Portrait of Marie Louise, Empress of France, 1812

Robert Lefèvre

Portrait of Maria Luigia of Habsburg Empress of France (1812) by Robert LefèvreFondazione Museo Glauco Lombardi

This canvas was made in 1812, two years after Maria Louisa's marriage to Napoleon and a year after the birth of the little king of Rome. The painting is a typical example of an official portrait, for its size, formal setting and dense symbolism relating to imperial power. Let's discover together the messages of this portrait!

The throne

Evident symbol of sovereignty, the throne features the initial of Napoleon on the back, which characterized everything that concerned him, and at the same time emphasizes the empress' bond with Bonaparte. The swan that acts as an armrest is not only an elegant decoration, but also a symbol of passion.

The cushion

The motifs embroidered in golden thread on the blue velvet cushion on which the crown rests, while recalling the Bourbon lilies of the kings of France, represent one of the secondary symbols most used by Bonaparte - namely bees - which are also carved on the frame.
The insect evokes the productive capacity and idea of a peer kingdom under a single head (the queen bee) and had also been used in the Carolingian Empire, one of the great precedents to which Napoleon wanted to be inspired.

The eagle

The diamond crown laid on the cushion bears an eagle with unfolded wings on its top, the primary symbol identified by Bonaparte for his empire and for himself with clear allusion to the great Roman Empire that had made the eagle its own emblem.

The colors

The central part of the canvas is dominated by three colors: the white of the dress of Maria Luigia, the red of the drape that covers the table and the blue of the silky velvet of the pillow. The woman portrayed - even for those who do not recognize her from her facial features - wants to present herself as empress of France through the colors of the national flag.

In addition to the physical appearance of the new Empress, it was necessary to present - and make appreciate - some character traits of the new Empress to the French.

Here then the painter depicted the symbols of the passions of the young Habsburg on the table: the two books allude to her love of reading and her culture in general, the stylus recalls her habit of writing, the male profile drawn on the sheet - which not surprisingly depicts Bonaparte - sums up her pictorial ability, while the score her musical competence.

The choker

The magnificent white diamond chocker was one of the emperor's gifts to his wife for the birth of their long-awaited heir: among the jewels worn by the Empress in this portrait, it is the only survivor almost intact and today kept at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The other jewels present here were instead part of the Crown Jewels of France, therefore they were not the sovereign's personal possessions.

The dress

Marie Louise wears a typical empire-style dress (the so-called petit costume) that respects the dictates of that elegant and sensual fashion codified by Giuseppina Beauharnais; the silk tulle is entirely covered with silver yarn embroidery and the height of the embroidered edge at the bottom of the dress also obeys precise sumptuary norms.

Credits: Story

Text by Francesca Sandrini, director of the Glauco Lombardi Museum Foundation

Credits: All media
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