Michel Martin Drolling
1789-1851 | French
Portrait Officiel de l’Empereur Napoléon Ier, en Grand Costume de Sacre
(Official Portrait of the Emperor Napoléon I in his Sacred Costume)
Signed and dated “Drolling P. 1808” (lower left)
Oil on canvas
This monumental portrait of Napoléon I by Michel Martin Drolling was composed after the most celebrated image ever painted of the French Emperor, the official coronation portrait by François Gérard. Following his coronation, Napoléon commissioned a number of paintings and sculptures of himself to display publicly. The composition by Gérard was undoubtedly his favorite, so much so that he commissioned other artists of his court, including Drolling and Anne-Louis Girodet, to paint additional versions of the work. Specially selected out of the thousands of artists in France, these legendary painters captured Napoléon at the very height of his glory.
Much like the rulers of Imperial Rome after whom he modeled himself, Napoléon used his official portraits to establish and cement his political power. These paintings were sent throughout the Empire, where they hung in important state buildings, courts, and palaces of the Emperor’s closest allies. Based on letters sent between Drolling and Napoléon’s Imperial staff, this portrait was almost certainly sent to the Illyrian provinces at Laybach (now Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia), where it graced the walls of the government palace. Such official state commissions, exceptional in execution and provenance, are not merely portraits, but also represent important records of history.
Drolling’s monumental portrait, substantial in both size and symbolism, depicts the Emperor in all his glory. Dressed in a gold-accented ermine and velvet robe with the laurel wreath of the Caesars on his head, Napoléon is unmistakably assuming his place among history’s greatest leaders. His robe is embroidered with the Imperial bee, a symbol that also belonged to the Roman Emperor Charlemagne, one of the most revered ancient monarchs in the history of France. His right arm extends protectively over the Imperial crown, which rests on a velvet-lined table alongside the globus cruciger and hand of justice – traditional symbols of the French monarchy. This pose and gesture are reminiscent of the famed equestrian statue of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline Museums (Rome), which was long thought to depict the first Christian Emperor, Constantine.
By surrounding himself with the regalia of ancient Roman and Frankish Emperors, Napoléon clearly places himself amidst their ranks. As a political statement and as a work of art, Napoléon’s coronation portraits express the Emperor’s personality at the very pinnacle of his power unlike any other painting completed during his lifetime.
A replica of this painting by Drolling of smaller dimensions is currently in the collection of the Fondation Napoléon (Paris). Similar portraits can be found in collections around the world, including the Château de Versailles, Musée du Louvre, Rijksmuseum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Musée Napoléon at Fontainebleau.