In 1816, David was banished by the newly restored monarchy and took refuge in Brussels. There he found himself in a community of other French exiles, many of whom had republican ties or had been high ranking officials in Napoleon's court. While a number of these people commissioned portraits from David, perhaps motivated by political sympathy, aristocrats from throughout Europe were also keen to be painted by him, and he accepted these commissions just as readily. David habitually placed his sitters against a plain background, closely framed by the edges of the canvas, thereby increasing the feeling of intimacy between sitter and viewer. His late portraits were painted with great restraint, lacking any affectation, with the artist facing his sitters as his equal. These portraits had an immediate and powerful impact on portrait painters working in Belgium.
This is one of only two full-length portraits David painted during his years in exile. A man of humble birth, General Gérard had achieved his position in Napoleon's army through merit rather than through family connections, and he may have wanted his portrait to emphasize the fact that his status equaled that of aristocratic courtiers like the Comte de Turenne. The grandiose conception is softened by a rich palette and vibrant brushwork, especially apparent in the red drape.
Napoleon's nieces, Zénaïde, in black, and Charlotte, in pale blue, are posed on a red velvet sofa. Zénaïde holds up a letter from their father, Joseph, who was forced into exile and fled to Philadelphia following the collapse of the Empire. Charlotte seems more timid than her sister; she leans forward to place an arm around Zénaïde's waist as she tries to read the note over her sister's shoulder. The Napoleonic bees embroidered on the sofa and the golden diadems that both girls wear establish their imperial pedigree.
The sitter's father may have commissioned this portrait from David out of sympathy for the exiled painter. The boy was sixteen years old when the portrait was painted, and although his clothes are elegant and stylish, his untidy hair and his wispy moustache hint at his youth.