Jacques-Louis David - Napoleon in his study

by Alexandra Tuschka


The clock in the right background tells us - it's late. 4:13 a.m., to be exact. Napoleon must have devoted himself to administrative tasks all night, the candles have burnt down and the tired general has not managed to straighten his uniform quite accurately for this portrait. One button is still undone, the stockings wrinkled. The hair is also a little wild and unkempt. Napoleon must have had a long night. He has probably only just put down his quill. His left hand holds the imperial seal. Right next to it you can see the important work that was probably provided with it today: the "Code Napoléon". It is still considered the basis for the applicable law in France today.

Despite the night shift, Napoleon stands erect and alert in this portrait by Jaques-Louis David, one of the most important representatives of French classicism. He is looking at the viewer and has assumed the "Napoleon gesture" named after him, his right hand tucked into his waistcoat, which is opened by a few buttons. Although there are numerous theories, among others that this is supposed to be an identifying gesture of the Freemasons, it is presumably simply an expression of a controlled and prudent demeanour. For at many times it was true that if you gesticulated too much with your hands, you often exposed yourself as someone of low status.


At a canvas height of 204 cm, the man, who is in reality only 168 cm tall, is even somewhat larger than life. This means that the so-called "Napoleon complex" does not come into play here. This is an expression for small men who compensate for their insecurities by great achievements. To his right is a magnificent piece of furniture. A chair, similar to a throne, with golden ornaments and the "N" as initial. There are also bees and fleur-de-lys here; they are symbols of French absolutism. The golden lion on the sumptuous desk on the other side completes the décor. Today, this style is called the French "Empire style", which was also significantly influenced by David.


The uniform has many features of the Imperial Guard - here the group of grenadiers; the golden epaulettes, however, identify Napoleon as a general. In addition, two orders are clearly visible: the insignia of the Legion of Honour and the Iron Cross of Italy.

Napoleon is surrounded by all kinds of symbolic paraphernalia. The painter has placed the sword on a chair. This alludes to his successes as a general. Further details reveal that the sitter saw the military achievements of the Roman Empire as a model. The thick ham under the table, for example, is Plutarch's "Biographies", in which the lives of great commanders are described. The large scroll next to it is signed with the Latin words "This is the work of Louis David". Although Napoleon hardly ever actually sat as a model, the portrait is very successful and shapes our image of the statesman to this day. Rather, this painting was created from existing portraits and studies. The client was a British nobleman - the Duke of Hamilton. He planned a whole series of portraits of great European rulers. This is the last great portrait of Napoleon. In 1812, when it was painted, Napoleon was already engaged in the disastrous Russian campaign. Only three years later, in 1815, the Battle of Waterloo would seal his military end.


Evidence shows that David made several adjustments to the work. The grossest change concerns the background: where previously two columns framed the man, there is now a carved panel in the background on the left and the clock with dial on the right. After Napoleon's banishment in 1815, David, who was his most ardent admirer and who had been producing outspoken propaganda works since Napoleon's rise to power, fled to Brussels. David had his body buried in Brussels, only his heart - highly symbolic - was buried in Paris.


Jacques-Louis David - Napoleon in his study

Oil on canvas, 1812, 204 x 125 cm, National Gallery, Washington D.C.


Jean-Baptiste-Édouard Detaille - Foot Grenadier of the Imperial Guard

Oil on canvas, 19th century, location unknown