Monday, February 23, 2009

Go Napoleon

Ah, Gentle Reader, the history of Napoleon Bonaparte, otherwise known as "the little corporal", the Emperor of the French, and "Boney", is as long and complex as it is often hilarious. Where to begin?

Why not with one of the most famous picture of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David? This particular painting includes portraits of every official present at the ceremony, from the Pope (who was originally painted with his hands in his lap, before Napoleon said that the Pope had to be doing something, at which point David re-painted the Pope with a hand extended, as if in a blessing) to Napoleon's mother (who did not actually bother to show up to the coronation at all).

The creation of this particular painting was long and extremely complicated. At the cornonation itself, David got an impared sightline (it was impossible not to; Notre Dame was not built so that artists could capture every detail of a coronation) and challeged someone with a supposedly better view of the proceedings to a duel. Then came Napoleon's spiteful and self-absorbed sisters, who hated Josephine and refused to carry her train. Napoleon then informed them that, if they didn't carry Josephine's train in the procession, they would not be part of the procession and their resentment faded to trying to trip Josephine during the ceremony (Josephine didn't). Then the Pope discovered that Napoleon and Josephine had been married in a town hall, under the laws of the Directory and refused to continue with the ceremony until they were married by a priest. It was a long, frustrating process, and the creation of the painting itself was no better.
Napoleon was probably the best propagandist of his era and knew the power of the image and so everything had to be perfect. This meant that David got a lot of surprise visits from the Emperor, who offered general critiques and insisted David repaint his canvas. The final result is above; Napoleon, who has the power to decide and commands centerstage, is crowning Josephine to show that he controls the government and the succession (of which Josephine is now a part) and also frees Napoleon to wear a laurel wreath a la Caesar.
Unfortunately, Josephine was barren and so got kicked out of the succession via a divorce. Ironically, the only other Bonaparte to regain control of France was Napoleon III, Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew and (due to a slightly bewildering marriage between Napoleon's brother Louis and Josephine's daughter from her first marriage, Hortense), Josephine's direct descendant, and not Napoleon's.

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