Museum Home Past Exhibitions Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile

February 1–April 24, 2005 at the Getty Center

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Prison Napoleon Portraits Exile Timeline
The Emperor Napoleon / David


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Napoleon Bonaparte rose to fame at the age of 27 by routing the Austrian army in northern Italy. His bravado, military genius, and nationalist rhetoric sped him to power. He staged a successful coup d'état in 1799 and became emperor five years later.


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A brilliant propagandist, Napoleon realized David's talent for history painting and quickly enlisted him for his image machine.

Bonaparte Crossing the Alps / David
Study for a Portrait of Napoleon / David
Napoleon Crowning Himself / David

Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?

What was David's relationship to Napoleon?

David had resolved to avoid overt politics, but he was drawn to the charismatic new hero, who represented the triumph of individual will and merit over the privileges of birth. David also saw association with Napoleon as a way to restore his tarnished reputation.

Named First Painter to the Emperor in 1804, David was entrusted with commemorating key events, including the coronation. Napoleon's reign, with its pomp and splendor, seemed to promise a glorious new artistic era—in which David hoped to play a leading role. Napoleon's circle generally preferred younger artists, however, and David's commissions slowly dried up. By the close of the empire he was First Painter in name only.