Monday, December 2, 2013

David, Jacques-Louis

Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Notre-Dame de Paris, December 2, 1804
between 1805 and 1807
oil on canvas
621 x 979 cm
Louvre Museum, Paris, France

The work was commissioned by Napoleon in 1804. Jacques-Louis David, the official painter of Napoleon, started work on 21 December 1805 in the former chapel of the College of Cluny, near the Sorbonne, which served as a workshop. Assisted by his student Georges Rouget, he put the finishing touches in November 1807. The painting remained the property of David until 1819, when it was transferred to the Royal Museums, where it was stored in the reserves until 1837. Then, it was installed in the Chamber Sacre of the museum of the historical Palace of Versailles on the orders of King Louis-Philippe. In 1889, the painting was transferred to the Louvre from Versailles and replaced there with a full-size replica - this replica had been begun by David himself in 1808 and completed during his exile in Brussels. Josephine kneels before Napoleon during his coronation at Notre Dame. Behind him sits pope Pius VII.

In the classical French tradition, kings underwent consecration (sacre) rather than a coronation because of anointment, conferred by the archbishop of Reims in Notre-Dame de Reims. Napoleon blended Roman imperial pageantry with the purported memory of Charlemagne and the coronation was held in Paris in the presence of Pope Pius VII. According to government tallies, the entire cost was over 8.5 million francs. Napoleon's elevation to Emperor was overwhelmingly approved by the French citizens in a referendum. Among Napoleon's reasons for coronation were the prestige in international royalist and Catholic milieux and the foundation for future dynasty.

Jacques Louis David (1748-1825) was the most celebrated highly influential French painter in the Neoclassical style, considered to be the prominent painter of the era. In the 1780s his cerebral brand of history painting marked a change in taste away from Rococo frivolity toward a classical austerity and severity, chiming with the moral climate of the final years of the Ancien Regime.

David won wide acclaim with his huge canvases on classical themes. He was a painter to the king, Louis XVI, who had been the purchaser of his principal works, and his popularity was soon immense. He later became an active supporter of the French Revolution and friend of Maximilien Robespierre, and was effectively a dictator of the arts under the French Republic. Imprisoned after Robespierre's fall from power, he aligned himself with yet another political regime upon his release, that of Napoleon I. It was at this time that he developed his 'Empire style', notable for its use of warm Venetian colors. David had a huge number of pupils, making him the strongest influence in French art of the 19th century, especially academic Salon painting.

David was born in the year when new excavations at the ash-buried ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum were beginning to encourage a stylistic return to antiquity. His father, a prosperous dealer in textiles, was killed in a duel in 1757, and he was subsequently raised by two uncles. After classical literary studies and a course in drawing, he was placed in the studio of a history painter. At age 18 he was enrolled in the school of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. After four failures in the official competitions and years of discouragement that included an attempt at suicide, he finally obtained, in 1774, the Prix de Rome, a government scholarship that not only provided a stay in Italy but practically guaranteed lucrative commissions in France. In Italy there were many influences, including those of the dark-toned 17th-century Bolognese school, the serenely classical Nicolas Poussin, and the dramatically realistic Caravaggio. David absorbed all three, with an evident preference for the strong light and shade of the followers of Caravaggio.