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Napolean David: The Image Enthroned

by Patric Jean, Director; Frédéric Cerdal, Narration
First Run / Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, 2005
Video/DVD, 51 mins., color
Sales, Video/DVD: $390; Rental, Video: $100
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com/.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
The Diatrope Institute
State College, PA 16803


After examining how Jacques Louis David, a French neoclassical painter, created political myths in his painting, Napoleon’s Coronation, Patric Jean’s film Napoleon David: The Image Enthroned concludes: "As much as by the strength of arms; it is by the strength of images that power is established." This aptly sums up the film. Overall, the film relates Napoleon’s story, introducing this man of minor nobility who became a national hero and gained recognition during the French Revolution. We also learn of the relationship of Napoleon with the activist painter Jacques-Louis David, who created many images glorifying Napoleon’s person and his rule.

David’s history had well prepared him for this role. In the early years of the Revolution, he was a member of the extremist Jacobin group led by Robespierre. Elected to the National Convention in 1792, the artist was imprisoned twice for having voted for the death of the King. After the amnesty of 1795, his art moved from the historical narratives of his early work (e.g., his well known Oath of the Horatii, 1784) to current events that mirrored his political inclinations. Thus, aside from teaching figures that ranged from Baron François Gérard to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, David critically influenced mainstream cultural dynamics. Besotted with Napoleon, David first became this leader’s official painter in 1799 during the Consulate period, a function that continued from 1804-15, under the Empire. The huge Coronation discussed throughout the film, and conceived in 1805—07, combines portraiture, symbolism, and history. Among his most famous works, this glorification of Napoleon’s role in the French transformation of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries highlights David’s technical skills and conveys his gift for elevating political narrative to an art form.

Contemporary artists who aspire to insert their opinions into the arena would do well to study how deftly David paired art with social commentary. As this production clearly shows, his biases have immense visual potency due to the attention he gave to the compositional elements that hold his works together. In the case of the Coronation, the symmetry of David’s earlier compositions gave way to more dynamic arrangements. This is evident, for example, in how the perspective converges near the generals, which makes the painting feel quite expansive. This spaciousness is reinforced by David’s decision to paint the backs of officials in the foreground. The sum total captures our interest at once and enlarges our sense of the canvas as it does so.

Scripted in three acts and effectively edited, the film also does a fine job of placing the two main characters within the larger context, walking us through David’s early themes derived from ancient mythology and adding succinct commentary on the French Revolution and Napoleonic period. This includes a close examination of David’s tendency to romanticize his hero’s in producing paintings that are not historically accurate. For example, Napoleon Crossing the Alps depicts a vigorous commander astride a rearing steed, although he made the journey on a mule. Similarly, David altered reality in the Coronation. We learn he painted in Napoleon’s mother (who did not attend the event) and revised his representation of Pope Pius VII after being urged to do so by Napoleon. The artist had originally planed to depict the Pope, who attended reluctantly, sitting at the altar with his hands resting on his lap. Napoleon, upon seeing the sketches, objected. In the final painting, Pius is positioned lower than Napoleon on the canvas, which makes the pope appear smaller. In addition, Pius is lifting his hand in a gesture of blessing. Thus, although Napoleon commissioned David to record the Coronation, the "record" is a mythical rather than a factual account.

Also impressive is the script’s integration of art practice. Preparatory studies David made in situ at the 1804 ceremony add immeasurably to our understanding of how the event was translated onto the canvas. Facsimiles of models he created in his studio while preparing the final work further highlight his artistic practice and enhance the in-depth and scholarly treatment of the subject overall. Indeed, everything about the film is as meticulous as the Coronation painting. For example, early in the film, as a visitor walks toward it in the Louvre, the viewer easily grasps its size. When the film concludes it is clear that its size is equal to its influence. Particularly impressive are the wide-ranging etchings and prints (e.g., British cartoonists and work by other French artists) as well as scenes from Lumière’s 1897 Entrevue de Napoléon et du Pape, the first film on Napoleon, the movie’s scope is extraordinary. When the prints and paintings by many other artists from this time are shown to fill out the narrative, their precision quickly catches the eye. The black and white representations, conceived before the camera allowed for quick and easy reproduction of events as they happened, are of so high a quality that I initially (and somewhat naively) assumed I was looking at photographs. Slowly it dawned on me that these were finely detailed etchings; photography had not yet been invented when much of this work was done! With this realization, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century graphic sequences brought to mind how important handmade images were in retaining a culture’s history when memory, verbal descriptions, drawing, sketching, and painting were the only tools available to relate events.

After Napoleon fell from power David moved to Belgium. The Coronation painting was rolled up and kept out-of-sight for many years. Now that it is again on view, we can see the myth it created and recognize that like many myths it has retained its power, despite being of another era. As a result, this masterpiece offers an example removed from our visual culture that we could use to reflect on the visual propaganda within our own time. We can see it for what it is, see its manipulative intentions, and appreciate both from a perspective detached from the events represented. Although it does not answer why the most potent images have the capacity to reveal aspects of reality and deceive us in the process of doing so, Napoleon David: The Image Enthroned is nonetheless a thought-provoking and visually enticing film. In defining the problematic images present, it keeps the questions open rather than offering a cliqued response. Moreover, although visual communication is the main thrust of the film, the film’s focus on a period just prior to the invention of photography in 1839 provides an opportunity to think about the misinformation sometimes embedded within our imagery. Although photographs can lie to us despite looking so true to reality, this film reminds us that before the camera made it possible to mechanically document major events all we had were the images created by our image-makers. Finally, the craftsmanship is superb. It is a worthy partner to David’s Napoleon’s Coronation. I highly recommend it.



Updated 1st September 2006

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