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The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries

Jacques-Louis David1812

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Washington, DC, United States

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.

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  • Title: The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries
  • Date Created: 1812
  • Physical Dimensions: w1251 x h2039 cm (overall)
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: Samuel H. Kress Collection
  • External Link: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Theme: portrait, male
  • School: French
  • Provenance: Commissioned by Alexander, marquis of Douglas [1767 1852, from 1819, 10th duke of Hamilton], Hamilton Palace, Strathclyde, Scotland;[1] by inheritance to his son, William Alexander Anthony Archibald Douglas, 11th duke of Hamilton [1811 1863], Hamilton Palace, Strathclyde, Scotland; by inheritance to his son, William Alexander Louis Stephen Douglas Hamilton, 12th duke of Hamilton [1845 1895], Hamilton Palace, Strathclyde, Scotland; (Hamilton Palace Collection sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 17 June 20 July 1882 (8 July), no. 1108); bought by (F. Davis), probably buying for Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th earl of Rosebery, [1847 1929], London;[2] his son, Albert Edward Harry Mayer Archibald Primrose, 6th earl of Rosebery [1882 1974], London; sold 15 June 1951 to (Wildenstein & Co., London and New York); sold February 1954 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[3] gift 1961 to NGA. [1] Two of the three lists that David made of his works mention the NGA painting: "List B," compiled about 1815, describes it as "Le portrait en pied de l'Empereur représenté dans son Cabinet. Tableau pour l'Angleterre" (Schnapper, Antoine, et al., Jacques Louis David 1748 1825, exh. cat., Louvre and Versailles, Paris, 1989: 20); "List C," dated 1819, refers to the original painting under no. "49. Napoléon en pied dans son cabinet. Pour le marquis Douglas en Angleterre" and to David's copy of it under no. "50. Une répétition du même avec des changements dans l'habillement. Pour M. Huibans" (Wildenstein, Daniel, and Guy Wildenstein, Documents complémentaires au catalogue de l'oeuvre de Louis David, Paris, 1973: no. 1938; Schnapper et al. 1989: 21). [2] According to a 31 January 1977 letter from Sotheby Parke Bernet to David E. Rust, in NGA curatorial files, F. Davis was a London dealer who almost always purchased for the earl of Rosebery. [3] The bill of sale (copy in NGA curatorial files) is dated February 10, 1954, and was for fourteen paintings, including Napoleon in his study; payments by the Foundation continued to March 1957.
  • Artist: Jacques-Louis David

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