The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries

Jacques-Louis David
Keywords: EmperorNapoleonStudyTuileries

Work Overview

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries
Artist Jacques-Louis David
Year 1812
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 203.9 cm × 125.1 cm (80.3 in × 49.3 in)
Location National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries is an 1812 painting by Jacques-Louis David. It shows French Emperor Napoleon I in uniform in his study at the Tuileries Palace. Despite the detail, it is unlikely that Napoleon posed for the portrait.[1]

It was a private commission from the Scottish nobleman and admirer of Napoleon, Alexander Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton in 1811 and completed in 1812. Originally shown at Hamilton Palace, it was sold to Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery in 1882, from whom it was bought by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in 1954, which deposited it in Washington D.C.'s National Gallery of Art, where it now hangs.

Vertical in format, it shows Napoleon standing, three-quarters life size, wearing the uniform of a colonel of the Imperial Guard Foot Grenadiers (blue with white facings and red cuffs). He also wears his Légion d'honneur and Order of the Iron Crown decorations, along with gold epaulettes, white French-style culottes and white stockings. His face is turned towards the viewer and his right hand is in his jacket.

Piled on the desk are a pen, several books, dossiers and rolled papers. More rolled papers and a map are on the green carpet to the left of the desk - on these papers is the painter's signature LVDci DAVID OPVS 1812. All this, along with Napoleon's unbuttoned cuffs, wrinkled stockings, disheveled hair, the flickering candles and the time on the clock (4.13am) are all meant to imply he has been up all night, writing laws such as the Code Napoléon - the word "Code" is prominent on the rolled papers on the desk. This maintains his new civil rather than heroic (as in Canova's Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker) or military (as in David's own Napoleon Crossing the Alps) image, though the sword on the chair's armrest still refers back to his military successes. The fleurs-de-lys and heraldic bees also imply the stability of the imperial dynasty.

At the beginning of the movie The Godfather, Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) wants nothing to do with his family’s involvement in organized crime. When telling a family story to his girlfriend, he concludes, “That’s my family, Kay, That’s not me.” As the film progresses, however, Michael’s father and older brother are the focus of violent attacks and Michael becomes more active in the family business until—at the end of the film—he has assumed the leadership of the Corleone crime syndicate by killing all of his enemies. Fictional characters—both in film and in novels—have arcs. They change through time. The same is true of real characters from history. They often have a rise, but just as often there is a precipitous fall. Napoleon Bonaparte is but one example.

A visual starting point could be Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s 1806 painting, Napoleon on His Imperial Throne (above). In this work, Ingres painted Napoleon as if he were an omnipotent ruler—rather than a mere mortal. But six years later, Jacques-Louis David (Ingres’s former teacher), painted The Emperor Napoleon in His Study in the Tulieries (1812). These two portraits—painted just six years apart—show a significant arc in the life and career of Napoleon.

Alexander Hamilton, the Tenth Duke of Hamilton (and sadly, of no relationship to the de facto leader of the Federalist Party in the United States with whom he shares a name) commissioned David to paint The Emperor Napoleon in His Study in the Tulieries in 1811.
Finished the following year, it shows a standing Napoleon, about three-quarters life-sized. He slightly turns his face to look at the viewer, and his right hand is tucked into his uniform jacket (to this day, some jackets often have a vertically zippered pocket on the left side; this is called a Napoleon pocket).
The blue jacket with the white facing and red upturned cuffs and the gold epaulettes identify him as a colonel in the Imperial Guard Foot Grenadiers—a group of elite soldiers that Napoleon personally commanded. The two medals pinned to Napoleon’s left breast speak to the scope of his rule. The leftmost of the two is the Order of the Iron Crown, an organization Napoleon founded in 1805 as the King of Italy. The second medal is that of the French Legion of Honor.

Napoleon’s uniform is completed with white knee breeches and stockings, and black shoes with gold buckles. Although he wears a military uniform, this is hardly a military portrait. He has discarded his officer’s sword—it rests on the chair on the right side of the painting—and Napoleon is shown doing the administrative work of a civic leader. He stands between the high-backed red velvet chair on the right and in front of the Empire-styled desk behind him. A gilded regal lion serves as the visible leg of the desk, and an ink-stained quill, candle-lit lamp, and various papers can be seen atop his writing table.

David has signed and dated the portrait on a rolled up map to the side of the table, a leather-bound volume of Plutarch (in French: Plutarque) is beside it. Plutarch was an ancient Roman biographer and historian, most famous in the nineteenth century as the author of The Parallel Lives, a text that explores the virtues and vices of Greek and Roman rulers, men such as Alexander the Great, Themistocles, Julius Caesar, and Cicero. The inclusion of this book was a way to visually tie Napoleon to the great rulers of the classical past who he so admired. And yet, not everything is perfect within this space.

Careful examination of the details embedded in this portrait reveals the key to David's success as a painter during the time of Louis XVI, Robespierre, and Napoleon: the artist's ability to transform his subjects into politically powerful icons.

Napoleon is placed in the center of a vertical canvas dressed in his uniform as a colonel of the Foot Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard. His pose—the slightly hunched shoulders and hand inserted into his vest—contrasts to the formality of his costume. In addition, his cuffs are unbuttoned, his leggings wrinkled, and his hair disheveled. David, in a letter to the patron of this portrait, Alexander Douglas, the tenth Duke of Hamilton, explained that his appearance was designed to show that Napoleon had spent the night in his study composing the Napoleonic Code, an impression enforced by details, such as the flickering candles that are almost extinguished, the quill pen and papers scattered on the desk, and the clock on the wall which points to 4:13 a.m.

David strategically placed the sword on the chair to allude to Napoleon's military success, while the prominent display of the word "Code" in his papers, suggests his administrative achievements. Other decorative details—the heraldic bees and the fleurs–de–lys—are symbols of French absolutism, and imply Napoleon's power as ruler.

David did paint Napoleon once more, in 1812, but this commission came from a most unexpected source. Britain and France had been at war since 1803 but such was the emperor's fame that a Scottish aristocrat, Alexander Douglas, later Duke of Hamilton, paid David the enormous sum of 1,000 guineas (18,650 francs) for a full-length portrait. This was not Napoleon the athletic and heroic warrior, but Napoleon the statesman and lawgiver who, as the burnt-down candle and the clock with a time of 4-13 am show, works far into the night for the benefit of his subjects. A scroll of paper in the bureau bears the word 'Code", which refers to the new Civil Code, actually in operation since 1804 but which was renamed the 'Code Napoleon' in 1807 in an obvious propaganda move to promote him as a legislator. In the portrait the emperor has evidently just stopped work and, as the sword on the chair indicates, now prepares to review the troops wearing the uniform of a colonel of the Foot Grenadier Guards.

Although he did not pay for it, Napoleon liked the picture and said: 'You have found me out, dear David; at night I work for my subjects' happiness, and by day I work for their glory.'