The Wallace Collection

Napoleon and his Empress Marie-Louise, after the Antique, 1812, cast by Lacour, finished by François-Aimé Damerat
Treasure of the Month - May 2011

Napoleon and his Empress Marie-Louise, after the Antique, 1812, cast by Lacour, finished by François-Aimé Damerat

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) is one of  the seminal figures in European history, a magisterial figure whose reforms still today form the basis of many aspects of  law and administration in France, and in other European countries. From his appointment as head of the French army in 1796, the young Corsican’s inspirational and dynamic leadership brought a new confidence to France after the turmoil of the Revolution. Crowned Emperor of the French in 1804, Napoleon was a belligerent ruler in the mould of his predecessor Louis XIV, his conquests making France the most powerful country in mainland Europe for a brief period, until the disaster of the retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812.

The Emperor Napoleon is depicted not in modern dress, but in the style of ancient Classical statues, naked except for a heavy toga-like drape and a crown of laurels, denoting his imperial status.  In his right hand he holds a set of drawing tools, while his outstretched left hand originally held a sceptre. The companion bronze depicts Napoleon’s Empress and second wife Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria (1791-1847), whom he had married in March 1810.   She is dressed, in classical style, and sits on an elaborate chair, holding in her right hand a set of brushes, while a painter’s palette lies on the ground.

The attributes held by the imperial couple identify them respectively as protectors of the sciences and of the arts – Marie-Louise was a keen amateur painter, who received lessons from the painters Prudhon and Isabey. This identification is confirmed by fascinating surviving documentation. The figures were commissioned by Dominique Vivant, baron de Denon (1747-1825), Napoleon’s director-general of museums, as furnishings for the Imperial palaces.  Vivant Denon had the figures modelled on small Roman bronze figures of Mercury and a young woman in his own collection, the faces being worked up from contemporary portraits of the Emperor and his wife.  The models were cast by an obscure figure, Lacour, who made four sets in bronze and one in silver.  Two Parisian goldsmiths, Louis-François Jeannest and François-Aimé Damerat, then divided the task of finishing off  the figures with fine tools, giving the bronzes their exquisite appearance. 

Napoleon might have been expected to have been delighted with these jewel-like sculptures, which to our eyes so eloquently endow the Emperor and his Empress with the added glamour of association with the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome.  But, on the contrary, Napoleon was furious, demanding that they be destroyed: ‘Whatever notion the artist conceived of representing me thus, it is too indecent a manner… dress the Greeks and Romans as they were in ancient times, but dress the French of the 19th century as they are today.  To do otherwise is both ridiculous and bizarre.’  Happily, Vivant Denon chose to disobey his Emperor on this occasion, so that these beautiful statues survive to form part of the important collection of Napoleonic paintings and works of art formed by the 4th Marquess of Hertford.

Gallery Talks

Friday 13 and Monday 23 April at 1pm with Jeremy Warren.

Further Reading

  • Gérard Hubert and Guy Ledoux-Lebard, Napoléon. Portraits contemporains, bustes et statues, Paris 1999
  • Robert Wenley, French Bronzes in the Wallace Collection, London 2002

© Trustees of the Wallace Collection 2011.
Text by Jeremy Warren.