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Overview

Careful examination of the details embedded in this portrait reveals the key to David's success as a painter during the time of Louis XVI, Robespierre, and Napoleon: the artist's ability to transform his subjects into politically powerful icons.

Napoleon is placed in the center of a vertical canvas dressed in his uniform as a colonel of the Foot Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard. His pose—the slightly hunched shoulders and hand inserted into his vest—contrasts to the formality of his costume. In addition, his cuffs are unbuttoned, his leggings wrinkled, and his hair disheveled. David, in a letter to the patron of this portrait, Alexander Douglas, the tenth Duke of Hamilton, explained that his appearance was designed to show that Napoleon had spent the night in his study composing the Napoleonic Code, an impression enforced by details, such as the flickering candles that are almost extinguished, the quill pen and papers scattered on the desk, and the clock on the wall which points to 4:13 a.m.

David strategically placed the sword on the chair to allude to Napoleon's military success, while the prominent display of the word "Code" in his papers, suggests his administrative achievements. Other decorative details—the heraldic bees and the fleurs–de–lys—are symbols of French absolutism, and imply Napoleon's power as ruler.

Inscription

lower left: LVD.CI.DAVID OPVS / 1812; center right on scroll: CODE

Provenance

Commissioned by Alexander, marquis of Douglas [1767-1852, from 1819, 10th duke of Hamilton], Hamilton Palace, Strathclyde, Scotland;[1] by inheritance to his son, William Alexander Anthony Archibald Douglas, 11th duke of Hamilton [1811-1863], Hamilton Palace, Strathclyde, Scotland; by inheritance to his son, William Alexander Louis Stephen Douglas-Hamilton, 12th duke of Hamilton [1845-1895], Hamilton Palace, Strathclyde, Scotland; (Hamilton Palace Collection sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 17 June - 20 July 1882 (8 July), no. 1108); bought by (F. Davis), probably buying for Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th earl of Rosebery, [1847-1929], London;[2] his son, Albert Edward Harry Mayer Archibald Primrose, 6th earl of Rosebery [1882-1974], London; sold 15 June 1951 to (Wildenstein & Co., London and New York); sold February 1954 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[3] gift 1961 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1948
David. Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings, The Arts Council of Great Britain, Tate Gallery, London, and City Art Gallery, Manchester, 1948-1949, no. 23, repro.
1955
De David à Toulouse-Lautrec, Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris, 1955, no. 17, repro.
1974
French Painting 1774-1830: The Age of Revolution, Grand Palais, Paris, Detroit Institute of Arts, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1974-1975, no. 36, repro.
1985
French Connections: Scotland and the Art of France, Royal Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1985, no. 49, repro.
1989
Jacques-Louis David 1748-1825, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1989-1990, no. 206, repro.
2005
Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, 2005, no. 12, repro.
2006
Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris; Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2006-2007, no. 24, repro.
Bibliography
1824
Notice sur la vie et les ouvrages de M. J.-L. David. Paris, 1824: 72.
1826
A. Th. (Antoine Thibaudeau or Aimé Thomé de Gamond). Vie de David, Premier Peintre de Napoléon. Brussels, 1826: 184.
1826
Mahul, A. Annuaire nécrologique, ou complément annuel et continuation de toutes les biographies ou dictionnaires historiques, ... Année 1825. Paris, 1826: 140.
1827
Coupin, P.A. "Essai sur J.-L. David, peintre d'histoire." Revue enciclopédique. 61 vols. Paris, 1819-1835: 31(1826):56.
1835
Lenoir, Alexandre. "David. Souvenirs historiques." Journal de l'Institut Historique 3 (1835): 10.
1844
Philippoteaux, F. Le Siècle de Napoléon, galerie des illustrations de l'Empire. Paris, 1844: unpaginated.
1845
Blanc, Charles. Histoire des peintres français au dix-neuvième siècle. Paris, 1845: 211.
1846
"Le Napoléon de David." L'Illustration, 7 December 1846: 272.
1846
Marco de Saint-Hilaire, Emile. Souvenirs intimes du temps de l'Empire. Paris, 1846: 131-135.
1854
Waagen, Gustav Friedrich. Treasures of Art in Great Britain: Being an Account of the Chief Collections of Paintings, Drawings, Sculptures, Illuminated Mss.. 3 vols. Translated by Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake. London, 1854: 3:298.
1855
Delécluze, Etienne J. Louis David son école & son temps. Paris, 1855: 346-347.
1864
Seigneur, Jean du. "Appendice à la notice de P. Chaussard sur L. David." Revue universelle des arts 18 (1864): 365.
1867
David, Jules. Notice sur le Marat de Louis David suivie de la liste de ses tableaux dressée par lui-meme. Paris, 1867: 37.
1880
David, Jules. Le peintre Louis David, 1748-1825. Paris, 1880: 487, 647.
1895
Dayot, Armand. Napoléon raconté par l'image. Paris, 1895: 259-263.
1904
Saunier, Charles. Louis David, biographie critique. Paris, 1904: 108.
1930
Cantinelli, Richard. Jacques-Louis David 1748-1825. Paris and Brussels, 1930: 112, no. 123.
1940
Holma, Klaus. David, son évolution et son style. Paris, 1940: 79-80, 128, no. 129.
1941
Ledoux, C., and G. Lebard. "La décoration et l'ameublement du Grand Cabinet de Napoléon Ier aux Tuileries." Bulletin de la Société de l'Histoire de l'Art Français 192 (1941): no. 1.
1948
Cooper, Douglas. "Jacques-Louis David: A Bi-Centenary Exhibition." The Burlington Magazine 90 (1948): 277-280, repro.
1948
The Arts Council of Great Britain. David, 1748-1825. Exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London, and City Art Gallery, Manchester, 1948:26, no. 23, repro.
1949
Cooper, Douglas. "Letters - Jacques-Louis David." The Burlington Magazine 91 (1949): 175.
1949
Cooper, Douglas. "The David Exhibition at the Tate Gallery." The Burlington Magazine 91 (1949): 21-22.
1949
Rosenau, Helen. "Letters - Jacques-Louis David." The Burlington Magazine 91 (1949): 113-114.
1952
Ledoux, C., and G. Lebard. "L'inventaire des appartements de l'empereur de Napoléon Ier aux Tuileries." Bulletin de la Société de l'Histoire de l'Art Français (1952): 186-204, esp. 192
1954
Hautecoeur, Louis. Louis David. Paris, 1954: 200.
1956
Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Colllection Acquired by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation 1951-56. Introduction by John Walker, text by William E. Suida and Fern Rusk Shapley. National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1956: 64-67, no. 22, repro.
1956
Walker, John. "The Nation's Newest Old Masters." The National Geographic Magazine 110, no. 5 (November 1956): 622, 624, 646, color repro. 647.
1957
Goodrich, Frank B. The Court of Napoleon. New York, 1957: 300-302.
1959
Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 374, repro.
1960
The National Gallery of Art and Its Collections. Foreword by Perry B. Cott and notes by Otto Stelzer. National Gallery of Art, Washington (undated, 1960s): 10, repro.
1961
Walker, John, Guy Emerson, and Charles Seymour. Art Treasures for America: An Anthology of Paintings & Sculpture in the Samuel H. Kress Collection. London, 1961:, 193-194, color pl. 184.
1962
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Treasures from the National Gallery of Art, New York, 1962: 116, color repro.
1963
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 242, repro.
1964
Markham, F. "Napoleon and his Painters." Apollo 80 (September 1964): 187-191.
1965
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 38.
1966
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 2:398, color repro.
1967
Gonzales-Palacios, Alvar. David e la pittura napoleonica. Milan, 1967: 14, repro.
1968
European Paintings and Sculpture: Illustrations (Companion to the Summary Catalogue, 1965). Washington, 1968: 31, no. 1374, repro.
1968
Honour, Hugh. Neoclassicism. Harmondsworth, 1968: 178-179, repro.
1969
Hubert, Nicole, et al. Napoleon Exh. cat. Grand Palais, Paris, 1969: 51, no. 158, repro.
1969
Kirstein, Lincoln. "The Taste of Napoleon." Nelson Gallery and Atkins Museum Bulletin 4, no. 10 (1969): 21.
1969
Mesplé, Paul. "David et ses élèves toulousains." Archives de l'art français, 4th series, 24 (1969): 100-101.
1973
Verbraeken, Rene. Jacques-Louis David jugé par ses contemporains et par la posterité. Paris, 1973: 11, 18, repro.
1973
Wildenstein, Daniel, and Guy Wildenstein. Documents complémentaires au catalogue de l'oeuvre de Louis David. Paris, 1973: 190-191, 226, nos. 1642, 1645, 1648, 1651, 1938.
1974
Schnapper, Antoine, et al. De David à Delacroix. La peinture française de 1774 à 1830. Exh. cat. Grand Palais, Paris, 1974: unpaginated insert, no. 36 bis, repro.
1975
Burney, Fanny (Mme d'Arblay). Hemlow, Joyce, ed. The Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney. 6 vols. Oxford, 1975: 6:620-626.
1975
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 96, repro.
1975
Haskell, Francis. "Un monument et ses mystères. L'art français et l'opinion anglaise dans la première moitié du XIXe siècle." Revue de l'Art 30 (1975): 61-76.
1975
Schnapper, Antoine, et al. French Painting 1774-1830: The Age of Revolution. Exh. cat. Detroit Institute of Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975:373-374, no. 36 bis, repro.
1977
Eisler, Colin. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian. Oxford, 1977: 352-358, fig. 331-333, color repro.
1977
Pope-Hennessy, John. "Completing the Account." Review of Colin Eisler, Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection, London 1977. Times Literary Supplement no. 3,927 (17 June 1977).
1979
Watson, Ross. The National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1979: 102, pl. 89.
1980
Brookner, Anita. Jacques-Louis David. London, 1980: 168-169, repro.
1980
Schnapper, Antoine. David témoin de son temps. Fribourg, 1980: 260-262, repro. (English translation, David, New York, 1980: 260-262, repro.
1982
Bleyl, M. Das Klassizistische Porträt. Gestaltungsanalyse am Beispiel J.-L. Davids in Bochumer Schriftern zur Kunstgeschichte. Frankfurt and Bern, 1982: I:86-87, repro.
1983
Bordes, Philippe, and A. Pougetoux. "Les portraits de Napoléon en habits impériaux par Jacques-Louis David." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 6th series, no. 102 (July-August 1983): 26-27.
1983
Tait, A.A. "The Duke of Hamilton's Palace." The Burlington Magazine 125 (1983):400-402
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 416, no. 593, color repro.
1985
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 117, repro.
1985
Nanteuil, Luc de. Jacques-Louis David. New York, 1985: 146, repro.
1988
Michel, Régis, and Marie-Catherine Sahur. David, l'art et le politique. Paris, 1988: 112, repro.
1989
Lévêque, Jean-Jacques. La vie et l'oeuvre de Jacques-Louis David. Courbevoye-Paris, 1989: 18, repro.
1989
Roberts, Warren. Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist. Chapel Hill, 1989: 171-173, repro.
1989
Schnapper, Antoine. Jacques-Louis David 1748-1825. Exh. cat. Musée du Louvre and Musée National du Chateau de Versailles:474-477, 520-521, nos. 206, 207, repro.
1991
Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 10, 185, 187, color repro.
1992
National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 176, repro.
1993
Johnson, Dorothy. Jacques-Louis David: Art in Metamorphosis. Princeton, 1993: 216-220, repro.
1993
Silver, Larry. Art in History. New York, 1993: 304, fig. 7.19
1997
Henderson, Anne. "Portraits & Personalities." Washington Parent (November 1997): 14.
2000
Eitner, Lorenz. French Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I: Before Impressionism. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2000: 196-208, color repro.
2004
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 350-351, no. 282, color repro.
2005
The Arts of France from François Ier to Napoléon Ier. A Centennial Celebration of Wildenstein's Presence in New York. Exh. cat. Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York, 2005: 11-12, fig. 4, 64, fig. 81, 74(not in the exhibition).
2013
Bollinger, Dennis. World History. Greenville, 2013: 362, color repro.
2013
Lee, Simon. "A Newly Discovered Portrait of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David." Burlington 155, no. 1,327 (October 2013): 685, 690, nt. 1, color fig. 41, 46.
Explore This Work

Commit to the canvas the features of the Great Man, and represent him in one of the historic moments that have made him immortal.

Alexander, Marquess of Douglas and Clydesdale (Scotland) and commissioner of the portrait in a letter to Jacques-Louis David, 1811

Jacques-Louis David seems not to have completely heeded his patron’s request: Napoleon, who rose to become emperor in the political vacuum following the French Revolution, is captured in statesmanlike quietude rather than a more glorious episode in his storied career. While the posed attitude and the picture’s full-length format convey formality, the portrait’s time and place—inside the emperor’s private study, in the wee hours of the morning—convey an intimate view of this very public figure. The lush fabrics, textures, clear colors, and enamel-like surfaces of the painting create an effect that is convincing and vivid.

Napoleon took up residence in the Tuileries Palace in Paris after appointing himself emperor in 1804, the year in which this picture is set. Careful details—the clock at 4:13, the lamp’s nearly spent candle, early morning light seeping into the chamber at the left—indicate that the emperor is burning the midnight oil. He grasps a golden snuff box—whose contents would have helped him stay awake. The ruler’s hair is rumpled, stockings bagging slightly around his ankles. 

On the desk is the product of the emperor’s all-nighter, quill pen now set aside—a sheaf of papers bearing the letters “COD.”  This is the French Civil Code, or Code Napoleon. Enacted in 1804, it superseded a hodgepodge of church and royal ordinances that had previously governed daily life, replacing them with a patriarchal system of personal rights. The code still informs French law today.

Preparatory Drawing

Jacques-Louis David, Preparatory Drawing for “Napoleon in his Study at the Tuileries,” 1812. Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon.

Other details are concrete symbols of Napoleon’s indomitable rule. A map partly unrolled on the floor, sword propped in the chair, and lion finial of the desk represent him as a conquerer, prepared for battle. The blue uniform with red cuffs is that of the foot grenadiers of the Imperial Guard; Napoleon preferred to wear soldier’s garb on certain dress occasions to signify solidarity with his troops. Under the desk, Plutarch’s volume Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans associates Napoleon with the great leaders of the past. Decorative golden bees sewn into his velvet chair are a 5th-century emblem associated with the first French rulers. Note the letter “N” carved into the legs of the desk. This artfully contrived yet realistic tableau reveals itself to be a masterful work of propaganda.

It may seem unusual that a Scotsman would commission a French painter to create such a work. The marquess (later 10th Duke of Hamilton) was an avid art collector and Francophile. He also harbored grander ambitions and commissioned the painting in the interest of fostering friendship between France and Scotland, choosing David, Napoleon’s official painter, for his project in cultural diplomacy.

Before dispatching the painting to the marquess, the artist hosted a private exhibition of the completed picture in his studio, where the work was widely admired and said to be an excellent likeness. The image influenced many subsequent portrayals of Napoleon—the hand in the waistcoat gesture connoting self-control became his motif—and introduced a new kind of realism to French painting.

Jacques-Louis David

Studio of Georges Rouget, Jacques-Louis David, c. 1813/1815

About the Artist

Jacques-Louis David’s career spanned the upheavals of late 18th- and early 19th-century France, including revolution, the gutting of the monarchy, counter-revolution, the advent of a self-appointed French emperor (Napoleon), and finally restoration of the monarchy. If this period of history was turbulent and overwrought, David’s paintings are solemn by contrast, capturing and allegorizing the ideals, major personages, and events of the period with cool austerity and grandeur. David has come to embody the rise of neoclassical art, grounded in an emulation of the clean lines of ancient sculpture, and rejecting the fantastical and decorative rococo style that came to symbolize the excess of the French monarchy.

David was born in Paris, his father an iron merchant, his mother’s family architects and stonemasons. His father died in a duel when Jacques-Louis was nine, and his mother’s family directed his artistic training, installing him as an apprentice in the studio of a Parisian artist. When he was 18, he entered the Académie royale, a training ground for court painters whose governors determined acceptable artistic styles; its imprimatur was critical to an artist’s success.

Winning the Prix de Rome, a travel prize administered by the Académie, took David to Italy in 1774. He stayed five years, absorbing the lessons of Renaissance paintings and Greek and Roman sculpture, joining a circle of artists emulating those works in a new way. He returned to France a master of the neoclassical style, receiving accolades from the Académie and commissions from wealthy patrons. He founded a thriving studio through which passed hundreds of students—most notably Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres. He also married Marguerite-Charlotte Pécoul, an alliance that provided financial security.

Madame David

Jacques-Louis David, Madame David, 1813

By the late 1780s, the monarchy’s corrupt ways and widespread class inequality spurred an angry uprising among the working class. David became politicized through a conflict he had with the Académie, an institution of privilege and exclusivity. Eventually he became a kind of art director for the Revolution, staging events and pageants, supporting Louis XVI’s and Marie-Antoinette’s executions in 1793. Several art commissions David undertook during the period illustrate events and figures of the Revolution, but they were left incomplete as the political winds shifted. His career as a revolutionary ended when he was arrested and imprisoned following the execution of his compatriot Robespierre, who instigated the Reign of Terror. David was eventually freed owing to poor health.

The young General Napoleon, whom David admired and met in 1798 prior to his seizure of power in France, became his next patron. Following Napoleon’s self-coronation as emperor in 1804, David became premier peintre. Gradually, however, he lost favor with the emperor, who tired of David’s politicking within the court and his exorbitant fees. When Napoleon was overthrown and the French monarchy restored in 1815, David, along with other “regicides”—signers of Louis XVI’s death warrant—was exiled to Brussels.

In Brussels, at age 68, David re-established himself once more as a successful portraitist. He died there in 1825, never having returned to France.

Related Resources

 

Slideshow: More Works by Jacques-Louis David