Cover image for Staging Empire: Napoleon, Ingres, and David By Todd Porterfield and Susan Siegfried

Staging Empire

Napoleon, Ingres, and David

Todd Porterfield, and Susan Siegfried

272 pages
7" × 10"
48 color/82 b&w illustrations

Staging Empire

Napoleon, Ingres, and David

Todd Porterfield, and Susan Siegfried

“Some of the best art history I’ve read in a long time.”


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Finalist - 2007 Charles Rufus Morey Award - CAA

Napoleon Bonaparte conquered France and Europe in the name of liberté, égalité, et fraternité, but he suppressed freedom to achieve his aims. This was the birth of modern empire, and France’s greatest artists were enlisted for the cause. Staging Empire focuses on two landmark paintings that celebrated Napoleon’s coronation: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne (1806) and Jacques-Louis David’s Le Sacre (1805–7). In an unprecedented collaboration, two scholars investigate these masterpieces in their broad cultural context. This book is a sumptuously illustrated, extensively documented, analytical tour de force. Coronation pictures may seem to be all about the past, but they were produced to guarantee a future of empire whose military, media, and geopolitical practices are still with us today.

Staging Empire surveys the period’s essential problem of representing authority in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Ingres’s portrait of the new emperor is steeped in archaic symbolism, bolstered by the cult of recently minted relics. The picture’s strangeness, the press’s withering critiques, and the government’s anxious sponsorship are explored. The discussion lays bare the precariousness of modern art and politics and the dangers of cultural independence in the public sphere.

Traditionally accepted as a document of the coronation of Napoleon and Josephine, Le Sacre is instead shown to be the most important barometer of the Empire’s propagandistic strategies. The authors present it in light of Josephine’s central role and of its critical reception in newspapers and the hitherto untapped archives of Napoleon’s secret police. Le Sacre heralded an age of phony governmental transparency. Modern cultural practices, including consumerism, repressive theories of race and gender, and art history itself, were marshaled by the emperor’s official painter.

“Some of the best art history I’ve read in a long time.”
“Both authors are wonderful writers, offering clear, forceful prose that will be as accessible to undergraduates as it is informative and inspiring to specialists in the field. Staging Empire is, in short, a marvelously illuminating and captivating study, one that represents the discipline of art history and cultural criticism in general at their highest levels of sophistication.”
“As a whole, this is a comprehensive and thought-provoking new approach to two well-known images of Napoleon that calls attention to the challenges that the modern ruler’s representation poses.”

Todd Porterfield is Canada Research Chair and Associate Professor of Art History at the Université de Montréal. He is the author of The Allure of Empire: Art in the Service of French Imperialism (1998).

Susan L. Siegfried is Professor of Art History and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. Her publications include Fingering Ingres (2001), with Adrian Rifkin; The Art of Louis-Léopold Boilly (1995); and, with Marjorie Cohn, Works by J. A. D. Ingres in the Collection of the Fogg Art Museum (1980).


List of Illustrations


Part I: Introduction

Prologue: A King Listens

Italo Calvino

1. Staging an Empire

Susan L. Siegfried

Part II: Ingres’s Portrait of Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne

Susan L. Siegfried

2. The Painting

3. Patronage

4. The Critics

Part III: David’s Sacre

Todd Porterfield

5. Patterns of Reception

6. Fabulous Retroactivity

7. Makeup and Shopping

Part IV: Epilogue

Todd Porterfield

8. Epilogue


A. “Interior. Paris, 11 frimaire,” Gazette nationale ou Le Moniteur universel, No. 72, Monday, 12 frimaire an 13 de la République [December 3, 1804]

B. “Variety,” Gazette nationale ou Le Moniteur universel, No. 76, Friday, 16 frimaire an 13 de la République [December 7, 1804]

C. “Interior. Paris, January 15,” Gazette nationale ou Le Moniteur universel, No. 16, Saturday, January 16, 1808

D. Arlequin at the Museum, or a vaudeville critique of the paintings exhibited at the Salon. Twelfth year, no. 2 (Paris: Brasseur aîné, 1808): 3–8.



List of Illustrations

Photograph Credits

Part I:



A King Listens

Italo Calvino

The scepter must be held in the right hand, erect; you must never, never put it down, and for that matter you would have no place to put it: there are no tables beside the throne, or shelves, or stands to hold, say, a glass, an ashtray, a telephone. High, at the top of steep and narrow steps, the throne is isolated; if you drop anything it rolls down, and can never be found afterward. God help you if the scepter slips from your grasp; you would have to rise, get down from the throne to pick it up; no one but the king may touch it. And it would hardly be a pretty sight to see a king stretched out on the floor to reach the scepter fetched up under some piece of furniture—or, when it comes to that, the crown, which could easily fall off your head if you bend over.

You can rest your forearm on the arm of the chair, so it will not tire. I am still speaking of your right arm, the one holding the scepter. As for the left, it remains free: you can scratch yourself if you like. At times the ermine cloak makes you neck itch, and the itch then spreads down your back and over you whole body. The velvet of the cushion, too, as it grows warm, produces an irritating sensation in the buttocks, the thighs. Feel no compunction about digging your fingers in where you itch, unfastening the gilt buckle of your big belt, shifting your collar, your medals, the fringed epaulettes. You are the king; nobody can utter a word of censure. The very idea.

The head must be held immobile; always remember that the crown is balanced on your pate, you cannot pull it over your ears, like a cap on a windy day. The crown rises in a dome, more voluminous than the base that supports it, which means that its equilibrium is unstable: if you happen to doze off, to let your chin sink to your chest, the crown will then go rolling down and smash to bits, because it is fragile, especially the gold filigree studded with diamonds. When you feel it is about to slip, you have to be clever enough to adjust its position with little twitches of the head; but you must take care not to straighten up too briskly or you will strike the crown against the baldaquin, whose draperies just graze it. In other words, you must maintain the regal composure that is supposed to be innate in your person.

In short, everything is foreordained to spare you any movement whatsoever. You would have nothing to gain by moving, and everything to lose. If you rise, if you take even a few steps, if you loose sight of the throne for an instant, who can guarantee that when you return you will not find someone else sitting on it? Perhaps someone who resembles you, identical to you. Go ahead then and try to prove you are the king, not he! A king is denoted by the fact that he is sitting on the throne, wearing the crown, holding the scepter. Now that these attributes are yours, you had better not be separated from them even for a moment.

Into the great lake of silence where you are floating rivers of air empty, stirred by intermittent vibrations. Alert, intent, you intercept them and decipher them. The palace is all whorls, lobes: it is a great ear . . . the palace is the ear of the king. Here the walls have ears. Spies are stationed behind every drapery, curtain, arras. Your spies, the agents of your secret service: their assignment is to draft detailed reports on the palace conspiracies.

This palace, when you ascended the throne, at the very moment when it became your palace, became alien to you. Advancing at the head of the coronation procession, you walked through it for the last time, amid torches and flabella, before retiring to this hall which it is neither prudent nor in accord with royal protocol for you to leave. What would a king do, roaming through the corridors, offices, kitchens? There is no longer any place for you in the palace, same this hall.

Sharper in your memory are certain glimpses remaining from the battle, when you moved to attack the palace at the head of your then loyal followers (who are now surely preparing to betray you): balustrades shattered by mortar explosions, breaches in the walls singed by fires, pocked by volleys of bullets. You can no longer think of it as the same palace in which you are seated on the throne; if you were to find yourself in it again, that would be a sign that the cycle has completed its course and your ruin is dragging you off, in your turn.

But perhaps you have never been so close to losing everything as you are now, when you think you have everything in your grip. The responsibility of conceiving the palace in its every detail, of containing it in your mind, subjects you to an exhausting strain. The obstinacy on which power is based is never so fragile as in the moment of its triumph.

Do you think your predecessor is still alive, the king you drove from the throne, from this throne where you are sitting? Is he the prisoner you had sealed up in the deepest cell of the palace? You spend every night listening to the underground tom-tom, trying in vain to decipher its messages. But you harbor the suspicion that it is only a noise you have in your ears, the throbbing of your heart in upheaval, or the recollection of a rhythm that surfaces in your memory and reawakens fears, remorse.

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