Oil on canvas; 25 by 20.5 ins; 63 x 52 cm; held in a giltwood period frame
Provenance: Private Collection, England
This image of the Emperor became a popular one and the head and shoulders composition that we see here is taken from Jacques Louis David’s full length “The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries” finished in 1812. That original portrait was commissioned by Lord Douglas, an English descendant of James Stuart. Douglas was an admirer of the French Emperor and optimistically hoped for Napoleon’s assistance in restoring the Stuarts to the British throne. Originally shown at Hamilton Palace, it was sold to Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery in 1882, from whom it was bought by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in 1954, and now hangs in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
The original full length depicted the Emperor in the early hours of the morning having been working through state papers; the present portrait engages the viewer with only the face of Napoleon, the tireless leader. He was 42 years old at the time of this portrait and signs of fatigue, as well as dignity and poise, are all too apparent. Depicted in the uniform of the Colonel of the Grenadier, he wears the medals of the Legion of Honour and the Iron Cross, both of which were founded by himself. Although portrayed in uniform, he is not depicted as brash or swaggering as previous images had done so. Rather he appears to be carrying a heavy responsibility on behalf of the French people. Both the French Republic and David’s art centred on the Roman model of civic virtue, as opposed to the supposedly lax morals of ancien régime monarchy. Antiquity and the values of the Roman Republic are called upon in this Neoclassical painting to present Napoleon as a hardworking patriot and man of the people.
Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was a highly influential French painter in the Neoclassical style, considered to be the pre-eminent painter of the era. In the 1780s his cerebral brand of history painting marked a change in taste away from Rococo frivolity toward a classical austerity and severity chiming with the moral climate of the final years of the ancien régime. He later became an active supporter of the French Revolution and friend of Maximilien Robespierre and was effectively a dictator of the arts under the French Republic. Imprisoned after Robespierre’s fall from power, he aligned himself with yet another political regime upon his release, that of Napoleon I. It was at this time that he developed his ‘Empire style’, notable for its use of warm Venetian colours. David had a huge number of pupils and followers, making him the strongest influence in French art of the early 19th century.
For these reasons this image became a lasting one, as easily recognised and rembered as those depicting heroically his youth. From the early 19th century at the moment of the Emperor’s exile and then death in 1821 supporters clamoured to own Napoleonic imagery, the manufacture of busts and miniatures being the most affordable. Larger portraits, as the one presented here, would have been commissioned by the more affluent Bonapartists, whether in France or other European nations, but despite this relatively few of quality regularly come on to the art market