What Was David's Relationship to Napoleon?

Jacques-Louis David and Napoleon Bonaparte were both prickly, complicated men who sought to shape new identities for themselves while erasing troubling aspects of their past—David's association with the violence of the French Revolution and Napoleon's ruthless rise through a coup.

Napoleon and David met in 1797 when Napoleon was back in Paris after a series of brilliant victories in Italy. David admired Napoleon for having gained power through merit rather than birth. The artist, who had a speech impediment and felt himself a social outsider, likely also felt drawn to this charismatic man of action twenty years his junior who was himself never totally at ease in French. "This is a man to whom altars would have been erected in antiquity," David allegedly exclaimed to students. "Bonaparte is my hero!"

First Painter
Early in his rule Napoleon consulted frequently and informally with David on artistic matters ranging from portraiture to interior decoration. In 1804 he honored the artist with the title of First Painter.

David hoped he would enjoy the power and prestige of Louis XIV's First Painter Charles Le Brun, who personally oversaw the Sun King's vast arts projects. Napoleon and his officials ignored David's requests for such privileges, however, and the artist never enjoyed high stature at Napoleon's court.

Napoleon personally inspected and applauded many of David's works, including the enormous Coronation. But he cancelled two related commissions without explanation, and in 1806 he rejected David's portrait of him in imperial robes, commenting to an official that "it is such a bad portrait and so full of defects that I can't accept it."

After 1805 Napoleon's attention was increasingly called away by war. Both his first wife, Josephine, and his second wife, Marie-Louise, preferred other artists to David. Feeling neglected in his role as First Painter, David proposed a number of history paintings for the Louvre, but they never moved beyond sketches. Yet he remained loyal to Napoleon, pledging his support to the emperor in his final bid for power in 1815.

In exile in Brussels, David enjoyed cordial relations with members of the Bonaparte family and spent long hours laboring on a copy of the Coronation. A year before his death he wrote a member of the Bonaparte family, "I shall never forget the signs of esteem and affection by which you and your family have always honored me. Please be assured...of the profound respect with which I am honored to be your humble servant. David, former First Painter of Emperor Napoleon I and Commander of the Legion of Honor." Even in his last year of his life, David clung to the identity granted to him by Napoleon.

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