Guest Article #8: For the Joy of Sharing

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.

The painting at the Louvre, Paris-France

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

Guest Article #9: Education In Our Times

Guest Articles: Archives


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C.I.SIVASUBRAMANIAN
March 6, 2022 5:38 pm

It is a revelation! The author appears to havehas studied the history deeply and commented. I had no idea that Napoleon would stoop to this level, The general population has ignored this fact and held him almost like God. if you were in Paris you could hear everywhere Napoleon, Napoleon.
Thanks to the author for bringing out Napoleons real character – or have i missed something?

Anusha
Reply to  C.I.SIVASUBRAMANIAN
March 7, 2022 9:46 am

No, you have not missed a thing! Napoleon was indeed a military genius and contributed significantly to a new, better legislation through his civil code. For that, he must be given credit.

What strikes me is that he was obviously brilliant, ambitious, driven – a megalomaniac. And yet, the fact that he wanted to fudge a painting to include his mother and his role model, Caesar, into his coronation picture when they were not in attendance, makes him a little sad, insecure, almost human.

J Vaidhinathan
J Vaidhinathan
March 6, 2022 5:39 pm

Second painting is bright & beautiful. First one, unable to get a bright picture. Both paintings are very good. Write up brings out very well the historic background. Congrats to Mr Anusha Jaishankar.

Anusha
Reply to  J Vaidhinathan
March 7, 2022 9:54 am

Thank you so much! The first picture is mainly to bring out the imposing size of the painting. It was taken when I visited the Louvre and saw the painting in all its grandeur :). For a sense of the scale, notice that person standing in front of the painting – that’s me!

The second picture is a beautiful hi-def picture that Venkat added to what I sent him. I also thought it was a beautiful addition – and told him so πŸ™‚

Sukesh Nayak
Sukesh Nayak
Reply to  J Vaidhinathan
March 8, 2022 11:29 am

Wow ! This is an awesome write up !! Lot of reading between the lines !!! And quite an amount of research gone into it….. πŸ™ŒπŸ‘πŸ‘Œ…..

We did have an art gallery in Mumbai around 25 years back and when we had a lot of free time we would ponder what the artist wanted to convey in each of his paintings…. πŸ˜€πŸ™

Anusha
Reply to  Sukesh Nayak
March 8, 2022 3:15 pm

Thanks Sukesh! Art is so subjective that interpreting someone’s else’s work and intentions would’ve been fascinating and fun πŸ™‚ Did you have a variety of artists?

Jyotsna
Jyotsna
March 6, 2022 9:18 pm

David or Napoleon ? Two men and the whole world far from truth ! So, we read fragmented pieces of someone’s imagination in the name of history ?!!

Thanks for sharing this, Anusha .. very interesting but not surprising at all ..

Anusha
Reply to  Jyotsna
March 7, 2022 9:57 am

always… always! History is always written by the winners! and there is always another side!

Anusha
Reply to  Anusha
March 7, 2022 10:00 am

and true, I’ve also wondered how much of the artist’s fudging was based on Napoleon’s direction and how much was David’s own creative expression.

C.I.SIVASUBRAMANIAN
March 6, 2022 9:42 pm

Well produced article snd the pictures. Enjoyed reading it.

Anusha
Reply to  C.I.SIVASUBRAMANIAN
March 7, 2022 9:48 am

Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment πŸ™‚ I did read your article about your childhood and school days – it was simply delightful! <3

C.I.SIVASUBRAMANIAN
Reply to  Anusha
March 7, 2022 11:51 am

Thanks a ton,

Khadja
Khadja
March 7, 2022 1:09 am

😍.πŸ™Œ

Anusha
Reply to  Khadja
March 7, 2022 9:54 am

Thank you!

J Vaidhinathan
J Vaidhinathan
March 7, 2022 11:23 am

Thanks a lot

K. N. Krishna Moorthy
K. N. Krishna Moorthy
March 7, 2022 8:06 pm

Good article, madam ! What we study as history, is through the eyes of westerners. It is refreshing to have an Indian thought on history !

Anusha
Reply to  K. N. Krishna Moorthy
March 7, 2022 10:19 pm

Thank you Mr. Krishna Moorthy! Glad you liked it πŸ™‚

Vasundhara Srivathsava
Vasundhara Srivathsava
March 9, 2022 10:02 pm

Before the newspapers and television and the internet, art was the most powerful propaganda tool. In this case – he who pays the piper calls the tune. It is easy to lose sight of the context in this painting because it is so mesmerizingly beautiful.

Anusha
Reply to  Vasundhara Srivathsava
March 12, 2022 11:46 am

Absolutely! Ah, your idiom captures it beautifully <3 πŸ™‚