Napoleon Bonaparte and the Transition from Neoclassicism to Romanticism

When the Reign of Terror ended Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power.  He was elected First Consul of the newly formed French Republic in 1799, and from 1804-1815 he reigned as emperor of one of the greatest empires in history.  Many of the leading artists in France were commissioned to create artworks glorifying the emperor, and their works ushered in a transition from Neoclassicism to Romanticism.

Jacques Louis David, The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812National Gallery of Art
Jacques Louis David, The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812
National Gallery of Art
Hyacinth Rigaud, Louis XIV, 1701
Hyacinth Rigaud, Louis XIV, 1701

Jacques Louis David was one of the first to receive commissions from the new emperor.  In this portrait he depicts Napoleon as a noble hero of the nation — a kind of French counterpart to the American President George Washington.  The emperor is shown in his office, working late at night; the Code Napoléon (his famous law code) can be seen rolled up on the table.  Unlike traditional portraits of European monarchs (remember Rigaud’s portrait of Louis XIV?), the emphasis is on his his noble character and virtue, rather than his aristocratic status:

“Totally unlike traditional portraits of sovereigns in their robes of state, this standing portrait is a realist allegory of the emperor’s civilian activities. Napoleon is wearing the blue uniform (with white lapels) of a Colonel of the Grenadiers à pied de la Garde . . . The candles are burned down, the clock shows four in the morning, his pen and paper are thrown down on the desk, everything is designed to imply that he has just spent all night working on the Code Civil. Dawn is rising and the emperor is preparing to go and review his troops. The picture’s message is clear: the military leader is also a powerful statesman, administrator and legislator, whose capacity for work is unparalleled.”

David’s The Emperor in His Study at the Tuileries (Smarthistory)

Jacques Louis David, The First Consul crossing the Alps at the Grand-Saint-Bernard pass Musée National du Château de Malmaison

David continued to serve Napoleon as his political image was transformed into a larger-than-life super-hero character.  In this painting David portrays Napoleon as an heroic figure crossing the Alps at Saint Bernard pass.  The picture is a theatrical exaggeration of what actually took place:

“Without a doubt the most famous painting of the Napoleonic legend. David here exalts what was in fact quite a prosaic reality, namely that Napoleon crossed the pass riding a donkey, wearing not a magnificent cloak but a simple grey greatcoat ! The complete personification of the Romantic hero, the First Consul triumphs on a rearing charger in a diagonal composition, the very image of irresistible rise. A propaganda masterpiece, the work puts Napoleon on a par with the conquerors of antiquity, namely Hannibal and Charlemagne, whose names appear graven in the foreground rocks.”

Napoleon liked David’s portrait so much he had four copies made, but he soon turned to  a new generation of artists to visualize the Napoleonic legend — and they forged a new dramatic style that came to be know as Romanticism.

Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa, 1804, oil on canvas, 209 x 280 inches (Musée du Louvre, Paris)
Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa,
1804, oil on canvas, 209 x 280 inches (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Antoine-Jean Gros was a student of David’s, but he pioneered a new style that led to a new direction in art.  This painting depicts an episode from one of Napoleon’s campaigns in Syria:  an outbreak of plague had stricken his troops, and Napoleon hoped to stem the rising tide of panic by visiting some of the plague-stricken victims in person.  It was one of those “photo-ops” that politicians know how to manipulate (the President visiting troops on Christmas, or paying a personal visit to families hit hard by disaster) — and Gros knew how to milk it for all it was worth!  Painted on an enormous scale (17 ft high by 23 ft wide), Gros shows the Emperor reaching out to touch the open sore of one of the victims, making him appear like a Christ-like figure with miraculous powers of healing (the poses are actually based on traditional images of Doubting Thomas, where Thomas reaches out to touch Christ’s wound to verify that it is real).  To amplify the Emperor’s courage and compassion, the soldier behind him holds a handkerchief to his nose to shield himself from the sickening smell.  Of course none of this was true:  in reality, Napoleon ordered the death of the sickened prisoners, and he poisoned the infected soldiers!

Gros’s Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa (Smarthistory)

What Makes This Work Romantic?
Gros pictures anticipates the characteristics of Romanticism in several ways.  First of all, the exotic setting (the scene takes place in a Muslim Mosque) evokes a mysterious mood that contrasts with the clarity and simplicity of Neoclassicism.  The lighting also creates a mysterious atmosphere, with its mood-enhancing shadows, and dramatic spotlight effects.  There is also a morbid fascination with the dead and dying victims that goes against Neoclassicism’s emphasis on virtue and nobility.  And finally, there is the style:  in contrast to David’s polished finish, crisp outlines, and balanced compositions, Gros’ work breaks with all of these cardinal rules of Neoclassicism.  All of this anticipated the new, revolutionary style of Romanticism, that became a leading force in the 19th century.

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