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Napoleon's Coronation

by Jacques-Louis David, 1806.

As you know, the French Revolution was a violent civil war, for which France had to recover its stability and confidence. Napoleon Bonaparte, General at the age of 22, became the self-elected Emperor of France at 37 under the title of Napoleon I. Although his Empire only lasted 11 years (1804-1815) it was a fruitful period that made France look impressive. Napoleon enjoyed art and brought back many pieces from his campaigns in Egypt and Italy, being the Louvre collection during these years full of new treasures, despite that most of them were returned after 1815, when he was defeated in the Waterloo Battle.

This painting represents the Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and Empress Josephine in Notre-Dame de Paris (December 2, 1804). Jacques-Louis David, who became the official painter of the Empire and assisted the Notre-Dame’s Coronation (choosing more than 100 figures for his composition), shows his respect for Napoleon. He probably compared him to a Roman General, which we can deduct due to his dressing: a golden crown of laurel leaf as he stands before the Pope, crowning a kneeling Josephine.

We can also see the Clergy, the Court and some members of the Emperor’s family (as his mother, who is sitting on the central balcony) in a single location. Here we can tell you a secret: apparently, the Emperor's mother was not even physically in this ceremony. David was allowed to add guests and to reduce the Notre-Dame space to emphasize the presence of the official witnesses of the historic event (or in other words, obligated to follow the wishes of the Emperor in the execution of the piece, becoming a painting of political matters).

Napoleon commented on the monumentality of the painting. He said:
“This is not a painting. You can walk through it”.

The viewers can indeed feel as if they were one of the lucky guests at the coronation. The initial idea 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 in a very realistic way.