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Napoleon in Triumph

© 2003 Musée du Louvre / Pierre Philibert

Sculptures
France, 19th century

Author(s):
Isabelle Lemaistre, Emilie Leverrier, Béatrice Tupinier

To crown the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel at the entrance to the former Palais des Tuileries, Dominique Vivant Denon (1747-1825) commissioned a statue from the sculptor François Frédéric Lemot—a gilded lead piece representing Napoleon driving the chariot of Victory drawn by the famous horses from St. Mark's basilica.

A sculptural group to top the Arc de Triomphe

The statue of Napoleon in Triumph by François Frédéric Lemot (1772-1827) once stood atop the Arc du Carrousel (ordered to be built by imperial decree of February 26, 1806). The arch, positioned in the central axis, formed a monumental entrance that cleverly linked the Louvre palace to that of the Tuileries. Vivant Denon (1747-1825), the director of the Musée Napoléon, was entrusted with the design of this monument to the glory of the Grande Armée, whose iconographic program was based on the victory of Austerlitz. His audacious plan for the top of the monument was a sculptural group in which the emperor himself would play the role of the god Mars and drive the chariot of Victory. The work was to be made of gilded lead—a material as solid as bronze, but three times less expensive. Vivant Denon commissioned the sculptor François Frédéric Lemot to create the entire piece: Napoleon, driving the chariot of Victory harnessed to the four famous horses from St. Mark’s basilica in Venice, flanked by the allegorical figures of Peace and Victory. Although all the projects proposed by Vivant Denon from 1806 to 1808 featured the figure of the Emperor as a charioteer, to general surprise when Napoleon saw his effigy at the top of the arch (on August 15, 1808), he ordered it to be removed, insisting that "if nothing better can be found for the chariot, it should remain empty." Contrary to the assertions in the Diary of Pierre François Léonard Fontaine (1762-1853), the sculpture was not taken down the next day but in 1812 (correspondence of August 16 and 19, 1812). Although it had been assembled in several pieces, it was fixed as a block to the arch with five iron bars. The unfortunate Lemot was given the task of dismantling the statue, which was then placed in the Orangerie.

St. Mark’s horses—spoils of war—were returned to Venice in 1815. The sculptor Jean-François Bosio (1768-1845) made a new quadriga (four-horse chariot), in which the statue of Peace, placed between two Victories and inaugurated in 1828, can still be seen today.

Representation of the Emperor

This statue differs from other representations of Napoleon in that the slender proportions of the body and the idealized facial features make him look like a Roman emperor. Except for the drapery—a sort of compromise between the paludamentum (a cloak worn by Roman dignitaries) and the full-length ceremonial costume of an emperor—the sculptor adopted the official iconographic codes as they appear in the painting by François Gérard (1770-1837) showing Emperor Napoleon I in his coronation robes (in the Louvre, RF 1973-28). The drapery is decorated with the bee motif that symbolized the Empire; bees were considered to be the most ancient symbol of the kings of France, adopted by King Childeric I who founded the Merovingian dynasty in 457. Napoleon used references to the Carolingian dynasty and ancient Rome to establish his authority; the statue shows him grasping the pommel of his sheathed sword (one of the royal insignia known as the "honors of Charlemagne," restored for his coronation at Notre-Dame on December 2, 1804) which suggests continuity with the Carolingian Empire, while in his right hand he holds the imperial scepter (the baton of command, sign of sovereign authority), topped by the eagle that, together with his laurel wreath crown, symbolized Victory in ancient Rome. The crown and scepter were specially created for the coronation ceremony by Napoleon’s official goldsmith, Martin-Guillaume Biennais (1764-1843). The emperor also wears the chain of the Légion d'Honneur, composed of eagles linked with rings; this was probably the first chain made by the goldsmith for the coronation ceremony. The plaque of the Légion d'Honneur has the shape of a star with five double branches; it hangs from the central medallion, composed of the Napoleonic "N", surrounded by a laurel wreath and topped by the imperial crown.
These iconographic elements associated Napoleon with the most ancient French dynasties—avoiding any reference to the Bourbon dynasty, overthrown by the Revolution that had ultimately brought Napoleon to power

Bibliography

- Pierre-François-Léonard FONTAINE, Journal 1799-1853, Société de l'histoire de l'art français, Paris, 1987.

- Vivant-Denon, directeur des musées sous le Consulat et l'Empire, correspondance (1802-1815), RMN, Paris, 1999.

- Dominique Vivant Denon, l’œil de Napoléon. Paris, RMN, 1999.

- L'orfèvre de Napoléon, Martin-Guillaume Biennais, sous la direction d'Anne Dion-Tenenbaum, RMN, Paris, 2003.

- François Frédéric Lemot, 1771-1827. Statuaire. Nantes, conseil général de Loire atlantique, 2005.

- Kings as collectors. Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts from the Musée du Louvre. Atlanta, High Museum of Art, 2006-2007.

Technical description

  • François Frédéric LEMOT (Lyon, 1772 - Paris, 1827)

    Napoleon in Triumph

    1808

  • Lead

    H. 2.60 m

  • Commissioned by Dominique Vivant Denon on Napoleon I’s orders in 1806

    MR 3458

  • Sculptures

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