The French painter, Jacques-Louis David, was arguably the most famous neoclassical painter in France during the late 18th century and early 19th century until his death in 1825. He is notably remembered as winning over Napoleon’s favour, with his sublime The Invention of the Sabine Women (1799), which results in several notable commissions granted to him, to commemorate Napoleon’s ascent to power, notably Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass (1801) The Coronation of Napoleon (1807) and The Distribution of the Standards (1810).
The latter is of particular interest to me because of my fascination for Roman history and how Napoleon often sought inspiration in its military ethos. I’m talking specifically about Napoleon’s inspiration to use the Roman legion standard with its eagle for his Grande Armée. Very much reminiscent of the days of Rome, the Napoleonic eagle was meant to symbolise the might of French Imperial power.
Introduced by Napoleon in 1804, days after his coronation, the Grande Armée’s standard, originally sculptured in bronze on a plinth, with one claw resting on Jupiter’s spindle, was handed out to his regiments. On its base, a regimental number was also inscribed. Once it was placed on top of a regimental staff the standard bearer was required to hoist and guard the eagle.
It is said that Napoleon implored his men to guard the standard with their life. This is what I imagine Napoleon is saying to his colonels in Jacques-Louis David’s painting as they charge up the steps with the new Napoleonic eagle. I can also imagine that they were told if they lost the regimental eagle in battle it would bring shame upon the regiment. Interestingly, one of the most celebrated losses of the Imperial eagle came at Waterloo in 1815, but the first occasion of an eagle being taken in battle was reported during the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. (Only a very small number of the original staff eagles still exist today. Upon Napoleon’s first demise and exile on the Island of Elba, the restored monarch Louis XVIII of France destroyed almost all the standard eagles. Another version of the eagle was brought back by the Bonaparte during Napoleon’s 100 days. But after his epic defeat at the battle of Waterloo, a large proportion of them were once more destroyed.)
If we look at Jacques-Louis David’s history painting a little more closely, we can also see some other wonderful elements worthy of our attention. Our eye in particular is drawn to the emphasis of gold throughout the painting and of Napoleon, who is dressed in his imperial robes with his hand held out orchestrating praise and blessings to his loyal imperial guard.
Interestingly, in David’s original version of the painting, he had intended it to be a tribute to the army, rather than an homage to the emperor, with the allegorical figure of the winged Victory showering glory upon the army from above. But Napoleon wasn’t haven’t it, forcing David to change the composition to draw our eye instead towards the regal emperor. Another exciting element David was forced to remove in the final version of the painting was the Empress Josephine. She was supposed to be sitting on her throne behind Napoleon alongside his entourage and the court, but by the time of this composition Napoleon had divorced Josephine and married Marie Louise of Austria.
While David privately objected to Napoleon’s interference, he was nonetheless obliged to please the emperor and carry out the changes against his better judgement. Frustrated or angry, maybe even both, this painting would be the last he made of Napoleon. He would return to the simple pleasures of painting the ancient world.
This painting appears in the public domain.