The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine

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Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine, 1807

On a cold, rainy day in pre-modern Paris, weak sunlight filters through the high windows of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  Forward steps Napoleon to crown his beloved Josephine, who waits with bended knee to assume her place as wife and continue the Napoleonic line.  A catholic cross stands auspiciously at the exact center of the picture.  With its political undertones masked in religious intent, Jacques-Louis David's The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine represents a well-executed propaganda piece.  Its commissioner, Napoleon, was right to approve.

Thematically speaking, religion becomes immediately obvious.  Two of the central compositional shapes highlight religious symbols.  A main arc of people sweeps from the left side of the painting and ascends up to the golden crucifix.  A cross standing strategically at the work's center tops another smaller arc from Napoleon's arm to the crown.  David has placed the paralleled figures at lofty heights in an assertion that Napoleon rules under God.  In case the message weren't clear enough, a ray of light literally streams in from the window to illuminate Napoleon.

But, almost subversively, David has placed subtle political messages.  Note how Napoleon stands higher than the Pope.  Although Napoleon instructed that he be depicted to look supportive of the rising leader, the Pope historically did not approve of France's new government ever since the previous revolutionaries had turned their country away from the Catholic Church.  The revolutionary regime deemed it too indulgent and embodying the very nobility they had just overthrown.  David's scene shows the threat of Napoleon becoming more powerful and influential than the church.

The painting appears rather austere and only moderately embellished, still a clear departure from the old nobility's flamboyant rococo.  David, first the French Revolution's propagandist and head artist, eluded exile from France as Napoleon's regime took hold and struggled into his former seat of power over the public.  His illustration of a militant emperor superseding the old methods of leadership would resonate with the people as a profound change.  Accordingly, a Neoclassicist approach appears in Napoleon's laurel wreath and Roman-like robes, recalling old European empires and marking Napoleon as a sort of Augustus Caesar incarnate.

The imposing painting of around six by ten meters attempts to establish authority for Napoleon.  This work showed the public a clear leader, garbed in Imperial Roman treasures and apparently held in esteem by the Church and, vicariously, God.  With the all-powerful lending legitimacy, the painting said, and with Napoleon the reincarnation of the father of Europe's greatest historical empire, nothing could stop France from expanding.  As during the Revolution and the reigns of kings before, this propaganda delivered a singular message to the common folk - to bow down to a new regime.

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