Art Through Time: A Global View
Portraits Art: Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne
Set against a dark background, Napoleon strikes a rigidly frontal pose.
Seated on an ornate throne, he is enveloped by the trappings of rule. His body nearly disappears beneath the heavy red folds of his ermine-trimmed coronation robes. On his head, he wears a golden crown in the form of a victory wreath and around his shoulders a chain bearing the insignia of the Légion d’honneur. In one hand he holds a staff of office, in the other the lit de justice(or “hand of justice”). Details are everywhere. The eye jumps around the image, stopping only periodically when it comes to the sitter’s face. Set apart by a high neck ruff, Napoleon’s face appears oddly disconnected from his body; moreover, its plasticity seems at odds with the decorative surfaces that fill the rest of the canvas.
In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte, a general in the army, was named first consul of the French Republic. But Napoleon’s ambitions were too large for the role. At the end of 1804, he crowned himself Emperor of the French in an elaborate, highly planned ceremony. By that time, he had brought much of continental Europe under French control. Ingres’ challenge in creating his portrait was to find a way of asserting Napoleon’s imperial legitimacy while also making it palatable to the same French citizens who had beheaded the king and overthrown the monarchy less than a decade earlier. His solution was to reject the prototypical Absolutist portrait of arrogant privilege associated with France’s recent past and to look, instead, for models in ancient and medieval history. Napoleon’s pose draws on imperial Roman imagery, Jan van Eyck’s portrait of God the Father in the Ghent Altarpiece, and various iconic representations of rulers from the Byzantine and Carolingian empires. The props in his hands associate him with the Holy Roman Emperors Charlemagne and Charles V, and the eagle on the carpet alludes to both Jupiter and the Caesars.
It is not clear whether Napoleon on His Imperial Throne was commissioned or painted on speculation, but it was purchased by the French legislature shortly before being shown in the 1806 Salon. According to critics at the Salon, as a likeness, the portrait was a failure. This is unsurprising given that Ingres did not work from life, but based Napoleon’s features on representations by other artists. Something else about the portrait was also not quite right. Salon visitors seem to have been turned off by the distant, detached demeanor and otherworldly aura of its subject. Ingres had depicted Napoleon as the embodiment of timeless authority, when what the French wanted was a man of the people. Ironically, it would seem, the portrait was an unsuccessful attempt at Napoleonic propaganda precisely because it was so successful as an image of imperial power.
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.”
Allard, Sebastien, et al. Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Enlightenment. London: Royal Academy of the Arts, 2007.
Le Bourhis, Katell. The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire, 1789–1815. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990.
Nouvel, Odile. Symbols of Power: Napoleon and the Art of the Empire Style, 1800–1815. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2007.
Porterfield, Todd, and Susan L. Siegfried. Staging Empire: Napoleon, Ingres, and David. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007.
Tinterow, Gay, and Phillip Conisbee, eds. Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.