Napoleon's Patronage of Neoclassical Art

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  • 0:01 The Art of Emperors
  • 1:00 Neoclassical Architecture
  • 2:42 Neoclassical Painting…
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Napoleon was one of the most powerful leaders in Western history and also a great patron of the arts. Explore the link between empire and art, then test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Art of Emperors

It's no secret that rulers often use art to communicate a specific message. Sometimes, it's power, other times, wealth or a relationship with the common people. Some rulers have no shortness of art around them. Some rulers can get pretty short when people try to limit art. Some rulers don't want to see art become short in stature. Any guess which ruler we're talking about? At 5'6', Napoleon Bonaparte was not exactly imposing, but he still managed to create one of the most famous military dictatorships in history as the Emperor of France from 1804-1814. While he was in power, Napoleon dedicated a lot of attention to art, but not just any art. Napoleon favored neoclassicism, or the revival of the Classical styles of ancient Greece and Rome. Not everybody could have commanded as much control over the arts, but hey, emperors like Napoleon were in short supply.

Neoclassical Architecture Under Napoleon

Throughout his years in control of France, Napoleon continually hired artists to work in the neoclassical style. But why? Well, it really comes down to Napoleon's fascination with the power of ancient Rome. In fact, when Napoleon first rose to power in 1799, he gave himself the title of Consul, which was a leader in the Roman Republic and a title used by the later Roman emperors. By using art that was in the style of ancient Rome, Napoleon turned Paris into a miniature Roman Empire. I mean, if you saw this building when you were walking down the street, where would you think you were? This is La Madeleine, a church Napoleon dedicated to his armies which is built almost exactly like a Roman temple. See the resemblance? Now, with neoclassical architecture, the building just needs to feel classical, so this structure still functions as a Catholic church and technically breaks several rules of Classical architecture by combining features from different Classical orders.

La Madeleine

Structures like La Madeleine went up all over Paris, and they created a connection between the empires of ancient Rome and Napoleonic France. Here's another one, perhaps the most famous of all. The Arc de Triomphe was commissioned by Napoleon, although it was completed after he was exiled. In the Roman Empire, this sort of structure, called a Triumphal arch was created to celebrate a military victory. The emperor or his generals would march his troops underneath the arch in a massive parade, which signified his official return to Rome as a conqueror. The Arc de Triomphe was the largest triumphal arch in the world at the time of its construction and was about as clear a connection to the Roman Empire as you could imagine.

Neoclassical Painting and Sculpture

Architecture was very important in Napoleonic France, but the emperor wasn't going to stop there. Classical art was also a major priority, and Napoleon hired official court painters and sculptors to fill his world with neoclassical masterpieces. This is a statue of his sister, Pauline Borghese, created by Antonio Canova. In this marble portrait, Canova used a number of Classical features. Pauline is depicted as Venus, the Roman goddess of love. She is reclining in a typical Roman pose and while her head is very realistic, her body is idealized, again typical of Roman statues. Statues like this went beyond connecting Napoleon's empire to Rome but connected his personal family as well.

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