Examining the Role of an Artist

Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon, 1805-1807, Oil Painting, On display at the Louvre (Paris, France)

Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon commemorates Napoleon’s self-coronation on a grand scale. The painting depicts Napoleon crowning his wife Josephine in the presence of his family, court, and Pope Pius VII. The meticulously crafted work was made to appease Napoleon’s wishes to have the painting serve as political propaganda[1]. However, a closer look at the painting will show how David’s role in society, the dominant subjectivity of the time, and the organization and representation of figures influences the construction of meaning that is not directly apparent.

An analysis of The Coronation of Napoleon can be made through the use of ideas presented by Linda Nochlin in her essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” T.J. Clark’s introductory chapter to his book Image of the People, and Michel Foucault’s chapter on the painting “Las Meninas” from his book The Order of Things. Nochlin reconsiders 19th and 20th century art in terms of the social conditions present during those times. Although Nochlin uses this approach in reference to feminism, specifically female artists, it is also useful in considering the role of male and female figures within paintings as well as the role social conditions play in the influence on artists. Clark’s analysis of Courbet’s art and life attributes the artist’s success to the social and economic forces of the revolution suggesting that his greatness is relative to and dependent on external forces. Clark approaches Courbet’s work by looking at the social forces in history that the artist engages with to produce his work. Taking this sociohistorical insight into consideration will prove useful in understanding and contextualizing The Coronation of Napoleon. Foucault’s notion of representation stems from his rejection of the concept of “context”. In his visual analysis of Las Meninas, Foucault gives a detailed account of how specific statements become possible through the painting as a representation of representation. By applying this approach to The Coronation of Napoleon, the structure and form of representation David employs provides another layer of meaning to the painting.

Approach #1: Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

The dominant subjectivity of a culture or society influences the way people will perceive the surrounding world. Whether stated or unstated, it will have an effect on the thinking of the general public. For example, when Europeans began exploring the New World, they set off with the mindset that their subjectivity, or experience of reality, was acceptable so that anything differing from their way of life was seen as alien, incomprehensible, or hostile. The domination of one point of view has caused a distortion in the viewing of anything else. The influence of the dominant subjectivity shaped the way the explorers perceived any culture outside of Europe or European influence.

In art, a viewer’s experience with a painting is dependent on what they bring to it. To consider Nochlin’s essay, she examines the question presented in the title “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Nochlin discusses how this question is already problematic because of the assumptions that are already present in the question. Scholars will then try to answer this question by comparing female artists to male artists of the same time[2]. However, male artists during David’s time were privileged to more artistic resources than women were. For instance, female artists were not allowed to draw from nude models, thus denying them the opportunity to develop their skills at depicting the human body. Having a knowledge of the human body, especially during the Neoclassical period, was important in being able to create historical works of art in which their was an abundance of nude figures[3]. Nochlin observes, “Thus the question of women’s equality…devolves…upon…the very nature of our institutional structures themselves and the view of reality which they impose on the human beings who are part of them” [4]. Because of David’s privilege as a male artist, he was able to more accurately portray male figures in The Coronation of Napoleon, which far outnumber the female figures present in the painting.

Another contrasting note in gender depicted in The Coronation of Napoleon can be seen the arrangement of the figures. The men are at a higher level than the women. This is especially emphasized by Napoleon and Josephine, who are the main attractions of the spectacle. Josephine is shown kneeling in front of Napoleon, waiting to be crowned. Her passivity is juxtaposed to Napoleon’s active position as he holds the crown above his head. Similarly, all of the figures surrounding Napoleon are male and are placed above the women in the painting. The women, the majority of which appear at the left-hand side of the painting, all appear docile; they are all standing behind Josephine and even have to hold her robe as she kneels. The dominant subjectivity imposed by institutions of David’s time led him to be able to depict the male figure more proficiently thus he was able to convey the power of Napoleon over France, as well as women, through his active position contrasted by Josephine’s inactiveness.

Approach #2: T.J. Clark, “On the Social History of Art”

In a general summation of his approach to art historical analysis, Clark states,

“The making of a work of art is one historical process among other acts, events, and structures—it is a series of actions in but also on history. It may become intelligible only within the context of given imposed structures of meaning; but in its turn it can alter and at times disrupt these structures.”[5]

To consider an analysis of a work of art a knowledge of the historical processes that influenced and were influenced by the work is necessary. A painting may construct a view of history that is not at first evident, but it may also be a response to historical events as well.

For instance, David’s status as official court painter is useful in understanding the structure present in The Coronation of Napoleon. David was appointed to be Napoleon’s official court painter once his Empire was established in 1804. Prior to that, David and other artists struggled under the state system of the arts when up until 1789 when France was a monarchy. In 1789, the French Revolution broke out. At that time David began supporting numerous reforms to the training and careers of artists. David was also elected to the legislature where he remained active as an artist creating many works of art that supported revolutionary causes[6]. David’s service to Napoleon as court painter allowed him to thrive as an artist. Due to the fact that he was working for the Emperor of France, who was also a major component of the French Revolution, permitted him to most likely be treated more respectably.

David has constructed The Coronation of Napoleon as an ode to Napoleon’s power. He had his own ideas about how to paint the scene, which consisted of a more realistic portrayal of the event such as excluding Napoleon’s absent mother and depicting Pope Pius VII as an unenthusiastic participant[7]. However, he has to modify this to suit the wishes of the Emperor. Instead, Napoleon’s mother can clearly be seen sitting in one of the balconies above Josephine. And David repainted Pope Pius VII to show him raising one hand in blessing of the self-coronation. David’s revolutionary ideals, of allegiance to his country, influenced his cooperation with Napoleon when executing a work that is fictional in some parts, but also a work of political propaganda.

Approach #3: Michel Foucault, “Las Meninas

Foucault replaces the factors that motivate or cause a statement from the viewer with a detailed account of how specific statements become possible. He demonstrates this in his analysis of Las Meninas as showing representation. For instance, the simultaneous acknowledgement and dismissal of the viewer is made evident through the represented Velazquez. The attentive gaze of the artist reaches out to a point that Foucault takes to be the position of the implied spectator that converges with that of the implied actual painter, and with that of the model being painted by the represented artist[8]. This gaze sets up an oscillation between signifier and signified.

To examine The Coronation of Napoleon through this approach it would, again, be helpful to consider David’s role as the official court painter to Napoleon. David has constructed a scene that is similar to the one in Las Meninas. Due to his role as court painter, David was expected to attend Napoleon’s coronation in order to make sketches and to witness the overall grandeur of the occasion. David has even included himself in the painting, and can be seen in the balcony above Napoleon’s mother. Because of the large size of the painting, measured at 6.2 x 9.8 meters, the figures appear life size. This, like the artist’s gaze in Las Meninas, both acknowledges the viewer, by giving them the opportunity to physically relate to the painting, and dismisses the viewer, through a degree of separation created between reality and the canvas, The Coronation of Napoleon is given the capability of becoming timeless. Napoleon clearly wanted viewers to experience the painting this way otherwise it would not have been completed as we see it.

Through the use of varying approaches from Linda Nochlin, T.J. Clark, and Michel Foucault, David’s role as the artist responsible for creating The Coronation of Napoleon is able to be better understood. The dominant subjectivity present within artistic institutions of the time influenced the portrayal of male and female figures within the painting. David’s role as a political activist led to the creation of The Coronation of Napoleon as political propaganda in favor of Napoleon. Also, David has created a scene that both greets and dismisses the viewer in order to represent an experience Napoleon wished the viewer to have. David’s role as the official court painter as well as in society led to The Coronation of Napoleon to be constructed in such a way that reflects his views as an artist meshed together with the wishes of the patron who commissioned the painting.

Works Cited

[1] “Napoleon’s Coronation.” Paris Muse. N.p., 2002. Web. 17 March 2013. <http://www.parismuse.com/news/napoleons-crown.shtml&gt;.

[2] Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. New York City: Harper & Row, 1988. 147. Print.

[3] Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. New York City: Harper & Row, 1988. 158. Print.

[4] Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. New York City: Harper & Row, 1988. 152. Print.

[5] Clark, T.J. “On the Social History of Art.” Image of the People. 1st ed. Berkeley: University of California, 1973. 13. Print.

[6] Johnson, Dorothy. “David, Jacques-Louis (1748-1825).” Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. Ed. Jonathan Dewald. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004. 109-111. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 17 March 2013.

[7] “Napoleon’s Coronation.” Paris Muse. N.p., 2002. Web. 17 March 2013. <http://www.parismuse.com/news/napoleons-crown.shtml&gt;.

[8] Foucault, Michel. “Las Meninas.” The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. 2nd Ed. New York City: Vintage, 1994. N.Page. Print.

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