The Art of the Napoleonic Era in France

1.  Introduction

The Napoleonic Era encompassed the period between November 1799 and the end of 1815. The Corsican Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) was educated at French Military Schools and was Emperor of France between 1804 and 1815. After the fall of Robespierre and the establishment of the Directory phase there occurred three coup d’états between September 1797 and June 1799. Within five months of taking office the Directory initiated the first phase between March 1796 and October 1797, of what were to become the Napoleonic Wars. The coups d’état merely led to regroupings of bourgeois political factions.

As a French general Napoleon had avoided the blood letting of Robespierre’s ‘Reign of Terror’. As a general for the Directory Napoleon was victorious in northern Italy against the Austrians, and won the Battle of the Pyramids in Egypt in 1798. As a result Napoleon was elevated to the position of a national hero in France. Napoleon returned to Paris at the time of the government collapse and launched the Coup d’Etat of the Eighteenth Brumaire (9.11.1799) which subsequently set him on his path of destiny. This coup destroyed the Directory and led to the establishment of a new constitution and a Consulate in December 1799. France declared war on Austria and made napoleon First Consul. Napoleon thus became a central figure after his successful war campaigns. A popular idol he was thus invested with dictatorial powers and rapidly shaped the idealism and zealous revolutionary sentiments of France for his own ends. Napoleon was made Consul for Life in 1802 and subsequently crowned Emperor in May 1804.

Established thus was the Napoleonic Empire that was carved out of a series of political and military victories. Set in motion were a series of Napoleonic dreams and ambitions based on grandeur and glory, and the foundation of a dynasty. Napoleon, as First Consul, had thus transformed the Republic into an absolute monarchy. It is against this background that French painting  of the period has to be examined. Artistically the period prior to, and during the era of Napoleon, was dominated by the Neo-classicist artist-revolutionary and revolutionary artist Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). Other artists of the period, often as not pupils of David, include Ingres (1780-1867), Gros (1771-1835), Girodet (1767-1824), Gerard (1770-1837), Proudhon (1758-1823) and Guerin (1774-1833). nother painter of the period was Gericault (1791-1824) the short lived romantic artist famous for his post-Napoleonic masterpiece The raft of the Medusa (1819). Painting in the Napoleonic Era was recruited in the service of the aggrandisement of Napoleon, but also how Neo-classicism was replaced by the Romantic movement artists. The works of the previously mentioned artists will show that the demise of the Empire and the Neo-classicism of David with its heroic and moral implications – so beloved by Napoleon – was also to fade into history. Significant of note, as some of Gericault’s early military works show, was that the Romantic painter, as well as the neo-classicist, could also add to the imagery of the Napoleonic Era.

2.  David’s Neo-Classicism in the service of Napoleon

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) introduced the Neo-classical style into French painting and was its foremost exponent from the French Revolution to the fall of Napoleon in 1815. His painting, which was moralistic, lofty, as regarded as patriotic, presented the primary model for the heroic historical painting of the period. After 1789 David adopted a more realistic style in keeping with the purpose of recording contemporary scenes and events of the French Revolution. An example is his atmospheric, dramatic and tragic rendering, the Death of Marat (1793), see Figure 1.


Figure 1. Death of Marat (1793).

At the time of Napoleon’s coup of the Eighteenth Brumaire David opened his exhibition of his painting The Intervention of the Sabine Women, see Figure 2, which he begun upon his release from imprisonment by the Directory, and completed in 1799. This work by David surpassed all his previous achievements especially in its adherence to the concept of


Figure 2The Intervention of the Sabine Women  (1793).

the beau ideal. The work inspired enthusiastic applause and was admired by the upper strata of Directoire Society which had become aesthetic in taste. Despite re-establishing David’s position and fame as an artist it was also criticised by his pupils as a step backwards to the 17th century style of Poussin. However, the Sabine Women gives an indication of a new stylistic tendency in David’s art. The painting reinforces the view (Friedlander, 1952) that David knew how to “…combine exact observation with a feeling for the monumental sharpened by the study of the antique and the art of the seventeenth century.”

David was the artistic barometer of his time and expressed his partiality in a style based on ancient history and contemporary events. David’s ouvre was thus “…shaped by a desire to communicate certain social, cultural and political values (lee, 1999) that became an effective means of political and moral, that is to say revolutionary and eventually Napoleonic propaganda. From 1799 until 1815 David was the official painter to Napoleon despite having declined to accompany him to Egypt in 1798. n 1800 Napoleon defeats the Austrians  at the Battle of Marengo whilst David starts work on his Portrait of Madame Recamier (1800), see Figure 3, the coolly erotic study that was in fact not completed. Nonetheless, despite David’s problems painting who he regarded as a spoilt society poseur, the


Figure 3Portrait of Madame Recamier (1800).

picture shows great technical mastery and characterisation – a feature of most of his portraits that are often seen as his finest works.


Figure 4Napoleon Crossing the St Bernard Pass (1800).

David could not fail to come to the attention of Napoleon who saw in him the perfect projectionist of the heroic ambition of the Consul then Emperor. Thus in 1801, after Napoleon had agreed peace with the Austrians and signed the Concordat with Pius VII to permit the return of Catholicism to France, David created the very idealised masterpiece called Napoleon Crossing the St Bernard Pass, see Figure 4. In 1803 Napoleon renews his war with England and David’s esteem in the eyes of the First Consul is shown in his nomination for the Legion of Honour. It is in the following year that David is appointed First Painter to the Emperor and commissioned to paint the Coronation of Emperor and Empress. Now David embarks on a series of four official Napoleonic paintings, including the Coronation of the Emperor and Empress. In fact only two of the commissions were carried out – the second was the heroic Distribution of the Eagles (commissioned in 1806). The other two were the Enthronement and the Arrival at the Hotel de Ville. In 1806 Napoleon defeated Prussia at the battles of Jena and Auerstadt – the same year that he rejected David’s Portrait of the Emperor in Coronation Robes. The previous year David had started his preparatory work for the Coronation picture whilst Napoleon was defeating Austria and Russia at Austerlitz. These were the years when Napoleon was at the peak of his military prowess and when David’s realistic sense in painting was gaining the upper hand.

The two complete Napoleonic works show an exactitude for detail because Napoleon’s commissions required recognisable portrayals with the demanding preservation of grandeur and ceremony. It is apparent that the patronage of Napoleon had an effect on the artistic style of David and eventually led to his desire later to emancipate himself from the older, outworn classicism. At this point we can see the germ of Romanticism – though David was always opposed to Romanticism – that his pupils developed and which continued through Europe after David’s death.

In 1807 David completed the Coronation – the year that Napoleon defeated the Russians and Prussians at Eylau, a topic painted by Gros (a pupil of David) in 1808. From 1808 David continued working on his Napoleonic pictures until 1814, when he finally completed his Leonidas at Thermopylae, see Figure 5. These


Figure 5Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814).

were the years Napoleon waged war in Russia and Spain, finally being beaten at Leipzig in 1814. These events culminated in the abdication of Napoleon and exile to Elba, as well as the first restoration of Louis XVIII to the throne of France.

3.  David’s pupils and contemporaries in the Napoleonic Era

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) was a pupil of David and also a leading painter in the neo-classical movement. Entering the studio of David in 1797 he won the Prix de Rome in 1801. However, from 1806 t0 1820 he painted in Rome and thereby missed direct involvement of  Napoleonic France of the Empire. After 1820, in post-Napoleonic Bourbon Restoration times Ingres became leader of the Neo-classical school and opponent of the French Romantic movement represented by Gericault (1791-1824) and Delacroix (1798-1863). However, in 1806 Ingres painted his picture Napoleon on the Imperial Throne. Oil on canvas and measuring 260 x 162 cm it is now in the Musee de l’Armee, Paris. Commissioned officially while still in his twenties to paint this picture it illuminates Napoleon’s increasing awareness of the power of official propaganda. In this work Ingres collaborates in the creation of a myth. Ingres thus portrayed the usurper Emperor in the ornate trappings of a Zeus-like figure. See Figure 6.


Figure 6Napoleon on the Imperial Throne (1806).

The classical idiom has been utilised to convey grandeur and god-like presence without claiming divine right. In addition it expresses Napoleon’s identification of himself and his destiny with the glories of ancient Rome and Ingres’s picture reinforces the Napoleonic aspiration as the successor to Charlemagne. This shows clearly how the artist under Napoleon could be patronised into the role of state propagandist.

Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835), even though he was a favourite pupil of David, was a passionate Romantic painter who drew his inspiration from the vibrancy and colour of Rubens and the great Venetian painters. Gros is best known for his chronicling the career of Napoleon Bonaparte. It was David who brought Gros to the attention of Napoleon and thus set him on course as a history painter. In 1793 Gros went to Italy and met Napoleon who appointed him official battle painter. Gros therefore followed Napoleon on his campaigns and his first major work for the then general was his Bonaparte at Arcole (1798) followed by a succession of enormous canvases. In 1804 Gros completed his Pesthouse  at Jaffa, see Figure 7, painted to show Napoleon, during his Egyptian campaign of 1798, attempting to restore morale by a courageous and risky gesture of visiting the plague ridden sick of his army.


Figure 7Napoleon Visiting the Pesthouse at Jaffa (1804).

The painting has a Gothic setting so symptomatic of Romanticism and the classical aspects with Rubenesque colour. A deceptive and mythic gesture is the touching of the sick – thereby forcing Gros into pictorial deceptions. The touching of the sores is as if he is a king, an anointed of God who can cure. The irrationality is reinforced by Gros portraying army uniforms in Napoleonic Imperial guise rather than those of the revolution.

In Napoleon at Arcole, see Figure 8, of 1798, an oil on canvas and now in The Louvre, Gros has captured the likeness of Napoleon on the battlefield. At this time Gros was actively travelling with Napoleon’s entourage in order to select and transfer Italian art treasures to France. Gros was collecting state booty. Nonetheless Gros depicts Napoleon as a man


Figure 8.  Napoleon at Arcole (1798)

of emotion, of action, expressing his romanticism as the principal propagandist painter of the general. Gros also painted the Battle of Aboukir (1806), the Battle of Eylau (1808), the Battle of the Pyramids (1810). In addition he produced a number of grand portraits of the Emperor and his entourage including Bonaparte as First Consul (1801-1802). In all of his works in this vein Gros was set in investing action and heroism into his pictures. The pictures of Gros are executed with panache and skill in contrast to the contemporary war scenes of Goya.

The militant propaganda pictures of Gros are glamorous lies, fictions to aggrandise napoleon and create the heroic myth. Even though he possessed a temperamental bias towards Romanticism his neoclassical training with David eventually stifled him. After the fall of Napoleon and the exile of David to Brussels Gros took over the atelier of his master in Paris. From then on he opted towards a more cautious classical style. He never again achieved the stature of his Napoleonic pictures and came to a tragic end. Regarded as a leading exponent in the development of Romanticism his sense of drama and colour influenced Gericault and Delacroix. His own sense of failure, despite being an excellent portraitist, led him to drown himself in the Seine.

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roncy (1767-1824) studies with David and won the Prix de Rome in 1789. He returned to Paris in 1789. Also an illustrator and poet as well as painter he followed the neoclassical style of his master. However, Girodet’s pictures are a notable  example of French Romanticism in presentation and theme that nevertheless keep smooth quality and balanced composition of David’s neoclassicism. A notable example of Girodet is his The Burial of Atala (1808), see Figure 9, which exhibits a tragic and yet sensual


Figure 9.  The Burial of Atala (1808).

interpretation of the novel by Chateaubriand. Indeed Girodet’s choice of themes from literary sources appealed to the Romantics who admired his unusual colour effects and treatment of problems of light and shade as shown by his Sleep of Endymion (1792) now in the Louvre, see Figure 10.


Figure 10The Sleep of Endymion (1792).

Girodet’s drawing emulates that of David in it classical proportions and erudition. A fine portraitist Girodet is also known for his pictures that glorify Napoleon, for example the Revolt of Cairo (1810). One of his best known portraits is Mademoiselle Lange as Diana (1799), see Figure 11, which caused a scandal due to its alleged licentiousness and its


Figure 11Mademoiselle Lange as Diana (1799).

satirical sexual allusions. After inheriting a legacy in 1812 Girodet devoted himself to writing unreadable poems on the subject of aesthetics having previously done the illustrations for works by Virgil and Jean Racine.

Francois Gerard (1770-1837) was another favourite pupil of David who in the Salon of 1796 won admiration for his portrait of Jean-Baptiste Isabey and his Daughter, Figure 12. Known as a neoclassical painter of portraits and of historical subjects he was painter to both Napoleon and Louis XVIII after the Bourbon Restoration in 1815. Even though his


Figure 12Jean-Baptiste Isabey and his Daughter (1796).

style was derived from David – Gerard painted a more successful  portrait of Madame Recamier in 1805 – his paintings are softer, sweeter, less heroic, looser than his master. The significance of Gerard was that unlike his master, he was not political or heroic because the Napoleonic era had a place for the mannered, graceful and affected work such as his Cupid and Psyche (1798) now in the Louvre, see Figure 13.


Figure 13Cupid and Psyche (1798).

Gerard’s portrait of Madame Recamier (1805), see Figure 14, though still in a neoclassical mode, manages to avoid the irritations found by David with the subject and presents her in her own image – sensual, femme fatal – in other words he reflects his subject’s self-believed libidinous self. In a sense he used a neoclassical idiom to present a Romantic even fictive image.


Figure 14Madame Recamier (1805).

This agrees with the idea that Gerard tended towards a mannered gracefulness and no doubt enabled his work to weather the political vicissitudes of his times – after all he became a court painter, baron and member of the Legion of Honour. Even though charming and superficial the work of Gerard emerged from neoclassicism and the Napoleonic Era towards the early Romantics.

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758-1823) was not a pupil of David having trained at the Dijon Academy and going to Rome in 1784.  In Rome he studied and admired the works of Correggio. Also a friend of Canova he developed a style of sfumato and charming sensuality derived from Leonardo and Correggio. In an age dominated by the neoclassicism of David he cultivated an emotionally Romantic and softly modelled technique. He was also a consummate draughtsman. See Figure 15 and Figure 16.


Figure 15. Female Nude Raising her Arm (1800).

Prudhon nude

Figure 16. The Source (1801).

Black and white chalk on blue paper darkened to brown.

After his return to Paris in 1787 he worked in obscurity for some years. However, Prud’hon eventually became a favourite of both of Napoleon’s empresses – Josephine , Figure 17, and Marie-Louise. He painted portraits of Josephine, and his pupil Constance Meyer.


Figure 17. Portrait of Empress Josephine (1805).

Prud’on was deeply attached to Constance and his pictures of her are counted perhaps his finest works. See Figure 18. Tragically, perhaps due to his neurotic frame of mind combined with the shock of his mistress Constance’s suicide, his own death followed in 1821.


Figure 18.  Portrait of Constance Meyer.

Prud’hon despite his Romantic leanings, designed the bridal suite for Marie-Louise in a neoclassical idiom. Among his large decorative paintings at this time was Crime Pursued by Vengeance and Justice, see Figure 19. In this canvas a man lies dead bleeding in the foreground from a neck wound. Above Divine vengeance with a torch accompanied by Justice, armed with a sword and scales, pursue the perpetrator. This was a study for a painting on monumental scale intended to hang behind a judges bench in the Palace of Justice in Paris. Prud’hon conveys in this work the adage that the course of justice even if slow is nonetheless relentless.


Figure 19Crime Pursued by Vengeance and Justice (1805-1806).

Prud’hon survived the fall of Napoleon in 1815 due to his friendship with the statesman Talleyrand – who is incidentally regarded to be the natural father of Delacroix. Prud’hon painted little in his later years and died the same year as Napoleon.

Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) became a seminal figure in the 19th century Romantic movement. He was not strictly speaking a Napoleonic painter. However, he produced some early works of a military nature prior to the downfall of Napoleon. Influenced more by Michelangelo and Rubens he was a pupil of Carle Vernet and Pierre Guerin rather than the atelier of David. Gericault’s early style shows qualities that set him apart from the neoclassicism of David. In 1812 he painted his Charging Chasseur or Officer of the Imperial Guard, see Figure 20. This was followed in 1814 by his Wounded Chasseur, see Figure 21.


Figure 20Officer of the Imperial Guard (1812).


Figure 21. The Wounded Chasseur (1814).

Both pictures show bold design, the use of strong colour, violent action, and in the Romantic idiom stimulate strong emotions. These characteristics are even more fully developed in his immense and powerful canvas The Raft of the Medusa of 1819, see Figure 22. In his preparations for this canvas Gericault resorted to drawings and collections of the dead in mortuaries and post-execution scenes, see Figure 23. 


Figure 22. The Raft of the Medusa (1819)


Figure 23Study of Severed Heads (1818).

4.  Summary

The end of the Napoleonic Era came with Napoleon’s abdication as a result of his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. The culmination of his Hundred Days Campaign. Napoleon captured and age – a short fifteen years – in fact and spirit. But, as Wellington demonstrated, there were limits to the Emperor’s sovereignty. However, Napoleon’s rule and role is not all negative. The development of painting, both Neoclassical and Romantic, during the Napoleonic Era is proof of that. In addition the Consulate of Napoleon carried through a series of reforms that had their origins in the French Revolution. Napoleon was the person who established the Bank of France as well as completing and centralising, and making nationally uniform, the educational system. Napoleon caused the organisation of the University of France and the Institute of France, as well as reforming and codifying local and regional government law and the Napoleonic Code. In 1815 Jacques-Louis David met Napoleon for the last time – just before the Emperor’s exile to St Helena and his own to Brussels.

As has been seen – the original neoclassicism of David was modulated during the Napoleonic Era. David, for the Revolution had celebrated stoic patriotism and his work was imbued with concern for compositional logic and clarity. His figures stood statuesque with firm contours and in harsh light. His paintings commissioned by Napoleon are different – they tend towards a more realistic treatment though still wedded to the classical idiom. David’s Napoleonic works celebrate worldly power, vision, grandeur, and the classical imperial ideal as it was assumed to be. In other words David and others crafted their paintings to reflect the ostentation of absolute power and to give meaning to ambition and dreams. The harsh realities of large-scale European war was even glossed by French artists in the service of their Emperor – unlike the Spaniard Goya who relentlessly portayed the horrors such imperial posturing had imposed upon his people.

The Napoleonic Era also saw the rise of Romanticism. Indeed, French Romanticism’s development coincided with the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) and just as their neoclassical counterparts did they found inspiration in contemporary events. The transition from Neoclassicism to Romanticism was begun by Antoine Gros. The style of his master with its sobriety, was replaced by a more emotional and colourful style. It was Gros who was the master portrayer  of Napoleon’s battles but it was David who was the master of ceremonial composition. Both were propagandists for napoleon and this brings us to Napoleon as an aesthete.

By recruiting both Neoclassical and Romantic artists to portray different aspects of his rule, both civil and military. Napoleon seems to have exercised no small measure of perspicacity. In his choice of style Napoleon shows erudition – opportunist he may have been but in artistic ventures he was no utilitarian. He may have been politically pragmatic in his views on the role of art as propaganda but not tasteless. Napoleon’s effect on French art of the period was not simply purposive. His choice and patronage of artists from David, Ingres, through Gros, Girodet, Gerard, and eventually to Gericault (who independently chose to paint his soldier pictures) developed the best in art in qualitative terms. This is exemplified by the development of what is termed  the Empire Style – this epitomises the Imperial ideology of a man whose demands on artists indirectly determined the progress of art for the 19th century, especially in France.

References and Sources

Brookner, A.  (1947).  Soundings.  Harvill Press, London.

Craske, M.  (1997).  Art in Europe 1700-1830.  OUP.

Chilvers, I. et al.  (1997).  Oxford Dictionary of Art.  OUP.

Friedlander, W.  (1952).  David to Delacroix.  Harvard, UP.

Irwin, D.  (1997).



To be continued

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