Compare and Contrast Essay on Napoleon Versus Caesar

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Napoleon on His Imperial Throne is a work of fine art that was created by the French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in 1806. The work exhibits a near-photographic depiction of the infamous French ruler who dominated Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Although there were many other portraits of the emperor, this work stands a cut above the rest. Starting from bottom to top, the theme is set by the imperial eagle. A crescendo of fine adornments and emblems leads to a climax with the emperor imposing himself upon his seat of power. Whether it is due to its countless idealized details or the paint-induced apotheosis of the subject, this work’s ability to captivate the viewer is undeniable. Ingres did not only portray the majesty of his emperor, he captured the grandeur of a legend.

The major forms used in this work are the human figure, along with hard, sharp squares and rectangles joined with soft, curving arches and spheres. These squares and rectangles are most noticeable in the stairs and the platform on which the throne sits, as well as the sides of the throne itself. Whereas the softer curvature is present in the back of the throne and the ivory spheres that adorn the armrests. Along with the forms, lines help to direct the eyes of the viewer. Horizontal stairs and long angled scepters provide a frame for the circular throne, crown, and neckwear of the emperor. The horizontal lines give the viewer a visual foundation while the circular shapes around the head provide accentuation. Angled lines from the scepters keep the viewer's mind focused and direct attention toward the center where Napoleon sits.

Color and light are used together to provide depth and coherence while also creating impeccable idealized definitions. The dominant colors in this work are various shades of regal colors which remind the viewer that they are viewing royalty. Napoleon’s clothing is made up of dark crimson and soft white and black fur accentuated with golden embroidery. The throne is matte gold with ivory while the rug it sits on is bright red, black, and off-white. With the light coming from above and behind the viewer these colors keep the viewer's eyes focused on Napoleon’s iconic frontal pose [2, p. 128]. Shadows from the outskirts of the paintings give the viewer a sense of depth and add to the realism of the portrayal. The placement of the light coming from the front of the subject makes the viewer feel like they are in the room with the emperor at that moment. This work makes Ingres’ mastery of light and color abundantly clear if not its main feature.

The different textures featured in this painting are used to draw the viewers' eyes to the smaller details throughout the painting. Ingres sharp eye for detail along with his manipulation of light and color results in a painting that causes the viewer to look at the tassels of the robes as if they are in movement. The ivory spheres on the armrests are polished and reflect the light above. The metal scepters are regal and impose the will of the idealistic version of the emperor and his power therefore they seem cold and hard to the touch [2, p. 128].

The orientation, scale, and viewpoint are all aspects of the intended perception of the work. As it is a portrait, the orientation of the canvas is expectedly vertical. The scale of this work is an impressive 102 by 64 inches, causing the subject to be nearly life-size. The size also contributes to the larger-than-life impression that the viewer is expected to have of Napoleon and his god-like authority [2, p. 130]. As it is mounted on a wall at the Musée de l’Armée, in Paris, an average-height viewer’s eyes would likely be near the middle of the painting [3]. This results in a viewpoint where the viewer is forced to gaze up at a deified emperor in respect. A thought which would surely please the late French emperor.

The proportion in this piece functions to magnify the subject before the viewer. With Ingres completing this painting of the representations of other artists it seems to hide the fact that he was short in stature [3]. This in conjunction with his immaculate, flowing robes causes him to seemingly dominate the large throne on which he rests. As for the balance of this work, it pulls the viewer's eyes to the center. All the outer edges of the painting are left nearly void of detail. There is only one focal point in this painting which is the emperor of Europe adorning his throne. It seems that Ingres used a balance of lighting and size to complement his emperor.

Contrast is another important factor in this work as well as its rhythm or the lack thereof. Ingres used contrast to create a nearly three-dimensional work of art. The light and texture are used together to set Napoleon apart from his surroundings. The bright red and gold colors of his clothing combined with the lighting reflecting off his face in contrast to the darker and dimmer throne and room keep the viewers' attention from drifting too far from the subject. The circular throne and neckwear that cuts off the flow of Napoleon’s head from his body causes a sharp contrast between the humanity of his face compared to the regal stiffness shown throughout the rest of the painting [3].

There is a main message running through this painting, namely the merits and capability of the emperor. This message can be divided into four branches, Justice, Honor, Victory, and Empire. In Napoleon’s lap lays the Hand of Justice which is a royal French heirloom [3]. At the top of this scepter is a depiction of the Hand of God. Through this scepter, the wielder figuratively wields the power of god to dispense justice on its subjects. Similarly, on the rug under the throne, an emblem of the scales of justice is clearly visible. This is a classical Greek symbol used to depict justice or more specifically the one who weighs dispenses justice. It seems that Ingres is attempting to draw forth Napoleon’s ability to rule justly, unlike so many others who have gained such power.

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The emblem hanging from Napoleon’s necklace can also be seen engraved into the throne behind his head. This is the symbol of the Legion of Honor which Napoleon founded after abolishing the French code of chivalry that had reigned since the medieval period. He established this order as a way to reward merit to those who proved themselves worthy and thereby obtain loyalty. This notion is obviously influenced by his military experience. He undoubtedly encountered those who merited great respect but received none, and inversely those who received great respect but deserved none. The Legion of Honor was Napoleon's way to seemingly remove the ceiling and allow any who performed greatly to receive recognition as opposed to being locked behind class identity.

Victory is ideal with which Napoleon was intimately familiar. On the rug is a large depiction of an imperial eagle, and two more are engraved on the armrests of the throne. The eagle is specifically in reference to the Caesars. The laurel crown on his head has also been referred to as a victory wreath [3]. As the conqueror of Europe, it is obvious why Napoleon would surround himself with these symbols. The eagle and the laurel crown both share another meaning. They are both direct allusions to the classical Roman Empire. Since the fall of Rome, European nations claimed Roman heritage and their societies were the offspring of classical Roman society. Napoleon had crowned himself ruler of Europe and was thereby the next great Roman emperor in the eyes of many at that time.

The unmistakable message running through this portrait is that of an emperor. The scepter of Charles V, in his right hand, is another heirloom of French royalty through the ages [3]. On top of the scepter sits the statuette of Charlemagne who was the king of the Franks and created an empire that would become France. He is accredited with many achievements but the most relevant would be Charlemagne’s military prowess and reputation as a great historical figure. The crown on his head has a similar effect. It is a direct allusion to the classical Roman emperors. Napoleon, having also claimed kingship over Italy and thereby Rome, had completed his metamorphosis from man to emperor, like so many others before him had tried and failed to do.

Nothing exists in a vacuum and therefore everything has a setting or context. It is here that the context of Ingres's work will be examined. The French Revolution began on the 5th of May 1789. With the Enlightenment ideas swirling around Europe, the old ways of the monarchy were quickly coming to an end. The French King Louis XVI was deposed, and a republic was created. With what started as a noble aim came a bloody time in France’s history culminating in what is known as the Reign of Terror. Political parties formed and waged wars with each other resulting in many murders and executions. As the French Revolution began neighboring countries who were against the revolution waged war with the revolutionaries in France. The French military was able to successfully defend itself and then expand its borders[4]. It was during this time that Napoleon rose to prominence.

Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the 15th of August 1769 in Corsica, an island south of the French mainland. He maintained loyalty to Corsica for much of his life and loudly advocated Corsican independence as it had been recently conquered by the French. Eventually, he attended school in mainland France and trained to be an artillery officer. He gained recognition during the French Revolutionary Wars due to his military prowess. While in Egypt on a military expedition, Napoleon heard that the French were being pushed back. He quickly sailed back to France where he led a coup and established himself as the First Consul of the French Republic [4].

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was born on the 29th of August 1780. He studied under Jacques-Louis David, another well-known French painter. Ingres painted the detailed portrait of Napoleon in 1806 without a known commissioner and had it displayed in the Paris Salon. It was in stark contrast to the one he had been commissioned to paint three years before. This new painting focused on the glory and riches of the Emperor. It received considerable criticism as it was a deviation from the Neo-classical convention of the time. His Neo-classical contemporaries did not appreciate the gothic style portrait [1, p. 108].

Only Ingres knows the true origins and motivations behind the creation of this work. One can only assume that it was made to impress it immensely powerful subject or the judges at the salon. Although the portrait preceding this one had been commissioned directly by the emperor, this one seems to be his attempt to assert himself and his obvious talents [2, p. 127]. Whatever the reason, given the details and symbolic gestures it seems that Ingres may have been appealing to the Emperor himself. That appeal seems to be a flattering, compliment-laden challenge to be the great ruler that France needed so desperately.

Given the symbols throughout the portrait, and discussed in the iconography analysis above, there are motifs in this work that symbolize virtue. Justice was a craving that had long panged the people of France but seldom sated. Honor had been excluded only to the rich and powerful, the nobility and the clergy, not every man. Victory in the face of France's looming threats was its only hope for safety. But the references to the great empires of the past, that is what beg the question. Could Napoleon truly rival the legends of Caesar and Charlemagne? Or was he doomed to fail and take France down with him? In 1806 these questions would have surely been at the forefront of every French mind, including Ingres who immortalized them in an immaculate portrait for all to ponder.


  1. P. Condon, Ingres: in pursuit of perfection: the art of J.-A.-D. Ingres. Louisville, KY: J.B. Speed Art Museum, 1983.
  2. P. ten-D. Chu, Nineteenth-Century European Art, Third. Prentice Hall.
  3. “World Art,” Annenberg Learner. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 12-Apr-2019].
  4. H. Editors, “Napoleon Bonaparte,”, 09-Nov-2009. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 12-Apr-2019].
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