This amazing painting, depicting the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte as Emperor of France in December 1804, has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. I think it’s one of the most beautiful works of art Western civilization has ever produced. It’s a great choice for this series because it’s significant both as an object of art in its own right, and also as a document of an important moment in history.
The painting is colossal. It’s 32 feet long and 20 feet tall, literally the size of a wall. It was painted by Jacques-Louis David, the most famous Neoclassical painter in France at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. David frequently got commissions from the French state, and if you know anything about Napoleon you know he was a sucker for anything grand, lofty and that pampered his gigantic ego. Napoleon, who took over France in a bloodless coup in 1799, commissioned David to paint The Coronation of Napoleon even before the event it was meant to depict took place. Napoleon fancied himself as ending the turmoil of the French Revolution and then sought to conquer all of Europe–a task befitting of an emperor. So, in late 1804 he crowned himself Emperor of France in Notre Dame Cathedral, then proceeded to lay waste to Europe for the next eleven years until he was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815.
After numerous sketches and planning, David began painting in December 1805 at a Paris chapel that served as his workshop. The identity and placement of the figures was highly political. David included Napoleon’s mother in the picture even though she did not actually attend the coronation. The inclusion of Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s wife and the love of his life, proved awkward; Napoleon divorced her in 1810 when she couldn’t produce an heir, and instead married an Austrian princess. The painting depicts Napoleon crowning her Empress. While it is true that Napoleon took the crown from the hand of Pope Pius VII to crown himself and Josephine, there is some dispute as to whether this action was unexpected, as the legend has it, or carefully planned.
David completed the painting in November 1807. After its initial exhibition–and after Napoleon’s fall from power–it remained in storage for many years, until after David’s death in 1825, and then hung at Versailles until 1889. Since that year it has been in the Louvre in Paris. It is one of the greatest art treasures in the history of France, and its monetary value is impossible to calculate.