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Napoleon's Coronation

by Jacques-Louis David, 1806.

As you know, the French Revolution was a violent civil war. As a consequence, France needed to recover its stability and confidence. Napoleon Bonaparte, a general at the age of 22, became the self-elected emperor of France at 37 under the title of Napoleon I. His empire lasted 11 years, from 1804 to 1815. However, his time as emperor was fruitful and the image of France under his reign was impressive. Napoleon enjoyed art and brought back many pieces from his campaigns in Egypt and Italy. The Louvre collection during these years was full of new treasures. Most were returned after 1815 when he was defeated in Waterloo.

In this painting which depicts the Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of Empress Josephine in Notre-Dame de Paris, on December 2, 1804, we are living in the time of imperial France. Jacques-Louis David shows his respect for Napoleon, which he probably compared to a former Roman general. He became the official painter of the empire and was present at Notre-Dame for the Coronation. He chose more than 100 figures for his composition! Napoleon dresses like a Roman emperor with a golden crown of laurel leaf as he stands before the Pope, crowning a kneeling Josephine, the Empress of France. We can also consider this painting as a group portrait. We can see the clergy, the members of the Emperor's family and his court in a single location.

Many of those present at Notre-Dame sat for the artist in his studio. The painting is full of portraits of the life of the emperor's entourage, including his family, notably his mother who is seen sitting on the central balcony. Here we can tell you a secret: Apparently, the emperor's mother was not even present at this ceremony. David was given permission to add guests and also to reduce the Notre-Dame space to emphasize the presence of the official witnesses of this historic event.

Napoleon commented on the monumentality of this painting. He said: 'This is not a painting. You can walk through it’ The viewers actually feel as if they are one of the lucky guests at the coronation. It is a very political painting and the artist had to follow the wishes of the emperor in his execution of the piece. The initial idea of the painting was to show Napoleon crowning himself, but this was changed. The attention to detail is remarkable. The texture of the skin, jewelry, carpet and furniture is captured with precision. The artist also paints the play of light and shadow perfectly and very realistic way.