JUNE 6–SEPTEMBER 5, 2005
david & Napoleon
In the years immediately following his imprisonment, David tried to keep out of public life and away from politics. However, finding himself in competition with younger artists for public commissions, he soon realized the benefits of having the support of an influential patron. As Napoleon's power grew, David increasingly allied himself with his success, until finally, when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in 1804, David was appointed First Painter to the Imperial Court. Although Napoleon and his First Painter differed occasionally on political issues, the paintings David made while in Napoleon's service established the archetypal image of the successful general-turned-politician and are among the artist's most memorable works.
Oil on panel, with strips of wood added on all four sides
Collection Frédéric Masson, Fondation Dosne-Thiers, Institut de France, Paris
In this small-scale portrait, David depicts Napoleon wearing a crown of golden laurel that links him symbolically with the emperors of ancient Rome. Propaganda portraits like this one helped to legitimize Napoleon's rule by suggesting that the French Emperor was the modern successor to the great military leaders of the past.
Oil on canvas
Musée du Louvre, Paris. Départment des Peintures. Gift of Eugène Isabey, 1852
Following the end of the radical phase of the Revolution, David was imprisoned and narrowly escaped the guillotine. He produced this self-portrait while incarcerated; the opaque and unyielding background suggests his confinement. David omitted any reference to his former political role, presenting himself as a painter first and foremost, with palette and brushes in hand. This was to be his last self-portrait, as he was increasingly self-conscious of the tumor growing in his left check, which is here hidden in shadow.
The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington. Samuel H. Kress Collection
In this unofficial portrait, commissioned by a Scottish nobleman, David constructed an image of Napoleon that flattered the Emperor without idealizing his appearance. Napoleon stands calmly in his signature pose—with his right hand in his waistcoat—while the objects surrounding him suggest a narrative. As David himself explained, "he is in his cabinet, after a night spent writing the Code Napoléon; he notices the light of dawn only because the candles are consumed and about to go out, and the clock has just struck four in the morning; so he gets up from his desk to don his sword and review the troops."
Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard
Oil on canvas
Musée national des Châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau, Reuil-Malmaison
Commissioned by King Charles IV of Spain, this painting depicts Napoleon as First Consul leading the French army across the Alps into Italy. David took liberties with the facts—Napoleon actually made the journey on a mule—yet his portrayal came to symbolize the swagger of France's emerging hero, who follows in the footsteps of Hannibal and Charlemagne (Karolus Magnus), their names inscribed in the rocky ground. Bonaparte refused to sit for David, which may account for the remote characterization, yet the First Consul was so taken with the result that he immediately ordered a version for himself. David and his pupils eventually painted four copies.