Jacques Louis David was commissioned by Napoleon I to paint this huge canvas which depicts the splendor of the emperor’s Coronation while conveying its political and symbolic message. The painter himself was present at the ceremony, and once back in his studio portrayed the colorful congregation with realism, combining accuracy with artistry while also complying with the Emperor’s instructions. He thus met the challenge of producing a monumental work that would glorify the event and occupy a unique place in the history of painting.
A double coronation
Having won military prestige with his victorious campaigns in Italy and Egypt, Napoleon took power as First Consul after the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire. In May 1804 he was proclaimed Emperor, and a coronation
ceremony was held on December 2 of the same year at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris to secure his imperial legitimacy and root his authority in the French monarchic and Catholic tradition. Moreover—like Charlemagne some 1000 years before—he was consecrated emperor by a pope. However, Napoleon crowned himself, facing the congregation rather than the high altar to mark his independence from the Church. Although David’s initial sketch represented the Emperor in the act of crowning himself, the final painting shows him crowning the Empress—a gesture that presents a nobler, less authoritarian image, described by Napoleon himself as that of a “French knight.”
A blend of art and history
David drew inspiration for the layout of his painting from Rubens’s Coronation of Marie de Medici (in the Louvre). He witnessed the ceremony first-hand and had most of its participants pose for him, also reconstructing the scene in his purpose-built studio with cardboard models and wax figurines. He highlighted the protagonists by placing them in the center and illuminating them with a beam of light. The arcade provides an imposing frame for the imperial couple, also set off by the surrounding colorful congregation. The Pope sits to the right among cardinals and bishops. The great dignitaries of the Empire are shown in three-quarter back view in the right foreground, bearing symbols of imperial power: the eagle-topped scepter, the globe, and the hand of Justice.
The Emperor’s brothers (Joseph and Louis ) and sisters ( Elisa, Paolina, Carolina) are represented on the left, while Napoleon’s mother – Maria Letizia Ramolino – looks down on the scene from her vantage point in the VIP gallery. All eyes are turned toward the crown, which the painter highlighted against a section of green curtain that overlaps the pilaster.
The profile of the kneeling Joséphine—made to look younger for the occasion—stands out against the lovely yellow ocher of the cross-bearer’s cope, just in front of Marshal Murat, who is portrayed holding the coronation cushion. David used an exceptionally rich palette of colors to depict the velvets, furs, satins, and lamés of the costumes and furnishings.
This painting—which is also a group portrait of the imperial family, the court, and the clergy dressed in ceremonial costume—is totally realistic in appearance. Yet David took certain liberties with history and protocol: he downsized the structure of Notre-Dame Cathedral to give the figures greater impact; on Napoleon’s orders, he included Letizia Bonaparte (“Madame Mère”) in his painting, although she had not attended the coronation ceremony, of which she disapproved; again on the Emperor’s instructions, he portrayed the Pope making a gesture of blessing, having originally represented him with his hands on his knees; and the Emperor’s sisters stand immobile, though they held the Empress’s train at the ceremony itself.
These various artistic solutions, designed to suit this monumental painting and its fascinating hero, fully satisfied the Emperor: “What relief, what truthfulness! This is not a painting; one walks in this picture.” David realized the significance of this work for the future and for his personal fame, saying “I shall slide into posterity in the shadow of my hero.”