The Coronation of Napoleon
By Anusha Jaishankar
Semiconductor Engineer, Explorer, Bangalore
Foreword by Venkat
In this simple yet powerful piece of writing, Anusha brings attention to the various motives and expressions lying latent in a refined painting and the man of power – Napoleon Bonaparte. There is much more to be observed and woven before an understanding develops to align the real and unreal in their various nuances. So wonderful to read through this article!
Anusha is an engineer and explorer that lives for music, reading, writing and travel. After a fulfilling career in semiconductor engineering and founding a community program called Positive Strokes, she now enjoys learning as well as teaching music and shlokas.
Explore the art of fine observations on the landscape of power, intellect and fancies exposed in a beautiful painting!
The Coronation of Napoleon
This is a story about power, talent and deceit. It is a story about the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and about a painting of an event by a genius painter Jacques-Louis David. The event happened more than two hundred years ago in the church of Notre-Dame in Paris.
The painting now hangs on a wall in the French museum Louvre in Paris. Of all the paintings and sculptures in the Louvre, this was the one that caught my fancy. It is a humongous 20ft by 30ft painting titled ‘The Coronation of Napoleon‘. Like a present day photograph, it appears to capture a significant moment during the major event and it includes all the important attendees of the function.
On taking a closer look, the picture shows a male figure crowning a female who is kneeling in front of him with head bent and arms folded. The lady is Josephine, the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. In this picture, she is being crowned to be an Empress by her husband, the Emperor Napoleon. The official title of the painting happens to be, ‘The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on 2 December 1804’.
The artist who had been commissioned to paint this portrait, Jacques-Louis David witnessed the event in person. He took his time to complete the painting – a good three years.
Napoleon rose through the ranks of the French Revolutionary army to become its commander. His military successes and political prowess helped him negotiate the title of ‘Emperor’ for himself. He wanted to differentiate himself from the monarchy and the kings that ruled France before him. Despite the tension between himself and the church, he was shrewd enough to know that to win the favor of the people, he would have to have a pope at the coronation. Traditionally, it was the pope who crowned previous kings of France. Napoleon however, waited for the crown to be sanctified by the pope. Then he picked up the crown and crowned himself!
The artist, David, initially started drawing the image of Napoleon crowning himself. Somewhere along the way, the artist changed course and instead portrayed Napoleon crowning Josephine. Surely, the image of an Emperor crowning his wife shows Napoleon in a better light – as one more benevolent and less power hungry.
In the picture, Napoleon’s mother is shown seated in a place of pride watching the proceedings. In reality, Napoleon’s mother was not at the coronation at all! She was not in favor of Napoleon becoming Emperor or of the coronation of his wife Josephine. David chose to put Napoleon’s mother in a prominent position in the picture creating the illusion that the function had her wholehearted approval and blessing!
David accurately depicted the other people present including members of the noble family, paying close attention to their features and expressions. He symbolically placed the pope near the focus of the painting and gave the pope a resemblance to Julius Caesar. Caesar was another great leader of the time and a person that Napoleon considered his role model. Napoleon would have liked to have Caesar at his coronation.
All in all, this work of art that seems at first glance to be a snapshot of the highly attended coronation event recorded for the benefit of all of posterity, is in fact a portrayal of how Napoleon wanted it to be. It is a mere figment of Napoleon’s wishful thinking.
Now, every story has multiple facets. The picture tells one story, some historians tell another. Which is it? Napoleon did leave behind a great legacy, but he did not have the best end that a great leader might have hoped to have. If Napoleon had been as popular at the end of his reign as he was during the prime of his career, would the picture have been regarded as the truth, as he would have future generations believe? Would all other stories have disappeared from people’s collective memory? I wonder… What do you think?
By Anusha Jaishankar