Napoleon Bonaparte Portraits: Important Historical Moments

There are many Napoleon Bonaparte portraits that provide important historical moments in his life. Yet, it is somewhat surprising that any portraits of Napoleon exist as he almost never willingly sat for any painter. In fact, he was notorious for disliking to sit and even believed that portraits should demonstrate his character rather than capture his physical likeness.

One example of the difficulties that portrait painters experienced when trying to get him to sit can be demonstrated by Antoine-Jean Gros. His works were in the genres of history and neoclassical paintings and he painted Napoleon in 1796. Supposedly, Napoleon only sat for him because his wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, insisted that he do so. The sitting did not go well and Gros complained that the time allotted was insufficient to be of any benefit.

Napoleon Bonaparte portraits - General Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole, 17 November 1796 by Antoine-Jean Gros

General Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole, 17 November 1796 by Antoine-Jean Gros. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Later, Gros’ mentor and teacher, Jacques-Louis David, who had been an ardent supporter of the Revolution but had transferred his fervor to the new Consulate, also complained about Napoleon when he grudgingly sat for him. David remarked that Napoleon was so fidgety and impatient he couldn’t produce a good likeness.

Despite the extraordinary difficulties artists had with Napoleon there are at least five Napoleon Bonaparte portraits that mark important historical moments in his life and are familiar to many people today. Among these are “Napoleon Crossing the Alps,” “Bonaparte, First Consul,” “Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne,” “The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries,” and “Napoleon Bonaparte Abdicated in Fontainebleau.”

Napoleon Crossing the Alps

David completed “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” or “Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass” or “Bonaparte Crossing the Alps” in 1801. This painting was originally commissioned by the King of Spain, Charles IV, after the French victory in Italy allowed for a rapprochement with Napoleon. While talks were underway to re-establish diplomatic relations, a traditional exchange of gifts took place: Napoleon gave Charles IV of Spain Versailles-manufactured pistols, dresses from the best Parisian dressmakers, jewels for the queen, and a fine set of armor for the newly reappointed Prime Minister, Manuel Godoy. In return Napoleon was offered 16 Spanish horses from the royal stables, portraits of the Charles IV and his queen by Goya, and the commissioned portrait of him crossing the Alps to be completed by David.

Napoleon Bonaparte portraits - David's "Napoleon Crossing the Alps."

Jacques-Louis David’s “Napoleon Crossing the Alps.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

David was eager to undertake the commission. The 1801 painting he produced offers an idealized version of the real crossing of Napoleon and his army through the Great St. Bernard Pass in May of 1800. The French ambassador to Spain, Charles-Jean-Marie Alquier, requested the original painting on Charles’ behalf with the idea that it was to hang in the Royal Palace of Madrid as a token of the new relationship between the two countries.

On learning of the request, Napoleon instructed David to produce three more versions: one for the Château de Saint-Cloud, one for the library of Les Invalides, and a third for the palace of the Cisalpine Republic in Milan. In addition, David produced a fifth version that remained in his various workshops until his death.

As to what happened to these Napoleon Bonaparte portraits, the 1801 original remained in Madrid until Joseph Bonaparte took it after his abdication as King of Spain in 1812. When he went into exile in the United States, he took it with him and it hung at his Point Breeze estate near Bordentown, New Jersey. The painting was then handed down through his descendants until 1949, when his great grandniece, Eugenie Bonaparte, bequeathed it to the museum of the Château de Malmaison.

The other versions were dispersed in the following fashion:

  • The version produced for the Château de Saint-Cloud was removed in 1814 by the Prussian soldiers under General von Blücher. He then offered it to Frederick William III King of Prussia and it is now held in the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin.
  • The 1802 copy from Les Invalides was put into storage on the Bourbon Restoration of 1814; but in 1837, under the orders of Louis-Philippe, it was rehung in his newly declared museum at the Palace of Versailles, where it remains presently.
  • The 1803 version was delivered to Milan but confiscated in 1816 by the Austrians. However, the people of Milan refused to give it up and it remained in the city until 1825. It was finally installed at the Belvedere in Vienna in 1834 and today is part of the collection of the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere.
  • The version kept by David until his death in 1825 was exhibited at the Bazar Bonne-Nouvelle in 1846. In 1850 David’s daughter, Pauline Jeanin, offered it to the future Napoleon III who then installed at the Tuileries Palace. In 1979, it was given to the museum at the Palace of Versailles.

Bonaparte, First Consul

On 25 July 1804 Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres completed “Bonaparte, First Consul,” another of the Napoleon Bonaparte portraits that many people are familiar with today. It shows Napoleon posing with his hand inside his waistcoat, a pose that was often used by rulers to indicate calm and stable leadership. Ingres’ painting of 34-year-old Napoleon also shows him about to sign an act titled, “Faubourg d’Amercœur rebâti,” which refers to a decree signed by Napoleon in 1803 to the prefecture of the Ourthe département to restore that suburb. The portrait by Ingres also demonstrated to the newly annexed city of Liège Napoleon’s symbolic possession of that city and the benefits the city would derive from being part of France.


Napoleon Bonaparte portraits - Bonaparte, First Consul by Ingres

Portrait by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres titled “Bonaparte, First Consul.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The painting came about after Napoleon stopped on 1 August 1803 in Liège for two days during his triumphal march across the nine annexed departments. While there he contemplated the city, saw the crowd gather to acclaim him, and was deeply impressed by the inhabitants’ miserable situation. He decided to show his satisfaction for the people by announcing his intention to offer the city of Liège a portrait of himself that would be painted by Ingres, an artist who had made his debut at the Salon 1803.

Ingres was just 23 when he received the commission for this painting. It was agreed that he would complete it and send it to the city a year later. It arrived in Liège on 1 February 1805 and on 12 May it was announced it would be displayed for everyone to see in the town hall.

Because Ingres had such great difficulty in getting Napoleon to sit for him, he based this pose of him on a portrait completed by Gros in 1802. In addition, Napoleon is shown in the red uniform of a consul of the republic, sporting short hair, and presenting a civil pose rather than a martial one. Of the painting, a catalog by the Metropolitan Museum of Art also notes:

“Ingres’s composition is boldly frontal in design and states its meaning clearly yet discreetly, with the First Consul poised between his decree and the view through the window of the restored town. The carpeted floor in the foreground tilts disconcertingly toward the viewer — another feature suggestive of the fifteenth-century prototypes — but its apparent maladroitness also serves to impress the image of the subject upon us.”[1]  

Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne

Ingres painted this 1806 portrait of Napoleon I of France depicting the Emperor in the costume he wore for his coronation and seated on a circular-backed throne with armrests adorned with ivory balls. Napoleon holds the scepter of Charlemagne in his right hand and in his left, the hand of justice. On his head is a golden laurel wreath and under the great collar of the Légion d’honneur an ermine hood and a gold-embroidered satin tunic with an ermine-lined velvet cloak decorated with golden heraldic bees that were so important to him.

Napoleon Bonaparte portraits

“Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne” by Auguste-Dominique Ingres . Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Like other Napoleon Bonaparte portraits, this painting was exhibited. It appeared at the 1806 Paris Salon as work number 272, while at the same time Robert Lefèvre, another French painter greatly influenced by David’s style, exhibited his oil, “Napoleon I in Coronation Costume.” Unfortunately for Ingres, the public found his version of the emperor disturbing. In fact, his mentor David delivered a severe critique and other critics were hostile of his work. They noted the strange discordance of colors, want of sculptural relief, and archaic qualities. Moreover, from the beginning of his career, Ingres freely borrowed from earlier art, adopting the historical style appropriate to his subject, which caused some critics to charge him with plundering the past.

“Napoleon I in Coronation Costume” by Robert Robert Lefèvre. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1815 Ingres’ “Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne” was transferred to the Louvre Museum, where it was first inventoried as MR 2069 and then later as INV. 5420. In 1832, the Count of Forbin put it on display in the Hotel des Invalides. It was first viewed in the chapel but in 1860 moved to the library. Today, it can be viewed in the Musée de l’Armée located at Les Invalides.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries

Of the Napoleon Bonaparte portraits that can be viewed today another important one is one that David completed in 1812. It is titled “The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries.” Once again it is unlikely that Napoleon posed for the portrait.

Napoleon Bonaparte portraits - him in his study at Tuileries.

“The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries” by Jacques-Louis David. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Scotsman Alexander Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton commissioned this painting. A well-known dandy of his time, Hamilton was also a politician and art collector who supported and admired Napoleon. Furthermore, Hamilton paid the “enormous sum of 1,000 guineas (18,650 francs) for [the] full-length portrait [of Napoleon].”[2]  

This painting shows Napoleon standing, facing the viewer, and once again his hand is in his vest. He is wearing the uniform of a colonel of the Imperial Guard Foot Grenadiers (blue with white facings and red cuffs) and his Légion d’honneur and Order of the Iron Crown decorations, along with gold epaulettes, white French-style culottes, and white stockings.

Although the portrait does not mark a specific historical moment, it does provide a glimpse of what many people imagine to be a typical day in the life of Napoleon and is therefore significant. Moreover, of the painting, art historian Albert Boime noted:

“When the work was submitted to the emperor before being dispatched to Scotland, Napoleon responded with pleasure, ‘You have indeed caught me this time, David. At night I work for the welfare of my subjects; in the daytime for their glory.’”[3]

When David sent the portrait to the Duke of Hamilton, he also sent a letter explaining Napoleon’s appearance stating that he wanted to show that he had been working all night on his Napoleonic code. He therefore showed him with unbuttoned cuffs, wrinkled stockings, and disheveled hair. There are also flickering candles and a clock that indicates the time to be 4:13am. In addition, the fleurs-de-lys and the heraldic bees imply the stability of Napoleon’s imperial dynasty.

Napoleon Bonaparte Abdicated in Fontainebleau

Another of the important Napoleon Bonaparte portraits was created in 1845. It was accomplished by French artist Hippolyte Paul Delaroche, who married Louise, the daughter of artist Horace Vernet. Delaroche was one of the most famous painters in Europe in the mid-1800s. He came from an artsy background as his father was an art expert, his older brother Jules-Hippolyte Delaroche a painter, and his uncle curator of the Cabinet des Estampes.

“Napoleon Bonaparte Abdicated in Fontainebleau” by Hippolyte Paul Delaroche. Public domain.

Delaroche attempted to depict his subjects with pragmatic realism and did not consider popular ideals and norms in his paintings but instead painted subjects — historical figures, figures of Christianity, or real people like Napoleon and Marie Antoinette — in the same light. Delaroche was also a leading pupil of Gros and later mentored such notable artists as Thomas Couture, Jean-Léon Gérôme, and Jean-François Millet.

The German merchant Adolph Heinrich Scheletter commissioned Delaroche to paint “Napoleon Bonaparte Abdicated in Fontainebleau.” There are several versions of the painting but the one most frequently reproduced is that which belongs to the Leipzig Museum der Bildenden Künste and is often wrongly identified as the original.

To accomplish the painting there is no indication that Delaroche ever met Napoleon. However, he resembled him physically, and moreover, at the time of the painting, Delaroche was distraught over the death of his wife. He therefore used his sad emotions to create this brooding portrait of Napoleon that depicts the emperor on 31 March 1814, the day Paris capitulated to the invading armies rather than on 4 April 1814, the day he abdicated at Fontainebleau.

The painting shows Napoleon alone in his quarters having been abandoned by his supporters. He is slumped in his chair, facing partially to the left, and wearing his military uniform, overcoat, and mud-spattered boots. His right arm hangs over the back of his chair, his sword rests on a nearby table, and his cocked hat sits at his feet.

For many viewers Delaroche could not have captured a more fitting depiction of Napoleon at the time of his imminent fall. Of the painting, Delaroche’s friend Labouchère remarked to one of his English friends, “I never thought that man could deserve compassion, but now I understand it.”[4] The Fine Arts Quarterly Review of 1864 also stated of the portrait:

“What an expression of complete prostration there is in the Emperor’s whole attitude, and how clearly can be read in his features the grievous thoughts which tortured that mind, so powerful, so proud, and so absolute.”[5]

Interestingly, however, a different observation of this painting in 2013 states that although at first glance the painting appears to revolve around defeat, there is a deeper meaning:

“Napoleon, positioned in the center of the canvas, sits upon an elegant but simple chair. He has cast off his hat and sword and stares into the distance, completely absorbed in his own thoughts. Far from seeming weak, however, his presence fills, literally, the space. Though various emblems of his career such as the Code Napoleon, a sword, the famous bicorne hat, and laurel wreaths in the wallpaper surround him, the bright light that hits the Emperor’s uniform and face make it clear that the man himself takes precedence over the trappings of his career. Even beyond that, the emphasis on Napoleon’s face and body a reveal a steely determination that belies the gloomy air of the composition. Though he has been defeated, … the Emperor is determined to return to power.”[6]

Of the many Napoleon Bonaparte portraits produced over the years each artist has, in their own way, left their interpretation about who Napoleon was and what he achieved. They have helped to create a larger-than-life figure and captured a man who in many ways has become a legend. These five portraits have also helped to keep Napoleon’s memory alive. From a glance, viewers can imagine Napoleon’s role in history and how he affected the political and military events of eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. Moreover, just as historians uses their pens to record the events of history, so to have these artists used their brushes to record a special moment in time, and, in fact, in certain ways their paintings say more with a glance than the millions of words written about Napoleon.


  • [1] G. Tinterow and P. Conisbee, eds., Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999), p.  48.
  • [2] S. Lee, David A&i (Phaidon Press, 1999), p. 141.
  • [3] A. Boime, A Social History of Modern Art, Volume 2: Art in an Age of Bonapartism, 1800-1815 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 53.
  • [4] B. B. Woodward, ed., The Fine Arts Quarterly Review v. 2 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1864), p. 292.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 292–93.
  • [6] A. R. Adams, “The Emperor is Dead, Long Live the Emperor: Paul Delaroche’s portraits of Napoleon and Popular Print Culture,” Iowa University, accessed September 25, 2019, p. 43.

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