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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

Additional Resources

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.

Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne

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

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.

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