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9 / Portraits

Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne
Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne
Artist / Origin Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (French, 1780–1867)
Region: Europe
Date 1806
Material Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 102 in. (259 cm.), W: 63 3/4 in. (162 cm.)
Location Musée de l’Armée, Paris, France
Credit Courtesy of Bridgeman Art Library International

expert perspective

Susan SidlauskasAssociate Professor of Art History, Rutgers University

Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne

» Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (French, 1780–1867)

expert perspective

Susan Sidlauskas Susan Sidlauskas Associate Professor of Art History, Rutgers University

This is a portrait by Ingres of Napoleon on the imperial throne, and the whole title is very important. It’s not just Napoleon, it’s Napoleon on the Imperial Throne. Now Napoleon had promised he would never be king of France because he rose during the revolution as a soldier, as a consul, and he then appointed himself emperor—so that was a bit of a leap. So in order to create this empire of his and his image as an emperor, he wanted to reach back into the history of France. But not just into the prior history—to the history of the king and the queen who had just been executed. He needed a whole new kind of history of empire. So he reached back into classical times, into the marble, the iconic marble statue of Zeus, from ancient Greece. He reached into Roman emperor portraits. He reached into illuminated medieval portraits. He reached into the Ghent Altarpiece, into the representation of God that is in the center of that altarpiece. It’s almost as if one looks at a portrait like this and sees behind it centuries of representations of male authority, even of male divinity.

Napoleon was really the first modern ruler to use visual propaganda in a way that we recognize today. He wanted to convey an image of absolutely immutable authority. But Ingres is also an artist of great ambition, and wants to embed in there his own sense of history. So he’s got this kind compendium, an encyclopedia in his head, of all the images in the history of art that to him serve this image of commanding authority.” 

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