Napoleon Bonaparte conquered France and Europe in the name of liberté, égalité, et fraternité, but he suppressed freedom to achieve his aims. This was the birth of modern empire, and France’s greatest artists were enlisted for the cause. Staging Empire focuses on two landmark paintings that celebrated Napoleon’s coronation: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne (1806) and Jacques-Louis David’s Le Sacre (1805–7). In an unprecedented collaboration, two scholars investigate these masterpieces in their broad cultural context. This book is a sumptuously illustrated, extensively documented, analytical tour de force. Coronation pictures may seem to be all about the past, but they were produced to guarantee a future of empire whose military, media, and geopolitical practices are still with us today.
Staging Empire surveys the period’s essential problem of representing authority in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Ingres’s portrait of the new emperor is steeped in archaic symbolism, bolstered by the cult of recently minted relics. The picture’s strangeness, the press’s withering critiques, and the government’s anxious sponsorship are explored. The discussion lays bare the precariousness of modern art and politics and the dangers of cultural independence in the public sphere.
Traditionally accepted as a document of the coronation of Napoleon and Josephine, Le Sacre is instead shown to be the most important barometer of the Empire’s propagandistic strategies. The authors present it in light of Josephine’s central role and of its critical reception in newspapers and the hitherto untapped archives of Napoleon’s secret police. Le Sacre heralded an age of phony governmental transparency. Modern cultural practices, including consumerism, repressive theories of race and gender, and art history itself, were marshaled by the emperor’s official painter.