I want to be painted calm, on a fiery horse.
This was Napoleon's instruction to Jacques-Louis David. Not yet Emperor, Napoleon needed to create a historical legitimacy for his becoming absolute ruler. One way was through the story of his leading an army across the Alps - and reminding the world that he was just the third general in history to do so, after Charlemagne and Hannibal.
Napoleon refused to sit for the portrait and did not care if David achieved a good likeness - although he did insist that the artist take great care to paint his horse accurately.
The galling part of the story is that David took dictation in this manner and yet succeeded in making Napoleon Crossing the Saint Bernard a magnificent work of art. The only possible improvement David could have made is to portray Napoleon as he had actually made the journey - on a mule.
Napoleon later commissioned David to document his coronation as Emperor in two huge canvases. In The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Josephine, David originally depicted Pope Pius VII with his hands on his lap. Napoleon was furious: "I did not make him come so far to do nothing," he fumed, and he made David repaint the Pope so that he seems to be making a gesture of blessing over Napoleon's reign. In fact, it looks a little like the Pope is telling him, "You da man!"
The other painting of the pair, The Distribution of the Eagle Standards, showed winged Renown attending the scene. But Napoleon, micromanaging as ever and unwilling to be upstaged even by the gods, had David paint the figure out of the scene.
Napoleon benefited from and encouraged the Neoclassical movement, which self-consciously drew on the ideals, intellectual as well as artistic, of Classical Greece and Rome. In Washington D.C., the Neoclassical style of such architects and sculptors as Benjamin Latrobe, Charles Bulfinch and Jean-Antoine Houdon helped create the mythology of a nation. The painter Benjamin West even portrayed gray-haired Ben Franklin, of all people, as a mythic hero in Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity From the Sky. In short, these artists would have had Al Gore and George W. Bush looking like Adonis and Apollo (with Bill Clinton as Zeus).
France was the epicenter of the Neoclassical movement, however, and Napoleon had many of the greatest artists of the time to choose from for his self-aggrandizing projects. He commissioned Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres to create a portrait which would oversee France's National Assembly: Napoleon I on the Imperial Throne is another over-the-top and yet maddeningly powerful image, in which the Emperor's authority to rule is shown to stem from the highest historical and mythological traditions.
In the painting, Napoleon wields Charlemagne's sword and his ivory hand of justice. His pose echoes Classical representations of Jupiter, the greatest of the Roman gods (such as this example from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg). And Ingres edged towards blasphemy by representing Napoleon as more than a little reminiscent of God Almighty from Jan van Eyck's famous Ghent Altarpiece, which Napoleon had plundered and moved to the Louvre.
Napoleon was given this treatment by many French artists, and even his enemies usually treated him with a kind of awe. But one other painting worth mentioning is a barefaced propaganda piece of a slightly different kind.
In 1799, during his Syrian campaign, Napoleon's forces stormed Jaffa (now part of Tel Aviv) and defeated the Turkish forces there. In the following days, his men ran amok, raping and killing thousands of civilians. Napoleon himself ordered 3,000 Turkish soldiers who had surrendered to be slaughtered. Then, when the Turks were on the verge of counterattack, Napoleon retreated and left behind some 50 of his own men who had been stricken with plague, after ordering them to be poisoned so that they could not be taken prisoner (French doctors refused to obey the order).
Napoleon, relying so much on the morale of his troops and the popular support of the French people, could have been badly hurt by these horrifying incidents. His response was to commission Antoine-Jean Gros to paint Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Stricken at Jaffa. Thus Napoleon ensured that the most enduring image of the Syrian campaign was the suffering of the French troops and his sympathetic tending to their needs.
This article is copyright 2000 by John Malyon. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.
John Malyon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org