There are some striking parallels in the lives of George Washington (1732-1799)
and Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821): both were military leaders who helped their
countries during a revolution and both came to power as head of a republic
which had shaken off the shackles of monarchy. But whereas Washington was content
to return to civilian life and promote the development of the new republican
institutions of the U.S., Napoleon sought to centralize power in his own hands
as First Consul and then as a self-crowned Emperor of the French. The former
remained a staunch republican whilst the latter turned into a military tyrant.
Washington in his "Farewell Address" of 1796 warned of the dangers
to the new republic of trying to behave like a traditional European power with "entangling
alliances" which would suck it into wars and international conflicts.
Napoleon on the other hand sought to use military force to "free" Europe
from "feudalism," from Spain in the west to Russia in the east. Possibly
by the time the portrait of Napoleon was painted (some 8 years after the events
depicted in the painting took place) he sensed that his imperial ambitions
might lead to naught and that his most enduring legacy would be the legal reform
he introduced with the Civil Code.
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A Comparison of Portraits
of Washington (1796) & Napoleon (1812) in their Studies
Gilbert Stuart, George Washington (1796)
(“the Lansdowne Portrait”)
Jacques-Louis David, The Emperor Napoleon
in His Study at the Tuileries (1812)
1. Gilbert Stuart, George Washington (1796) (“the
[A higher resolution of this image is available - 2076 x 3334
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution,
Washington, D.C. www.npg.si.edu/collect/lansdowne2.html
Washington served as the first president of the
United States from 1789 to 1797 which means that this painting was made towards
the end of his period in office. Washington is dressed in a black velvet
suit with a white shirt, black stockings, and black shoes with gold buckles.
He is standing on a large woven carpet and is not smiling and has a expressionless
face. In his left hand he is holding a sword; his right arm is outstretched
in a welcoming gesture. Behind him to the right is a red upholstered chair
with the oval-shaped image of the American stars and stripes, a version of
which appears in the Great Seal of the United States (1782). To the left
is a table with a red cover which has been lifted up in one corner to reveal
5 large books on the floor suggesting he has been at work. Two more books
are on the table next to a quill pen and ink, some rolled up papers, and
a black feathered hat. The lifted up table cloth also shows the table leg
in the shape of Roman fasces with what look to be eagles sitting on top.
In the background there are Roman columns through which one can see some
clouds and a rainbow which arches up from just above his right elbow to the
The painting shows Washington as a “working President”
who has been writing a report or proposal of some kind requiring considerable
research. The most important thing Washington wrote in 1796, on which he
might have been working in the painting, is his “Farewell Address” which
was published in September. It has been suggested that the 2 books on the
table might be a copy of The Federalist and the Journal of Congress. His
simple attire is in keeping with enlightened notions of simplicity, frugality,
and an avoidance of old regime regal luxury. There are 2 references to Roman
traditions with the table leg fasces (a symbol of republican strength where
multiple wooden rods are tied into an unbreakable bunch) and the Roman-style
columns. Roman models were chosen for American political bodies such as the
Senate, the Capitol building, and for architectural design of public buildings.
The rainbow in the background is an allegory that suggests that the political
and military storm which had wracked the new republic during its war with
great Britain was now over and that a “new era” of freedom was dawning.
[an image from the Study Guide PDF which highlights important "Things to
Note" in the image].
2. Jacques-Louis David, The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the
[A higher resolution of this image is available - 1576 x 2596 px 418
KB JPG - it contains a highlighted list of "Things to Note" in
The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. http://www.nga.gov
Emperor Napoleon is standing in his study after having worked
all night on developing the Civil Code (which was promulgated in 1804). His
hair appears to be messed up and he sports a five o’clock shadow (or in this
case a “four o’clock shadow”). He is dressed in the military uniform of the
Foot Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard with the Legion of Honour medal which
he had awarded to himself. His right hand is tucked into his jacket and in
his left hand he seems to be holding a gold object, perhaps an official seal.
In the background to his left there is a grandfather clock which shows the
time of 4.13 (possibly a.m.) and an upholstered chair upon which is laid
his sword. The upholstery shows the imperial bee design; the initial “N”
has been carved into the wood and the curved back of the chair is carved
in the design of the Roman fasces. On the table is a pile of papers, one
of which has the word “code”. To his right is a wall decoration which has
the winged head of the Roman god Mercury (the messenger and the god of trade)
and an imperial eagle. Immediately below that there is a candle which has
nearly burnt to the end of the wick suggesting that Napoleon had been working
all night in his study on the Code. The table shows a leg in the design of
a lion (possibly Egyptian) and underneath is a pile of books and some papers
on which the painter David wrote his name and the date of the painting. One
of the books is Plutarch’s Parallel Lives.
Napoleon was First Consul of France (1799-1804) and then Emperor
(1804-1815). In this painting he is shown as very much a “working emperor”
having stayed up all night working on his reform of the French legal system
(the “Napoleonic” or Civil Code which was promulgated in 1804). He has been
consulting large legal books and possibly annotating the drafts of the code
written by expert lawyers. He is dressed as a simple solider, avoiding the
monarchical symbols and attire he wore in other paintings at the time of
his coronation as Emperor in 1804 (compare François Gerard, Napoleon in his
Coronation Robes (1804)). There is an understated theme of militarism and
imperialism with the imperial eagle, the Roman fasces, the Egyptian lion,
the copy of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, and his simple military uniform and
single medal. It seems that in 1812 (when this painting was painted), close
to his defeat in Russia and the ultimate end of his Empire, Napoleon wanted
to return to an earlier period and to depict himself as an enlightened reformer
working on one of his greatest legacies to the French nation.
[an image from the Study Guide PDF which highlights important "Things
to Note" in the image].