Jacques-Louis David’s The Emperor Napoleon in His Study in the Tuileries is a masterful depiction of Napoleon as a man of action and a deliberate leader. It is also the focus of the recently opened exhibition Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon, which will be on view through October 9 in galleries 217A–218 through a rare loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
Since David was the first painter to Napoleon, one might assume that the Emperor himself commissioned the painting. The origin is a bit more unexpected. It was commissioned not by Napoleon, a French patron, nor the French state, but rather by the Scottish nobleman Alexander, Marquess of Douglas, later the 10th Duke of Hamilton. His family’s palace is pictured below.
Douglas first contacted David, in the autumn of 1811, at a time when Napoleon’s empire was at its greatest extent. France and its dependents dominated most of continental Europe, with only British and Portuguese forces along with Spanish resistance fighters opposing Napoleon in the Iberian Peninsula.
An extravagant spender, Douglas collected antiquities, paintings, sculptures, and manuscripts, especially those with imperial associations. In 1811, Douglas approached David through an intermediary, requesting a full-length portrait of the Emperor to furnish Hamilton Palace, near Glasgow. Eventually The Emperor Napoleon in His Study in the Tuileries would hang in the dining room along with Diego Velázquez’s Philip IV and a version of Anthony Van Dyck’s, Charles I on Horseback. These portraits evoked a link between the Duke of Hamilton and these prominent European rulers. This was undoubtedly significant to Douglas, who wished to further legitimize himself since his father, the proverbial distant cousin, had surprisingly inherited the title of Duke.
While European royal imagery is a theme throughout his collection, Hamilton seems to have had a particular fascination with the Napoleonic. In Rome, he became an admirer of Pauline Borghese, Napoleon’s sister, who bequeathed her traveling service to the Duke. He later purchased from King Charles X of France the silver-gilt tea service from Napoleon’s marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria, which was placed in the same room as David’s painting. He even married his son to Princess Marie of Baden, the daughter of the adopted daughter of Napoleon.
Near the end of his life, he acquired Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Apotheosis of Napoleon I (Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen; c. 1830), which was commissioned by another Scottish nobleman, Andrew Murray. Molded from a plaster funerary mask of Napoleon, this posthumous marble sculpture was likely meant to be seen in the round. From the front, Napoleon, with a laurel wreath resting on his head is perched upon a flying eagle while the reverse of the herm is an intricate fanning palm tree.
Douglas’s enthusiasm for the Napoleonic spanned items of totemic value, such as his personal tea set, as well as important paintings and sculptures. Nonetheless, Douglas’s determination to seek out the most famous and expensive French painter, David, to represent the ruler of the nation with which England was currently at war is an especially compelling episode.
We invite you to take some time this summer to visit this important loan, presented alongside other works from the Art Institute’s collection that evoke Napoleon.
—Alyse Muller, Research Associate, Department of European Painting and Sculpture
Jacques-Louis David. The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Thomas Annan. The north-facing addition to Hamilton Palace, before 1882. Hamilton Town House Library, Hamilton.
Martin-Guillaume Biennais. Tea Service of Napoléon Ier, 1810. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Bertel Thorvaldsen. Apotheosis of Napoleon I, c. 1830. Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen, A867.