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Washington and Napoleon in their Study


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.


[See the Study Guide for these images PDF 1.27 MB - it contains a highlighted list of "Things to Note" in the picture]


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 Lansdowne Portrait”)

[A higher resolution of this image is available - 2076 x 3334 px 3.9 MB JPG]


National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.


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 top right.


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 highlig