Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? First floor, room 75 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
Commissioned by? Napoleon Bonaparte
Also known as? This painting is officially entitled The Coronation of the Emperor Napolean I and the Crowning of the Empress Joséphine in Notre-Dame Cathedral on December 2, 1804.
What do you see? A large number of almost life-size figures are present in the Notre-Dame Cathedral for the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte. This painting (979cm x 621cm) is one of the largest works in the Louvre. Napoleon is the person in the middle holding the crown, and the painting shows the moment that Napoleon is about to place the crown on the head of his wife Joséphine who is kneeling on a pillow. Napoleon is wearing his coronation robe, which is similar to the robes worn by Roman emperors. The person sitting to the right of Napoleon is Pope Pius VII. He is observing and blessing the coronation but is participating involuntarily under the pressure of Napoleon. The woman in the white dress sitting on a chair in the center of the painting is the mother of Napoleon. In the left foreground, you can see the two identically dressed (with the black hats) brothers of Napoleon, Joseph (on the left) and Louis (on the right). To the right of Napoleon’s brothers are his three sisters (also identically dressed). From left to right, Caroline, Pauline, and Elisa. To the right of his sisters, and again similarly dressed, are Hortense (the daughter of Joséphine) and Julie Clary (the wife of Joseph Bonaparte). In the background, Jacques-Louis David also painted himself as he was present at this event. Finally, look at the expressions of all the 204 faces in the painting. They all look quite serious, signifying the importance of this event.
Backstory: This painting captures an important event in history, and Jacques-Louis David was in the audience that day. On December 2, 1804, the 35-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself during a five-hour ceremony as the first Emperor of France, and he crowned his 41-year-old wife Joséphine to be the first Empress. Before the French Revolution of 1789, France was a monarchy. The revolution turned France into a republic. In this painting, you see the moment that Napoleon turned France back into a monarchy. He brought in Pope Pius VII from Rome to bless him at the event. The painting is a fairly accurate representation of history, but not everything in the painting is true. Several details are changed to favor Napoleon. For example, the mother of Napoleon, Letizia Bonaparte, was in Rome during the coronation, but still received a prominent place in this painting. His brother Joseph on the left was also not present at the event. When David finished the painting and Napoleon saw it for the first time, he said: “It is not a painting. There are people walking in this picture. Life is everywhere. David, I salute you. You have made me a French knight.”
Who is Napoleon? Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) was one of the leaders of the French Revolution in 1789. He was a successful military leader, and he became a general in the French army at age 24. He was the leader of a coup in 1799 and eventually crowned himself as the emperor of France in 1804. Napoleon was married to Joséphine who is crowned in this painting. He divorced her in 1809 because she could not get children (even though she got two children from her previous husband). He later married Marie Louise, the daughter of the emperor of Habsburg. He died in 1821 while in exile on the remote island Saint Helena in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Who is Jacques-Louis David? Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was considered to be the best painter of his era. From a young age, he received a very good education in arts. In 1774 he won the Prix de Rome, a prestigious art scholarship that allowed him to work for five years at the French Academy in Rome. He abandoned the dominant rococo style, which was popular during that time, and developed a neoclassical approach. He was specifically inspired by the works of Raphael and painted many historical topics inspired by ancient Greek and Rome. For example, in 1787 he painted The Death of Socrates, which is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. During the time of the French revolution, he was involved in politics and devoted himself to Napoleon who knighted him in 1803. At the time of this painting, Jacques-Louis David was the official painter of Napoleon. David has taught many other well-known artists, such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Antoine-Jean Gros.
Fun fact: Napoleon thought that it would be a good idea to have the Pope bless him to turn France into a Christian monarchy. However, it was common that someone who wanted to be blessed by the Pope traveled to Rome. Napoleon wanted instead for the Pope to come to France to establish his dominance in power over the Pope. The Pope, though, initially did not want to travel to Paris without a good religious reason. In the end, the Pope reluctantly agreed, having the idea that by coming to Paris he could get some concessions from Napoleon that were favorable to the Catholic Church. This, however, turned out to be a false idea and the Pope was basically present to bless Napoleon against his will. Finally, at the moment that the Pope wanted to crown Napoleon, he took the crown from the Pope and put it on his own head. This act was seen as a public humiliation of the Pope.