The portraits David painted during Napoleon's service as Consul and later during the Empire were extremely expensive, and only the wealthiest members of French society could afford to commission likenesses from him. David had little interest in painting the nouveaux riches who had made their fortunes during the Revolution. Instead, he chose the richest patrons and members of his immediate circle of family and friends to sit for him. Like his earlier portraits, these works usually depict the sitters placed simply against a neutral background, allowing the facial features and the clothing, rather than narrative details, to convey an impression of the individual's character and personality.
Despite divorcing and remarrying during the Revolution, David and his wife had a close relationship for over forty years. By all accounts she was intelligent and shrewd, often negotiating with her husband's clients. He portrays her with loving frankness, her plain face directed straight toward him, a half-smile on her lips. David brought the portrait to a higher level of finish than the portraits of his daughter and sons-in-law.
David's portrait shows Suzanne Le Peletier in a simple white dress, with just a touch of color in the edging of the shawl across her shoulders. The sitter, nicknamed "Mademoiselle Nation," was orphaned when an angry royalist murdered her father, Michel Le Peletier, after he voted for the execution of Louis XVI.
David painted this portrait as a surprise gift for the sitter's husband, a high-ranking official in Napoleon's administration. He shows her in all her finery—including an emerald, diamond, and pearl necklace and a tiara of white orange blossoms—gently smiling at the viewer. Though no beauty, she had a beguiling personality. The writer Stendhal had fallen in love with her, and David himself confessed to her husband of having "indiscreet" thoughts during the sittings.
An Irish Quaker, Cooper Penrose was an abolitionist and reformer sympathetic to the cause of the French Revolution. He traveled to Paris specifically to commission a portrait from David, who promised that it would "testify to Ireland the virtues of a good father and the talents of the painter who will have rendered them." The sober colors and austere space surrounding the figure evoke the sitter's piety.
In contrast to his portrait of Cooper Penrose, David's image of Français de Nantes—the Empire's director of taxation—is a marvel of ostentatious display. The elaborate costume, rendered by David with virtuosic brushwork, nearly overwhelms the sitter, who stares out with a mixture of disdain and wariness. Adding to the visual impact is the unusually narrow format, which crops the figure on three sides.