Art. History. Culture.
If you are recognizing the anniversary of a historically prolific person’s death, do you refer to it as celebrating? Honoring? Remembering? Grieving?
What if that person is the famous (or infamous?) Napoleon Bonaparte? May 5th was the 193rd anniversary of his death. I’m not grieving the loss though I imagine there were people who did so at the time. Napoleon was called immortal, the Great Man and His Imperial and Royal Majesty by his contemporaries. His numerous titles included Emperor of the French, King of Italy, First Consul of France, Holy Roman Emperor, Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine and Co-Prince of Andorra. To his critics he is known as a tyrant, dictator, thief, slaver and murderer. If you are a believer in the prophecies of Nostradamus, you might even consider Napoleon to be one of three foretold Antichrists and creator of Hitler’s blueprints, the other Antichrist. Supposedly we haven’t met the third Antichrist yet who should be even worse than Hitler, so that sucks.
Here’s a fantastic little animated 3 minute video summing up Napoleon’s life and legacy by the History channel.
The history of France is a bit of a roller coaster ride and I’ve only studied pieces of it. Attempting to straighten out all the political upheavals, alliances and guys named Louis is a convoluted process that requires a number of maps, translations and timelines. So let’s just pay attention to things in relation to the art world. Modern France, at least in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has been the epicenter of the art world, just as Italy was in previous centuries. How does Napoleon fit in? Love him or hate him, it is undeniable that he was masterful in his use of propaganda. Today’s political propaganda comes in the form of digital media. In Napoleon’s lifetime propaganda’s medium was oil on canvas. He was incredibly strict in his commissions and censorship. His perfected strategy with propaganda was the vehicle that delivered him to his self-appointed emperor’s throne as well as his justification of it. Let us examine some of the highlights.
Jacques-Louis David (DAH-veed), 1748-1825, was a neoclassical powerhouse. Neoclassicism has deservedly cemented its place in art history, but I don’t call David the first Modern artist as some others do. Though David is very worthy (Oath of the Horatii and The Death of Marat are incredible masterpieces), he is also part of a group that was more interested in idealized grandeur than in raw emotion. If you’re a follower of this blog, you already know that I call the one and only Francisco de Goya the first truly Modern painter. But David played a very important role in Napoleon Bonaparte’s tale. David was a Napoleon fan, having met him prior to his self-coronation when he was still an army general. Napoleon commissioned works of David to commemorate his various triumphs, one of which could arguably be the most iconic pieces of propaganda Napoleon ever had.
Napoleon Crossing the Alps commemorates Napoleon’s triumph in invading Italy and retaking the territory that was previously seized by the Austrians. He led the army across the Alps via the Great St. Bernard Pass, taking the Austrians by surprise. This equestrian portrait shows Napoleon on the mountain pass, looking to the side to meet our gaze as he points foreword to lead on his troops. As his horse rears back, Napoleon stays upright in a defying-the-laws-of-physics position, unaffected by the stallion’s abrupt movement. The horse’s mane and tail along with Napoleon’s massively unfurling cloak move forward as well, echoing his outstretched arm and pointing hand. His sizable garments seem to dwarf his leg and foot, but despite these small imperfections, everything about the scene except for Napoleon’s stone expression is dramatic. David even goes so far as to engrave the rocks at the bottom left foreground with the names of two other legendary conquerors: Hannibal and Karolus Magnus, a.k.a Charlemagne. With this David effectively equates Napoleon with the god-like status of these Carthaginian and Roman warriors. He painted several versions of this work, all the same composition but with subtle differences in light and color, and distributed them to strategic locations to be put on display.
David also painted this work of Pope Pius VII’s coronation of Napoleon as Emperor and his subsequent coronation of his wife Joséphine as Empress. Marinate on this for a sec…
Napoleon supposedly asked David to travel with him on his various campaigns, but David turned him down because he didn’t have the energy. He offered one of his students, Baron Antoine-Jean Gros (Grow), to take his place, who became another of Napoleon’s court painters. Baron Gros’s mindset of a history painter fit well with Napoleon’s propaganda strategy, especially during his campaigns in Egypt and the Orient where the army ventured to capture new areas, establish trading connections and, of course, undermine the British in every possible way.
In this work Napoleon is shown after his army sacked the city of Jaffa and a plague broke out. Rumor had it that Napoleon ordered the sufferers to be poisoned and killed but was unsuccessful, so he commissioned this work to try and silence the rumor mill and portray himself in a compassionate light. Gros paints a scene of plague sufferers scattered inside the walls of a mosque with Napoleon entering the room for a “visit.” In a Christ-like gesture of healing, he removes his left glove and touches one of the plague victims on the chest, looking him in the eye reassuringly. Napoleon’s gesture is rendered even more compassionate by the contrasting cowardly action of his military companion, who uses a handkerchief to cover his face for fear of contracting the illness.
Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole is another portrait of the general at young age. I point out this work only to emphasize that this looks like a completely different guy. In the numerous paintings done by various artists to commemorate Napoleon, he always looks different in each one. Where is the short coiffed brown haired guy with the pudgy face? This is of course a very common thing, especially for the purpose of propaganda. The monarchs did it all the time. If the subject is rendered more physically attractive, he/she will be better liked by the public. Baron Gros has gone to that extreme in Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole, depicting him with chiseled features, high cheekbones and Fabio’s hair blowing in the wind. It’s a drastic change from the later portraits by David and Ingres which were likely more realistic and therefore not very well received.
There are two portraits of Napoleon by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (Aahng) that also beg our attention, one of which is my favorite work on the subject. Ingres was a meticulous painter, a bit of a precursor to the Academic movement. He was slightly victimized by the French salon owing to his open use of the motifs of other artists as well as his sometimes queer distortions of space. His ability to paint every tiny detail to perfection made him masterful portrait artist which ultimately solidified his legacy.
Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul was supposedly based on another portrait by Gros because Napoleon did not sit for the Ingres painting. He commissioned Ingres along with a number of other painters to create works to be sent to various cities to propagandize him as First Consul of France. There is plenty of significance to the Napoleon’s surroundings in this work as well as the scene in the background, but of most interest here is the portrait. He is portrayed as young but wise, his pose is of a civilian but his garments the color of a consulate politician. His features are linear and handsome, making this another idealized portrait (minus the substantial camel toe).
Ingres’s later portrait of Napoleon on his Imperial Throne is quite different. On the surface this is an incredibly ravishing picture. It is so grand it is practically in-your-face grand. Nearly the entire canvas is taken up by the Emperor who sits on his throne dressed in court attire, grasping the scepter of Charlemagne in his right hand (in an extremely high and unlikely grip) and the scepter of justice in his left. You can sense every texture from the sharp metal of the golden laurel wreath crown to the soft fur and smooth velvet of the cloak. But once you get over the Emperor’s ornate regalia, you eventually find his face which is much less idealized than Ingres’s first portrait of Napoleon. There are only a few years between the two paintings, but Napoleon seems to have aged at least fifteen. His face is round, pudgy and pale, his forehead is much bigger with a bit of a receding hairline, and his eyelids are heavier. I would venture a guess that this is a more accurate portrayal of the Emperor because he’s not quite as handsome. Most significantly the lips of his tiny mouth are pursed in an obvious frown. Whether this frown conveys frustration, impatience or simply arrogance is a matter of interpretation. However, Napoleon’s expression, despite the grandeur of his surroundings and garments, give this painting a distinctly negative vibe. It’s almost as if he gazes at the viewer, daring them to challenge his entitlement to such grandeur. It’s also a bit of a childish pout. He looks somewhat bitchy, perhaps because he hasn’t conquered the entire world yet. It’s no wonder the painting was received horribly by the ever-elitist Parisian salon.
There are a hundred more paintings of Napoleon Bonaparte that were commissioned to serve his legacy and we have only highlighted a few here. Napoleon was eventually overthrown and exiled to the island of St. Helena. He died there in 1821 of stomach cancer, though there were some reports of a conspiracy of murder with arsenic poison. I happen to consider Napoleon one of history’s most prolific assholes. I cannot ignore his incessant warmongering, his pompous self-enthronement, or his near genocide of thousands of Haitian slaves. To me, his legacy is that of shittier attempt at Alexander the Great’s conquests. With the birth of the Modern world came nationalism, reason and philosophies on democracy. There was no room for another Caesar or Alexander the Great. Napoleon was born in the wrong century. Perhaps if he accomplished what he did during Middle Ages or some other less enlightened era, he would be a god to us.
What do you think? How should Napoleon’s legacy really look? How would you paint his picture?