Canvas of Lies
By Dale King
History records the many accomplishments of Napoleon Bonaparte: Emperor of France, conqueror of Europe and one of the world’s greatest soldiers. But the diminutive ruler exhibited a more modern skill that’s often overlooked.
He was a “master at spin” – fictionalizing, that is, says author David Markham, who translated Napoleon’s less-than-accurate military bulletins into English. They were so packed with mistruths that the phrase, “To lie like a bulletin,” quickly entered the lexicon.
The Paris Muse says Napoleon was not above revising history to benefit himself. Essentially, that’s what he did some 200 years ago when he directed the painter of the massive Coronation of Napoleon to insert people who weren’t there and change the behavior of those who were, to suit his own fancy.
“This is a propaganda painting,” says Martin Kiefer, exhibition coordinator at the Louvre in Paris where hangs the 20×32 foot work showing 191 people on 500 square feet of paintable canvas. Kiefer says Napoleon ordered artist Jacques-Louis David to alter his work “to cheat history, to make it seem more ideal and to show [Napoleon] as someone of importance.”
The monarch commissioned David in 1807 to paint the huge canvas which showcases the splendor of the emperor’s coronation at Notre Dame, while conveying its political and symbolic message.
Centrally located in the painting is Napoleon’s mother, seated serenely in the VIP gallery. The problem is, she wasn’t really there, says Kiefer. The French leader’s crusty Corsican mom had gone to Rome, and was intentionally late getting back because she objected to the grandiose ceremony.
What Lies Beneath
Also, in pencil drawings that neo-Classical artists like David typically made before finishing their portraits, Napoleon is shown holding the crown above his own head. But in the final portrait, his hands are forward as if to place the imperial headpiece on his wife, Joséphine.
Napoleon’s spouse got something of a facelift in the painting, says Kiefer. Her visage is aglow with youth and beauty. But “she was not that beautiful.”
In the pencil drawings, David shows Joséphine more realistically – double chin and all. The Paris Muse says that when a visitor to his studio said Joséphine seemed too young in the final painted version, the artist retorted: “Eh, bien, allez le lui dire!” (“Oh, yeah? Go tell her that!”)
Some modifications are more subtle. Napoleon’s sisters stand immobile, though they actually held the train of the empress’ garb at the ceremony, says the Paris Muse. Pope Pius VII, who traveled from Rome for the coronation, was initially depicted as sitting with his hands in his lap. When the French emperor saw it, he fumed, “I didn’t have him come so far to do nothing.” So the artist “lifted” the Pope’s right hand to extend a blessing.
Standing on the lip of the altar, Napoleon is shown to be taller than his reported 5-foot, 7-inch frame. David also adopted another modern technique – downsizing – to make the cathedral smaller so everyone inside would appear larger.
David’s artistic trickery satisfied the emperor: “What relief, what truthfulness! This is not a painting; one walks in this picture.” The artist, realizing the significance of his work, said, “I shall slide into posterity in the shadow of my hero.”
The Coronation of Napoleon hangs in the Louvre Museum, Paris.