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Work Napoleon Crowning Himself Emperor before the Pope

Department of Prints and Drawings: 19th century

L'Empereur Napoléon Ier se couronnant lui-même

Prints and Drawings
19th century

Author(s):
Prat Louis-Antoine

The crowning of Napoleon took place at Notre-Dame in Paris on 2 December 1804, and David was chosen to record four scenes, the best-known being Napoleon Crowning the Empress Josephine, now in the Louvre. In this preliminary drawing, David depicts an episode not eventually shown: Napoleon crowning himself, with Pope Pius VII seated behind him.

An unforgettable scene

The day of the coronation, Napoleon decided to crown himself, even though it had been intended that the Pope perform the ceremony. This drawing was doubtless executed shortly afterwards, and David initially included the scene in the large commemorative canvas in the Louvre. Here the artist has not only captured a historic moment; his drawing of the Emperor is charged with all the significance of a conquering soldier, hand grasping the pommel of his sword in the gesture of someone who owes his new-found power to no-one but himself.

Un couple improbable

Napoleon had had Pope Pius VII come from Rome especially for the coronation. In his painting David had initially shown the pontiff as we see him here, but when Napoleon declared that he "had not brought the Pope such a long way to do nothing," David introduced a vague gesture of blessing. In the drawing the contrast between the two is extraordinary: Napoleon gorged with power, the Pope overwhelmed and static.

A series of modifications

David's intention had long been to show Napoleon's crowning of himself, and three cartoons include this scene, with the Empress Josephine kneeling before her husband. When the canvas was all but finished, however, David - perhaps on the advice of his pupil, the painter François Gérard - decided to eliminate this image of the emperor and replace it with Napoleon's crowning of Josephine. The result was the celebrated painting now in the Louvre, a copy of which, made by the artist in Brussels some time after 1815, is at Versailles.

Bibliography

P. Rosenberg, L.-A. Prat, Jacques-Louis David 1748-1825: Catalogue raisonné of the drawings, 2002, I, plate 198

Technical description

  • Jacques-Louis David (Paris, 1748-Brussels, 1825)

    Napoleon Crowning Himself Emperor before the Pope

    1805

  • Black pencil on beige paper; very light traces of penwork, sepia ink

    H. 0.293 m; 0.252 m

  • Acquired 1917

    404377

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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Additional information about the work

In black pencil: L. David f.