Sunday, November 13, 2011

Napoleon Crowning his Fabulous Josephine, 1804

This post is devoted to one of the most famous works of art produced during the neoclassical era; it also happens to be my favorite work of art! (For obvious reasons). It is entitled Sacre de l'empereur Napoleon et le couronnement de l'imperatrice Josephine (Consecration of the emperor Napoleon and the coronation of empress Josephine) and it was methodically, slowly painted by that master of neoclassical masters, Jacques-Louis David over a period of 3 YEARS-from 1804, when Napoleon commissioned it, until 1807. It wasn't even exhibited as a work of art until 1808! The painting hangs today in the Louvre museum, and it is enormous-19 feet tall and nearly 32 feet wide!! The people represented in the painting are slightly large than life-size, which makes them look sort of intimidating. On sundays, I used to go to the Louvre and sit and stare at this painting-you could analyze it for hours and still not see everything. Everything about the painting is fantastically detailed--the faces, the clothing, the carpets, even Notre Dame cathedral itself! And since I have studied a good majority of the figures represented in the painting, I can see that David was AMAZING in his ability to capture the personality of each individual so perfectly in one little expression. It is more than a painting--it is a perfect representation of Napoleonic/Imperial art, fashion, personalities, everything that represented his era captured in one fantastic work of art. 
 So even though I made this painting pretty big, it is still very difficult to see some of the faces of the figures. Basically Napoleon is standing, holding the crown, about to place it on Josephine's bowed head. He is the focal point of the painting, along with Josephine, who is kneeling on a bee-covered cushion (Napoleon's symbol was the worker bee, used by Roman emperors, and also an inverted fleur-de-lis, the symbol of the Bourbon dynasty. Although Napoleon did not like to hear that part. He could be a tad touchy.) Behind Napoleon sits Pope Pius VII, poor guy, who had to sit behind the pissy new Emperor and bless the ceremony. Holding Josephine's train are her ladies-in-waiting, since Napoleon's HORRIBLE sisters refused to carry her train and actually tried to trip Josephine as she walked into the church (they were the sisters-in-law from hell, and no I am not kidding). Behind the ladies-in-waiting are the sisters and Josephine's daughter Hortense, holding the hand of her little boy, Napoleon-Charles. Surrounding all of them are various government officials and family members connected to the Bonaparte clan. 

Because it is so difficult to see the individual figures, here are some closeups:
Here is the man of the hour (or decade), Bonaparte himself in a ginormous set of coronation robes. Really though? He rivals any Bourbon king for useless, heavy robes, only these are much more classy looking-the rich reds, the gold embroidery, the antiquity-inspired border, so very regal. Apparently Bonaparte ordered everyone to spend a fortune on their outfits for the coronation; he wanted it to be quite the splendid affair. He also has a crown of golden laurel leaves, again copied from Roman emperors. I love his little socks!! They look like gold-encrusted slippers. 

 This is obviously my most favorite part of the entire painting; my hero, Josephine. One thing is for sure--that train looks HEAVY. How did she even manage to walk through the church with that enormous thing?? It is beautiful, however, with the golden bees and all that ermine. Josephine's incredible, flawless fashion sense shines through loud and clear here--her beautiful ivory empire-waist dress with the gold fringe bottom, the poofy sleeves trimmed in gold (this entire outfit was silk, btw--everyone's outfit was!), the little ruff on the top edges of her sleeves, and of course her beautiful earrings, diadem and matching comb--just enough glitter and sparkle, but not too much--perfection!
*An interesting sidenote: David did his version of photoshop on Josephine in this painting. Girlfriend shed a few years and a few pounds. This was David's original sketch of Josephine:

You can see how David made Josephine's hairdo neater, with no loose curls, and trimmed the fullness of her face a bit, disguised the hollows and shadows. She may look flawless in the painting, but here she looks much more warm and human here, with that same Mona Lisa smile playing about her lips. 

Here is a closeup of Napoleon's horrifically bratty sisters, his lovely stepdaughter Hortense, and another woman I can't place--she must have been another lady-in-waiting. Apparently, the woman in pink was Napoleon's favorite sister, and since that was the heinous Pauline (the Imperial Skank, as I call her-she slept with half of Paris) that must be the girl on the far left, in the pink robe, however I would have thought that was Caroline, another heinous sister, and one particularly abhorrent to me because she convinced Napoleon to divorce Josephine then betrayed Napoleon when he needed her. She was crude, greedy, and selfish to the absolute nth degree. However, the shape of the face, the chubbiness of the figure--seems like Caroline. So the woman on the far left is Caroline/Pauline, then another lady, then I'm betting Pauline, then Hortense, then Elisa, another sister. Elisa was not quite as bad as the other two; she complained about anything and everything, but that was about it. She greatly resembles her mother. Obviously my favorite is Hortense, the 2nd from right. She looks stunningly beautiful in her silky gown and laurel-leaf crown, holding her little boy's hand. Hortense always has this look of sad, resigned calm about her. Her life was no picnic.

*Another sidenote--Hortense's sweet little boy died unexpectedly of diptheria in 1807, at the age of 5. His death devastated utterly Hortense, and plunged her into a deep depression afterwards. She was miserable in her marriage to Napoleon's brother Louis (an abusive alcoholic) and her son was her pride and joy. His death caused Napoleon to become utterly obsessed with finding a legitimate heir, an obsession which didn't end until he divorced Josephine and married Marie-Louise. 

** UPDATE!!!** So I did a little more research and figured out that in the Versailles copy of this painting (also done by David, assisted by one of his pupils) the lady who is second from the right, holding her hands, actually wore a shell-pink dress, which is what that reference was. So THAT must be the horrid Pauline, and the woman on her right has to be the equally horrid Caroline. The only kind thing I have to say about Pauline is that when Napoleon's chips were down and he was exiled to the Isle of Elba, she gave him money and even her jewels to finance his Hundred Days expedition. So she is slightly-very slightly-redeemed (she made her ladies-in-waiting bend over and be her footrests!!! For crying out loud.)

This last close-up features 2 of my favorite characters from this time period; Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, usually known simply as 'Talleyrand', and Eugene de Beauharnais, Josephine's extremely hot, noble, chivalrous son (and the brother of Hortense). Talleyrand is in the long red cape, with the enormous feathered animal on his head. Talleyrand is a complete hoot-the wily diplomat who managed to outlast, outrank, and outmaneuver regimes, kings, and emperors, all the way from Louis XVI until the July Monarchy. He had a club foot, and walked with the aid of a cane; he was a churchman who had an affair with my brilliant hero, Germaine de Stael, then was forced by Napoleon to marry his dingbat mistress, Catherine Grand, whom he divorced in 1815, and then promptly seduced the teenage wife of his nephew. Above all, though, Talleyrand ran the show. Eugene de Beauharnais, on the other hand, pictured here just above Talleyrand, wearing a red sash and some serious sideburns, was just a brilliant, loyal officer who admired Napoleon, his stepfather, and never created any problems or obstacles for him--he simply won tons of victories, gracefully accepted the honors Napoleon heaped on him, and kindly cared for his mother, sister, and eventually his wife, Amelia of Bavaria. He was easy-going, like Josephine, and always remained one of the few people Napoleon completely trusted. Everyone loved Eugene (pronounced ooh-jen in French!)

The fate of this magnificent painting looked a bit grim after Napoleon's defeat in 1814; it was stored in some back room at Versailles for years until 1837, then finally transferred to the Louvre by King Louis-Phillipe, where it hangs to this day in the 'Hall Napoleon' and remains the 2nd most visited painting in the museum after the Mona Lisa! Quite the fabulous destiny for a fabulous painting!


Violet said...

Really detailed and facinating post.
I haven`t noticed Eugene on the portrait before (shame on me).
Josephine is lovely, as usual.
Could you please write about Fortunee Hamelin, you know so much, and are so inelligent :)

Micah said...

Hortense is a name that could use a little revitalizing. Just saying. But seriously, Raft of the Medusa was the other piece in the Louvre that had a similar effect on me.

This painting is with the Grand Canyon and any of Van Gogh's pieces for me. They're things that any picture or other representation is a wholly inadequate substitute for the real thing. Until you experience them first hand, you have no idea.

Tiffany said...

Micah-I know right, but the hard part is Hortense in English is Hortensia, which is some random flower. I love it when it's pronounced in French: 'or-tahnss'. Waay better. And it is hard to convey the sheer magnitude of this painting-but hey, I tried!
Violet- Fortunee is coming up soon!!! I will not disappoint you! :)

Violet said...

I can`t wait! And don`t be afraid of dissapointing me :)

Anonymous said...

About that row of five sisters in law.....

The lady beside Hortense (extreme right) is Julie Clary, wife of Joseph Bonaparte and sister of the famous Desiree.

Lovely post!

Howard Dorre said...

Great article! I saw this painting in the Louvre and was awestruck.

In your research experience, do you think there is any chance James Monroe and his wife Elizabeth are depicted in this painting? They were in attendance, although not particularly favored by Napoleon at the time. Several figures in the background look like they could be them, but I've never found any mention of them being included or intentionally excluded.


JLA said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Beth Engle said...

Years ago when I was at Versailles it was explained that the reason the second lady-in-waiting wears pink in the Versailles copy and not the Louvre is that David fell in love with her while painting the first copy and then when he painted the Versailles copy he put her in pink slot stand out!

Beth Engle said...

Correction: So she would stand out
Sorry for the weird autocorrect

Karma-No-Kama said...

I was wondering from which source you took the statement that Louis Bonaparte was an abusive alcoholic. Just curious.
Glad to see you take such an enthusiastic interest in Josephine and Hortense de Beauharnais.