The Coronation of Emperor Napoleon Ier : a key work

<em>The Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I<sup>er</sup></em> : a key work

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Title: Coronation of Emperor Napoleon and coronation of Empress Joséphine

Author : DAVID Jacques Louis (1748 - 1825)

Creation date : 1806

Date shown: 02 December 1804

Dimensions: Height 621 - Width 979

Technique and other indications: in the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral on December 2, 1804. (2nd study) Oil on canvas

Storage location: Louvre Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Picture reference: 93DE1570 / INV 3699

Coronation of Emperor Napoleon and coronation of Empress Joséphine

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Publication date: November 2004


The coronation of Emperor Napoleon I: a key work


Historical context

After the life consulate established in 1802, the Council of State, inspired by the myth of Charlemagne, suggested in 1804 the establishment of the imperial regime. A new constitution entrusts the government of the Republic to Napoleon Bonaparte, who becomes hereditary emperor.



, the organization of which is entrusted to Ségur, grand master of ceremonies, assisted by the first chamberlain, Rémusat, is planned at Notre-Dame. Charlemagne's scepter and crown are restored or copied for the occasion, while the diamond is enshrined in the pommel of the sword.

The future emperor and empress go to Notre-Dame separately. Napoleon however wears the crown of Charlemagne himself before taking the constitutional oath at the end of the coronation.

Image Analysis

The vast composition measuring 9 by 6 meters, which brings together more than two hundred figures, gives the impression of a living scene. David is inspired by

Coronation of Marie de Medici

by Rubens, without however repeating its curved lines.

Wearing a white satin robe, a crimson velvet coat embroidered with gold, and a gold fringed belt, the Emperor stands tall. Wearing a laurel ring, he is about to place the crown on the head of


, who is dressed in white and silver and is kneeling on a square cushion of purple velvet sown with bees, a Merovingian symbol. This unique movement is at the center of the stage.

Behind, Bessières, the authorizing officer of the ceremony, can be distinguished, while Madame de La Rochefoucauld, Joséphine's maid of honor, and Madame Lavalette, her lady-in-waiting, in white and in a diadem, support the heavy train of the 'empress. On the right, behind the Emperor, the Pope

Pius VII

, seated in an armchair, raises his right hand to bless them.

In a slightly oblique frieze, the figures of majestic calm are ordered according to a rigorous rhythm. This fair distribution of the crowd forms a set of vertical figures highlighted by gradations of color and light.

The resemblance of the characters and the detail of the costumes give this painting the realism of a portrait gallery: to the right of the Pope, the Cardinal-Legate Caprara. To his left, the Archbishop Lebrun, from behind, wearing a headdress like all princes and dignitaries à la Henri IV, in a purple coat embroidered with gold, in his left hand holding a staff topped with the imperial eagle. To Lebrun's right, Archchancellor Cambacérès, seen in profile, holds the hand of justice and, beside him, Berthier carrying the cushion on which rests the imperial globe surmounted by a cross. Then comes Talleyrand in a red coat decorated with a decoration. Above him, Eugène de Beauharnais, bareheaded, in a hussar and with a red cord, leans on his sword.

In the middle of the table, we can clearly see


, in a dress embroidered with gold and satin breeches, which still holds the cushion on which the crown rested. Just behind him, also plumed with a feathered hat, stand Ségur, on the left, and Marshals Moncey and Serrurier. In the central background, on the first of the three canopied stands, we can see the mother of the Emperor in the center. Dressed in white, wearing a diadem and a veil on her head, she is surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting and chamberlains. On the left are present Joseph and Louis Bonaparte, the sisters and sisters-in-law of the Emperor,

Caroline Murat

, Grand Duchess of Berg and future Queen of Naples,

Pauline, Princess Borghese


Elisa bacciochi

, future Princess of Lucca and Piombino, Princess Hortense, Prince Napoleon. In the back, Duroc, Napoleon's loyal aide-de-camp. Behind the prie-Dieu, Cardinal de Belloy, Archbishop of Paris, and his vicars.

The play of light organizes and gives rhythm to the composition as well as the green-red harmony of the velvets. The plans are staggered by the play of values ​​and by the pictorial execution, increasingly light towards the background. David groups and distributes the masses with contrasting lighting, a vibrant touch, a skilful orientation of the light, focused on the leading roles, fading into dim light on the left. The open curve, completed on the right by the figures, seen from behind, of Cambacérès and Lebrun holding, alongside Berthier and Talleyrand, the scepter and the hand of justice, gives depth to the ceremony.

On discovering the painting, Napoleon said: “What a relief, what a truth! It’s not painting; we walk in this table. His fidelity to the event, however, has its limits: for example, there was only a Legion of Honor necklace with attached eagles while Napoleon and his two brothers are seen wearing one. The Emperor's mother, in delicacy with her son, was not present, and neither was Cardinal Caprara, who was ill that day. Beside the Pope actually stood Cardinal di Pietro. In addition, the arrangement of the elements sometimes breaks the protocol: the prie-dieu that we see separated from the small almost invisible thrones near the altar are actually placed behind the papal throne, also placed lower than it. should not be, the canopy is lowered, the second row of stands between the arches is higher, the priests behind the altar are imaginary ...


This real allegory marks the end of neoclassicism and the primacy of realism and the artist's freedom over the historical genre.

The work has a political meaning: imperial couple, pope, cardinals and marshals are in full light while courtiers, brothers and sisters are in the shadows.

It has an anticlerical aspect:

Napoleon consecrates himself Josephine

, making the Pope a simple witness.

The Coronation of the Emperor and Empress at Notre-Dame is above all the spectacle of the

meeting of two geniuses, the artist and the Emperor

: "I will slip into posterity in the shadow of my hero," said David. It forms a world where old and new regimes, old and new century, aristocrats, crunchies, heroes, defrocked prelates, upstarts, glories and pettiness, jealousies, ambitions, betrayals, vanities, hypocrisies, comedy of human greatness, mix.

Finally, the presence of Joseph-Marie Vien in what David considered to be the most important of his works can be read as a tribute from the pupil to his teacher.

  • Clergy
  • Beauharnais (Joséphine de)
  • Bonaparte (Napoleon)
  • Notre Dame de Paris
  • Pius VII
  • Napoleonic propaganda
  • coronation of Napoleon
  • Talleyrand-Périgord (Charles-Maurice de)
  • Charlemagne
  • Murat (Joachim)


Louis BERGERON, The Napoleonic Episode. Interior aspects. 1799-1815, Paris, Seuil, coll. “Points Histoire”, 1972.

José CABANIS, The Coronation of Napoleon, Paris, Gallimard, coll. "The Thirty Days which made France", 1970, reed. coll. "Folio History", 1994.

François FURET, The Revolution 1770-1880: from Turgot to Jules Ferry, Paris, Hachette, 1988, reed. "Plural", 1992.

Antoine SCHNAPPER, Jacques-Louis David. 1748-1825, cat. exp. Paris, Louvre, Versailles, national castle museum, Paris, RMN, 1989.

To cite this article

Malika DORBANI-BOUABDELLAH, " The Coronation of Emperor Napoleon Ier : a key work ”


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