Napoleon’s great cultural charade

Many of his contemporaries suspected that he harboured no genuine love for the arts. So why was Napoleon so desperate to project himself as a connoisseur of culture? Alan Forrest investigates...

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David

This article was first published in the Christmas 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine


One of Jacques-Louis David’s most famous paintings (shown above) depicts Napoleon in  his study at the Tuileries Palace. It dates from 1812, the year of his most ambitious foreign adventure, the ill-fated Russian campaign. Yet it has little to do with war. Instead it shows a slightly wearied emperor leaning against the desk after the labours of the day.

The painting is a masterpiece of careful composition. The lamp on the desk behind him casts a pale light on a pile of decrees and official papers, with, on top of the pile, a diplomatically placed copy of the Code. This was the judicial foundation of the empire and the document that went with the army wherever French forces invaded. It also formed the legal basis for imperial governance.

The desk itself is large and imposing, bedecked in imperial purple, with a gilded lion that recalled Napoleon’s earlier exploits in Egypt. On the chair to his left is cloth decorated with the Napoleonic bee, his symbol of empire.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David
Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748 – 1825), The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812, oil on canvas, 203.9 x 125.1 cm (80 1/4 x 49 1/4 in.), National Gallery, Washington, D.C. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Napoleon had every right to look weary, since the hour is late; the clock behind him shows that it is after four in the morning, and the emperor is still hard at work. The message is clear: Napoleon was an active ruler, an emperor who did not spare himself in the service of his people.

It is in many ways a fine painting, beautifully executed and fully worthy of one of the most gifted artists of his generation. But, like much of the cultural production of the age, it must also be read as highly effective propaganda for the imperial regime.

Napoleon was not only a tactical innovator on the battlefield, always quick to take the initiative and to pounce on his opponents’ mistakes. He was also a master tactician in the political arena, manipulating information and burnishing his image with the political class in Paris. From his days as a revolutionary general in Italy he had shown a rare flair for publicity and propaganda, employing some of the finest journalists of the day to spread news of his successes and construct his image as a brilliant strategist. He preferred men who had both political and journalistic experience, and turned to the former Jacobin militant Marc-Antoine Jullien and the more moderate Régnault de Saint-Jean d’Angély in preparing the way for the coup d’état that brought him and his fellow-conspirators to power in 1799.

Napoleon saw beyond the army and knew the importance of appealing to a wider, non-military audience: here he remained true to his Enlightenment upbringing, to the young officer who had penned lines of rather vapid philosophy while at military academy in the 1780s. Napoleon knew exactly what he was doing here: he understood the importance of spin, and in that sense, as in many others, he can appear a very modern figure in politics.

It is from this period, too, that he showed how well he understood the power of art to forge public opinion. His political ambitions meant that he had to be much more than a superb tactician and commander in the field.

This is reflected in a medal (shown below) that the artist Benjamin Duvivier struck in the wake of the Treaty of Campo Formio (1797), signed following Napoleon’s successful Italian campaign. The medal represented Bonaparte in three very different guises: as the victor in war, as the giver of peace, and, crucially, as the intellectual and patron of the arts. This was surely deliberate, as he wanted himself to be remembered as a leader of multiple gifts, as a man of artistic sensitivity who appreciated French and European culture and who brought great works of art from the capitals of Europe home to France.

The treaties that Napoleon signed in Italy with the princes whose territories he conquered contained demands that they should supply him with art works from their private collections: even the papacy was obliged to sign away “one hundred paintings, busts, vases or statues”. But Bonaparte was careful not to give the impression that his role was limited to pillaging, and he took an active part on the commission that selected the works of art to be exported. He also made sure that Paris was made aware of his concern for the arts, of his place in the pantheon of European culture. The stolen art itself would find its way to public exhibition in the Louvre or at Versailles.

If Italy provided Napoleon with the opportunity to stake his claim as a connoisseur of European culture, the Egyptian campaign opened up a world of oriental wonderment by revealing to the French public the full glory of ancient Egypt and Persia. The expedition was a bemusing mixture of the military and the cultural, with scores of archaeologists, scientists, linguists and artists accompanying the army in order to study the ruins of ancient Egyptian civilisation, sketch monuments and collect specimens of north African wildlife. They studied ancient Egyptian religions, brought back tombs and columns to Europe, and translated and interpreted inscriptions.

From a military viewpoint the expedition cannot be judged an overwhelming success, since Napoleon was forced to abandon his army in north Africa. But the cultural dividend was huge in a Europe already in thrall to ancient civilisations and the cult of exoticism. The Description de l’Egypte, a collaborative work of the scholars who accompanied Napoleon to north Africa, would be hailed as one of the cultural masterpieces of the 19th century.

Battlefield triumphs

Of course Napoleon was not the first to use art for self-aggrandisement. Monarchs had always been well-served by artists, whether by portraitists offering an image of authority and majesty or history painters portraying their triumphs on the battlefield.

The British cultural historian Peter Burke has shown, for instance, how effectively art was used in creating the image of Louis XIV, the great battle paintings of the late 17th century turning him into a heroic figure. Equestrian statues of the Sun King were systematically, even cynically, distributed across France in an attempt to impose his authority on his subjects. Painting, sculpture and ceremonial all contributed to what Burke very aptly calls the “fabrication” of the monarch.

It was into this monarchical tradition that Napoleon sought to insert himself, though with one essential difference. Whereas kings were emphasising their legitimate claim to authority, the first consul and emperor was only too aware that he had to legitimise his rule in the eyes of many of his subjects. What’s more, as far as the émigré nobility were concerned – and, indeed, the crowned heads of Europe – he remained an upstart, a usurper who had seized power by force and who some were ready to remove by force.

Napoleon did not turn to the arts through admiration for fine paintings; indeed, few either at the time or since have seemed convinced that he had any real appreciation of the art he patronised. Jean-Antoine Chaptal, himself a son of the Enlightenment and minister of the interior under the Consulate, was unsparing in his dismissal of Napoleon’s taste, claiming he “did not care for the arts, probably because nature had denied him the sensibility to appreciate their merits”.

Chaptal may have been right. What is certain is that Napoleon turned to artists less for cultural enrichment than for political credibility. And he found in Dominique Vivant-Denon, his artistic advisor and director of his museums, both an inspired art collector who was responsible for the layout of the collections in the Louvre and a loyal servant who acted as intermediary between artists and the state.

As first consul and then emperor, Napoleon was of course in a much stronger position to influence artists and the subjects they painted. He had the power to commission art works on his own account or on the nation’s behalf. He intervened directly in the biennial Paris Salons, choosing pictures for the national collections, and proposing themes for the award of artistic prizes.

It is undoubtedly the case that Napoleon used his enormous influence to send a powerful message both to the French people and to foreign monarchs. He turned to the leading portraitists and history painters of the day to romanticise his image.

Among others, Ingres, Gros and David worked in the imperial cause. They painted him in triumphal battle scenes, suggesting the grandeur of the imperial court, or presenting the emperor as a caring, compassionate man of the people who sympathised with soldiers in the grim ordeals they faced and who shared the dangers and miseries of their campaigns.

Artistic representation was not restricted to painting. Napoleon encouraged sculpture and urban architecture that might reflect his power and authority, as a glance at Paris will confirm. This was, after all, the era of the Invalides and the Madeleine, and of the Vendôme Column and the Arc de Triomphe, bold statements of power.

Only statues of the emperor were missing from the city’s townscape. Napoleon had seen the equestrian statues of the Bourbons toppled during the Revolution by angry crowds. He had no desire to let others treat him in the same way. Erecting statues, he explained in 1812, was not for the present; it was a choice for future generations to make.

Public acclaim

Of course, Napoleon recognised that there were limits to how effective such spin could be – that the more his history paintings reflected his wishes, the less they inspired acclaim from the public.

Artists, too, wanted the freedom to express themselves. In the later years of the empire even military canvases begin to depart from the heroic scenes that Napoleon favoured. Gros placed greater emphasis on romantic emotion in his battle scenes; Géricault lingered on the individual’s experience of war.

Napoleon was always deeply conscious of his place in history and of the verdict of posterity. Artists were commissioned to help forge his legacy, and it is interesting how much art has helped to shape Napoleon’s reputation in the two centuries since his death.

After a hiatus under the restoration of the monarchy, artists returned to Napoleonic themes, abetted by the governments of the July Monarchy (1830–48) and the Second Empire (1852–70). And not just artists: poets, novelists and dramatists looked to the empire for inspiration; the Napoleonic era was feted in music and opera; and the cheap wood prints and lithographs of Jean-Charles Pellerin brought images of the emperor to thousands of peasant households.

A century later Napoleon would become one of the most popular figures in European cinema. With his place in history secure, the arts would play a key role in disseminating the Napoleonic legend.


Famous depictions of Napoleon

Bonaparte crossing the Alps over the Grand Saint-Bernard by Jacques-Louis David (1800)

This is perhaps the most famous of all the portraits of Napoleon, a striking image of the young general leading his men across the Alps – to carry the fight to the Austrians in Italy – astride a magnificent white charger. The painting would become a Napoleonic icon, an image set against dramatic Alpine scenery, with his cloak and his horse’s mane bulging in the wind. It is suggestive of so many of the qualities he cherished: vigour and energy, inflexible willpower, the drive for victory. 

This painting had, of course, little basis in fact: given the demands of the terrain, it is far more likely that he would have made his way up the Alpine passes on a mule or a donkey. 

David was the most famous French painter of his age. He and the artists in his studio had produced many canvases for the revolutionaries in the 1790s, and he had no trouble in transferring his loyalties to the Napoleonic regime. 


Bonaparte visiting the plague-stricken in Jaffa by Antoine-Jean Gros (1804)

Antoine-Jean Gros emerged as one of Napoleon’s favourite history painters, dramatising moments from imperial history for posterity. Napoleon was keen to be seen as a compassionate leader, and an incident in Jaffa, when he was recorded offering solace to plague victims, provided a perfect artistic opportunity. Gros portrays him in a plague ward surrounded by the sick and dying, his uniform resplendent among the naked and half-clothed patients, putting his health and even his life at risk by reaching out to touch them. 

This image is suggestive of the healing powers claimed by medieval kings, and it is made more memorable by the setting, amid Arab costumes and Ottoman architecture. The scene, once again, may have been imagined. Napoleon had ordered sick and wounded soldiers in his army in Egypt to be shot rather than allow them to fall into enemy hands.


Napoleon visiting the battlefield of Eylau the morning after the battle by Antoine-Jean Gros (1807)

This is one of Gros’s most famous battle scenes, entered in the painting competition that Napoleon ordered following the clash (with Russian and Prussian forces). It is also one of his most harrowing pictures, the piles of corpses in the foreground unique in Napoleonic battle paintings and reflecting the terrible losses in what even Napoleon’s greatest admirers recognise to have been a pyrrhic victory. 

The painting shows a scene of desolation on the following morning with the bodies of the dead already covered in a sprinkling of snow. But the focus is less on the dead than 

on the medical care of the wounded. At the centre of the composition is Napoleon himself, his hand outstretched in a gesture of compassion to those who have suffered, a soldier among soldiers. And the image of the emperor is cleverly illuminated to give him an almost Christ-like quality.  


Napoleon in caricature

The turn of the 19th century was a golden age of caricature across much of northern Europe – from Russia in the east through Prussia and the Rhineland to France and Britain in the west. London, boasting artists like James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson, soon became the unofficial capital of European caricature. English political cartoons were sold to the rich, admired in the shop windows of the Strand, and reproduced in other European languages. 

Britain had been at war with France since 1793, and British cartoonists were unforgiving in their condemnation of the Revolution. When Napoleon seized power in 1799 he immediately came to symbolise France to English eyes. He was portrayed as a cruel and calculating usurper, as England’s most determined enemy, and – perhaps his defining hallmark – as a figure of Lilliputian proportions whom John Bull could hold in the palm of his hand. They mocked him, but fully recognised the threat he posed.

Britain’s caricaturists lampooned Napoleon for his inflated ambition, his love of imperial pomp and, above all, for his lack of any legitimate claim to the throne. Isaac Cruickshank drew him in 1804 wearing the crown that rightly belonged to Louis XVI. At the height of his powers he was shown sharing out the globe with the Russian emperor, a figure who could inspire fear as well as ridicule. But by 1812, after the Russian campaign, he was mocked mercilessly. William Elmes drew him as the victim of a ‘Cossack extinguisher’; and cartoonists continued to chronicle his decline until, in 1814, they showed him caged and furious, a wild beast in George III’s royal zoo. Only later, once he was safely on St Helena, did they allow themselves any sympathy for the fallen emperor, alone with only seagulls for company on his rock in the South Atlantic. 

Alan Forrest is emeritus professor of modern history at the University of York. He is the author of a popular biography of Napoleon, published by Quercus in 2011.