Under history’s spell

Portrait a study of uneasy power

(Katya Kallsen /President and Fellows of Harvard College)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / March 1, 2011

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This full-length portrait study came out of storage at Harvard only a few weeks back. It’s too stiffly sumptuous to qualify as great art. But as a historical document, it’s hard to beat.

Europe’s most charismatic leader painted at the height of his powers, in full imperial regalia, by his favorite painter, Jacques-Louis David: How can you not want to look?

David was the most accomplished, the most talented, the most influential painter of his day. He was also a strange cross between principled ideologue and shameless Machiavellian.

Caught up in the political tumult of his time, he certainly had to employ some fancy footwork. Before the French Revolution, he accepted commissions from the royal family. During the revolution, as a signed-up Jacobin, he voted for the king’s execution. He was imprisoned after the downfall of Robespierre. But when, after his release, Napoleon came to power, he had no trouble switching his loyalties to the charismatic Corsican general.

His actions all look more wayward and contradictory than they probably were. It was a heady time, and the cult of personality counted for as much as abstract political convictions. Just as David had fallen under the spell of the magnetic Robespierre, so now he was dazzled by Bonaparte.

David’s esteem was reciprocated. Although he and Napoleon’s minions were forever haggling over money, the great man himself regularly visited David’s studio, commissioned ambitious new works, and sat for portraits, including this one, painted in 1807, probably as a model for a larger composition.

Encumbered by all the paraphernalia of power, Napoleon looks uneasy, and ever so slightly ridiculous. It’s not just the scepter surmounted by the imperial eagle that he holds in one hand, and the shiny orb (reflecting his white-gloved fingers — a swashbuckling painterly touch) in the other. There’s also a crown, a throne, a golden wreath, and an exhausting superabundance of heavy velvet and white fur.

To David and his ilk, Napoleon was to the French Revolution what Augustus was to the Roman Republic — a necessary next step, a historical inevitability. He was a great man destined to usher in an era of glorious expansion and domestic stability after a period of skittering chaos.

For a while he delivered. And then came the debacle in Russia.

The fictional Prince Andréi, in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,’’ encountered Napoleon on the battlefield at Austerlitz, and years later, remembered his “satisfied and limited face.’’

“A good commander,’’ he reflected, “not only does not need genius or any special qualities, but, on the contrary, he needs the absence of the best and highest human qualities — love, poetry, tenderness, a searching philosophical doubt. . . . God forbid he should be a human being and come to love or pity someone, or start thinking about what is just and what isn’t.’’

David’s Napoleon describes exactly the man Prince Andrei recalls: satisfied, limited, pitiless.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

EMPEROR NAPOLEON I Jacques-Louis David

At: Harvard Art Museums. 617-495-9400