The Coronation

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)
Pen, black ink, grey wash. Frame by Niodot (Lugt 1961 a).
Signed in pen and black ink, bottom left: David f. et in. 1805
H. 25.8 ; W. 40.5 cm
Inv. 291, acquired 1994

Commissioned by Napoleon, with no specific destination, as early as October 1804, “The Coronation of Napoléon” (Louvre Museum) was supposed to depict the forthcoming ceremony of 2 December at Notre-Dame. Of the three other paintings planned, only one, Distribution of the Eagle Standards, was to be completed (Versailles).
A “portrait painting”, as David called it, The Coronation was completed with the assistance of Georges Rouget on a vast canvas of 6.21 m. by 9.79 m, larger he (wrongly) thought than Veronese’s Wedding at Cana. It was begun on 21 December 1805, in a studio set up in the church at what had been the Collège de Cluny, Place de la Sorbonne, and it was completed in November 1807, then retouched in early 1808. Exhibited only at the Louvre, then at the Salon of 1808, it was shown again in 1810 for the ten-yearly competition (Concours décennal), but the emperor’s remarriage in this year made it impossible for the painting to be installed in any palace: the French Empire’s most famous painting would have been seen by the public for barely six months at the most…

Signed and dated 1805, this major sketch is the most complete of the three known preparatory sketches showing the entire composition, that is to say showing the emperor crowning himself. The painter preferred this bold gesture, which did in fact correspond to what actually happened, but which portrayed an image of Napoléonwhich was arrogant and provocative. Gérard, an established portrait painter at the court, suggested that he modify his figure and show the emperor crowning his consort, which is what David did in the final painting itself. Napoleon, seeing in this “a little intrigue of Josephine’s with David”, had to congratulate the painter for having made a “French knight” out of him. From Caesar, he became Bayard…
This sketch does not show the figure of Madame Mère, notably absent on the day of the coronation, of which she disapproved. Napoléon insisted that she be represented. The Pope, mitre on his head, is giving a benediction. David later abandoned this gesture, but Napoléon had him paint it back in in January 1808.

Photographs © Fondation Napoléon – Patrice Maurin-Berthier

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