophobic. Madame Riviere seems very much a hothouse flower, lounging as she does on velvet cushions in the airless space.
Aileen Ribiera
Ingres was an artist who more than any other at this time really relies on luxury goods and the painting of luxury goods to get an amazing emphasis on his portraits. Ingres's portrait of Madame Riviere was for long known as La Femme auchelle because it is the shawl which is the dominant element in this painting. We can see the way in which Angra has sort of highlighted the light on this wonderful sort of sinuous subtle cashmere as it sort of entwines its way round her body.
These shawls like the fine Indian muslin were something which were produced in the British Empire in the late eighteenth century, so that as with the fine Indian muslin Napoleon certainly tried to prevent the ladies of his Court actually wearing these shawls and the fine muslins and wanted them to wear French products, shawls of French manufacture. And indeed they tried to do this but it wasn't at all popular.
Emma Barker
For Napleon’s staging of his Coronation, a court dress had to be devised which would be grand but distinct from that of the Ansian Regime.
Aileen Ribiera
He asked Josephine's opinion about this, and he thought that she looked wonderful in the high waisted, white fashionable dress so, he said that is going to be Court dress, but it will not be made of the fine muslins, or linens it will be made with silk, because of course his agenda to a large extent was also to try and revise French luxury industry of the silk trade and so on. So that French Court dress is high waisted with the little sort of puff sleeves, but it's made of absolutely sumptuous fabric, heavy satin with an attached train, it's got embroidery, it's characterised by lots of gold braid on the sleeves and by the very high, spiky Medici collar which we see of course to such advantage as Josephine is bending her head in David's great coronation paintings.
Josephine's train in David's painting, is held by two of her Court ladies.
In reality it was carried by five Imperial Princesses, but Napoleon's sisters complained about having to perform this menial task, and persuaded David to depict them apart from the Empress.
They are, from left to right, Napoleon's sisters Caroline, Pauline, and Alicia, his stepdaughter Hortence Deboane, and sister in law Julie.
The painting is in fact not just a record of imperial ceremonial, but also a kind of huge family portrait. It testifies to Napoleon's ambitions to found a new imperial dynasty, and ambition that would lead him to divorce Josephine in 1810, and take a new bride, the Austrian Princess Marie-Louise, in order to have a son to succeed him.
It is significant that, in David's painting, Josephine is made to look conspicuously younger than her forty one years. This could have been intended to suggest that she was still capable of child-bearing. It is also significant that she appears kneeling before her husband, her head submissively bowed. In fact, the whole representation of Josephine here can be seen as not only reflecting Napoleon's hopes for an heir, but also his more general views of women. He considered that their principal, even sole purpose in life, was to marry and have children, and insisted on their subordination to male authority.
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A very different Josephine can be founding her private portraits such as this one by Prudhon.
Tony Halliday.
We can see looking at portraits of Josephine, although she tried to develop a cult of being an empress of the old stamp as it were, her portraits do concentrate on privacy and evocation, of private and fleeting moments of feeling, in a way that the portraits of Marie-Antoinette for example, under the old regime, never would have done. This is the private life of the great that's being exhibited, not just their public face. To that extent, the Revolution in portraiture has had a permanent affect on the significance with which people endow private feelings and private experience, exhibited in public.
Emma Barker
In the portrait by Prudhon, Josephine is shown in the grounds of her country retreat the Chateau of Malmaison, which she had transformed into an elegant and luxurious house, decorated in the most fashionable taste. One of the most opulent rooms in the Chateau is her bedroom which is decorated to look like a tent. It is dominated by a magnificent carved and gilded bed ornamented with swans. Josephine had chosen the swan, an attribute of Venus, the classical goddess of love and beauty as her personal emblem.
Josephine's sister in law, Pauline, had a similarly elaborate bed in the grand Parisian house that she bought for herself in 1803, at which time she was a young widow. It is surmounted by a canopy ornamented with an imperial eagle, and is richly carved and gilded with Egyptian figures and recumbent lions in the style made fashionable by Napoleon's Egyptian campaign.
Contemporary commentators describe Pauline as a great beauty. We see her here in a portrait of 1808 by Robert Le Fevre. She's wearing a Court dress of white satin embroidered in gold with classical cameos at her waist, and in her tiara. The portrait includes a bust of Napoleon towards which Pauline looks and gestures. She was apparently his favourite sister, even though her scandalous behaviour was completely at odds with his expectations of proper feminine conduct.
In 1803 he arranged her marriage to an immensely rich young Roman prince, Camilo Borghese. The marriage completely failed to subdue Pauline, who spent very little time in Italy, and went on to take many lovers. It did however give rise to the creation of one of the most remarkable portraits of the period.
This is the sculpture of Pauline Borghese as Venus Victrix which was commissioned by her husband in 1804 from the Italian sculptor, Antonio Canova, the most famous artist in Europe at the time. The commission marked the occasion of Napoleon's coronation.
Canova originally proposed to depict her as Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt, but Pauline rejected the idea, and instead demanded to be portrayed as Venus, the goddess of love and beauty.
Her elegant reclining pose is reminiscent of many previous paintings of a naked Venus, but a naked portrait was far from usual, and indeed quite shocking.
According to one of the many anecdotes that were told about the sculpture, when asked if she herself had actually posed nude for Canova, Pauline replied 'oh but the studio was heated'.
The sculpture can be compared to David's painting of Madame Recamier as another reclining portrait of a famously beautiful woman. Though otherwise there could hardly be a greater contrast between the cool reserve of the one, and the imperious eroticism of the other. After the sculpture was placed in the Villa Borghese in 1814, visitors to Rome flocked to see it. However, access was controlled, and sometimes restricted by Camilo Borghese. The irony of this is that he never had such authority over his wife herself, as he did over the statue of her.
Emma Barker
Napoleon’s youngest sister Caroline married one of her brother’s Generals, Joachim Murat in 1800. Murat was made King of Naples in 1808 thus extending Napoleonic Rule to Southern Italy. We see Caroline here in a portrait by Ingres painted in 1814, standing in front of a view across the Bay of Naples towards Mount Vesuvius. Caroline is clad entirely in black and standing very upright in front of a desk. She’s an authoritative figure quite unlike the seated whiteclad woman shown in most of the other portraits we have looked at. Ingres, unusually portrayal of Caroline can be related to the public role that she played. At the time this portrait was painted, she was ruling Naples as Regent in the absence of her husband. She was regarded as an ambitious and powerful woman by her contemporaries. They disapproved of her failure to conform to the prevailing expectations of passive and dutiful womanhood. Napoleon himself said of his sister, she has Cromwell’s head on a pretty woman’s body.
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Emma Barker
Several of the women whom we have looked at so far, defied Napoleon's expectations of the female sex, in one way or another. However, the woman who above all challenged him, not just in her way of life but also through her ideas, was the writer Germaine De Stael, whom we see here in a portrait painted by Gerard after her death in 1817, wearing her characteristic turban.
For Napoleon, the very idea of a woman being actively involved in public life, as Stael had been during the Revolutionary years, was an outrage. And she compounded the offence in his eyes, by her consistent championing of liberty, both political and personal, and her opposition to despotic authority.
Dr. Angelica Goodden,
He didn't like strong women that meant he didn't like assertive, loud, capable, and calculating women that he thought Madamme De Stael was calculating, and he was quite convinced that she was plotting his downfall or the downfall of the regime that he represented.
Emma Barker
After she was exiled from France by Napoleon in 1803, Madame Destile took up residence at her family home, the Chateaux de Coppet, near Geneva. Here she made up for the tedium of exile by surrounding herself with friends and other visitors. They included Madamme Recamiere, one of her closest friends, in a portrait by Eulalie Morin.
Between 1804 and 1810, Coppet became a centre of liberal opposition to Napoleon, and a literary forum in which many of the fundamental tenets of romanticism were elaborated. The debates that took place here, at Coppet, fed into Stael’s writing, notably on Germany, which so angered Napoleon, that he ordered the entire first edition to be pulped in 1810.
The Group de Coppet was not simply the accidental byproduct of Stael’s exile however. On the contrary, the mixing of sociability, literature, and politics that it represented, links it to the French tradition of the Salon, that is a gathering of regular guests presided over by a hostess, which went back to the seventeenth century.
Stael’s mother, Madame Necker had held her own Salon in Paris in the decades before the Revolution, and it was by sitting beside her mother, and listening to the conversation of the Enlightenment philosophs who frequented Madame Necker’s salon, that the young Germaine was initiated into this tradition.
In adult life she was renowned for her eloquence which is commemorated in Gerard’s portrait. Here her mouth is slightly open as if she is about to speak. And she is holding a sprig of greenery the prop she habitually used for emphasis and conversation.
Conversation was one thing for a woman however, and publication quite another. Stael’s father, Jacques Necker, Finance Minister to Louis 16th, had no objections to his wife's salon, but he forbade her to pursue a literary career by publishing her works. Necker's disapproval of women writers, it was obviously a problem for his daughter who adored her father, and longed to please him.
Stael’s devotion to her father is commemorated in this portrait in which she is shown standing in front of a bust of Necker. Her desire to please him meant that she always felt somewhat guilty about her literary activities. So much so, that she did not even have a desk of her own until 1807, by which time her father had been dead three years.
In her writings moreover, her statements on behalf of her own sex are usually tentative, even conservative.
Her principal concern was not so much with the oppression of women in general, but rather the particular plight of the woman writer. What she most feared was that by venturing into a sphere of activity traditionally reserved by men for themselves, she would not only incur their disapproval, but also forfeit their love.
The dilemma faced by the woman of genius, between literary glory on the one hand, and her desire to be loved on the other, is central to Stael’s immensely successful novel Corrine, published in 1807. It tells of how a Scottish nobleman, Oswald Lord Melville, travels to Italy, where he falls in love with Corrine, a poet whose talent is for improvisation. Oswald sees Corrine for the first time in Rome as she is being honoured for her genius in a grandiose ceremony on the capital.
Oswald went out into the public square. The four white horses drawing Corrine's chariot made their way into the midst of the crowd. Corrine was sitting on the chariot, built in the style of ancient Rome, and white robed girls walked alongside her. Everyone shouted 'long live Corrine, long live genius, long live beauty'.
She was dressed like Domenichino Sybil. An Indian turban was wound round her head, and intertwined with her beautiful black hair. Her dress was white, with a blue stole fastened beneath her breasts.
Dr. Angelica Goodden
There were famous women improvisers, at the time as a kind of continuation of the classic notion of the Sybil this woman who was the fount of some kind of quasi religious, magical, expressive genius.
He is captivated by her but as they talk as they get to know each other as they proceed through a trawl of Italy's artistic treasures, he's increasingly worried by the sense that there's something not quite proper about Corrine, that she's too interesting to be safe, and crucially that she's not a demure enough character.
And so, really Corrine's fate is sealed. She's in love with the wrong sort of man it's a classic scenario. She's in love with the wrong sort of man and a man who has given his head will curb and in fact kill her artistic genius.
Corinne’s unhappiness in love can be seen as a projection of Stael’s own fears, since her heroine is clearly an idealised self-portrait.
The painter, Elizabeth Vigee Lebrun, the most successful woman artist of the period, even painted a portrait of Stael as Corrine, the year after the novel was published. In the painting she is dressed in a simple antique tunic, of the kind that Stael herself did in fact wear, and is accompanying herself on a lire. On the hill behind her is the Temple of the Sybil at Tivili.
This small copy of the Vigee Lebrun portrait, by Firmin Massot conforms much more closely than the original to contemporary conventions of female portraiture. The features are softened, the expression is more demure, and the dress less austere.
Stael commissioned the copy because she did not care for Vigee Lebrun’s frank depiction of her forceful features, and wanted a more flattering image.
Stael could not escape conventional expectations of feminine beauty, despite otherwise challenging notions of proper feminine behaviour.
Stael’s novel ends tragically with the death of Corinne after Oswald has abandoned her in order to marry a conventionally demur and domesticated young girl. But what happened to the real life women who’s portraits we have been looking at ? Josephine at least died in her own bed at Mal Maison in 1814, by which time her ex-husband was a prisoner on the island of Elba. Her sister-in-law, Caroline, was less lucky, her husband Marrot was executed by anti-Napoleonic forces in 1815 and she died in excile Florence in 1839. Pauline died in Rome in 1825, shortly after a final reconciliation with her husband Camilo Borhese. Madamme Recamiere continued to attract devoted admirers until late in life. Madamme Benoist’s career was brought to an end by her husband ‘s official promotion.
Prof. Helen Weston
He is made a conciere de ta, which is a very high official position. At that point it's no longer decorous seemly for his wife to be exhibiting paintings in the Salons. What it does of course is to return her to the conventional domestic space of the home, and that takes us right back to the eighteenth century and to the ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Madame de Stael died in 1817 after having seen her political ideas triumph over Napoleon. However, she never resolved the contradictions in her own life.
Dr. Angelica Goodden
She knew that she was a good mother. She took the education of her children seriously but she took up art seriously too and she could never quite reconcile the constraints of art and the constraints of domesticity. She shows that women can find a kind of fulfilment that is quite apart from the fulfilment that a domestic life and the love of a man can procure but what is perhaps to a feminist, disappointing, what is perhaps, old-fashioned, to the modern reader, is that ultimately that kind of fulfilment is set above the fulfilment that artistic genius can procure.
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