Oil on canvas
Joseph Franque (French 1774 – 1833)
Better not to have been born than to live without glory.
Emperor Napoleon I was and remains one of the most legendary military and political figures in history, having held, for a brief period, the fate of the Western world in his hands. Composed by the French painter Joseph Franque, this portrait captures the imposing Emperor addressing his army before the Battle of Borodino in 1812 – a battle that would be one of the final victories of the legendary general’s career. Part of the final showing of Salon portraits of Napoleon I, and one of the few of him as emperor in the field, this rare and monumental work is an impressive portrayal of the French leader at the very pinnacle of his power.
Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812; his aim was to achieve a fast and decisive victory, and then to force the Russians to agree to the terms of a treaty they had signed just four years earlier. The two forces eventually met at Borodino on September 7, 1812 – it would prove to be one of Napoleon’s final victories. After a single day of battle, the Russian forces withdrew, and Napoleon’s Grand Armée pushed on to take the ancient city of Moscow. Yet, they arrived to a city already burning, and what followed was a brilliantly strategic scorched earth retreat by the Russians that ultimately led to Napoleon’s defeat. This incredible oil on canvas offers a captivating portrait of the Emperor before these fateful months, portraying him at the zenith of his power.
Composed for the Salon of 1812, this monumental work by Franque is one of the last French paintings exhibited of Napoleon during his lifetime; the next Salon took place in 1814 months after his exile to Elba. The large-scale work is part of a rich tradition of court painting under the Napoleonic regime that exalted the triumphs of the Emperor. Franque is counted among the great French masters Jacques-Louis David, Antoine-Jean Gros, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres as those artists favored by the French court during this period. Their works, the present piece included, helped to shape the persona of Napoleon as both the heroic general and the benevolent sovereign, while ultimately glorifying the entire Napoleonic age.
Epic in both size and character, Franque’s work provides a rare, almost intimate portrait of the Emperor on this pivotal day. While hints of his forces’ camp can be seen behind him, his imposing figure fills the canvas. He is depicted in full military regalia with his distinctive bicorne hat atop his head, and strikes a brave pose. Though Franque was not present on the battlefield, he would have seen Napoleon in Paris just a few months earlier, and thus his portrait is almost certainly a true likeness of the Emperor. Large in size and historically significant, it is perhaps the best of Franque’s oeuvre.
Born in 1774, the painter Joseph Franque was a student of the preeminent Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David. He painted a number of portraits for the Imperial family, including his celebrated portrait the Empress Marie-Louise currently hanging in Versailles. He left Paris in 1812, the same year this work was composed, following Elisa Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister, to Italy. He settled there, eventually earning the directorship of the Fine Art Academy in Naples. Today, his works are represented in important museum collections worldwide, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Palace of Versailles.