What role did Neoclassicism play

in the rise of Napoleon?

By Hayley Winter


• Page 2: What role did Neoclassicism play in

the rise of Napoleon.

• Page 3: Introduction.

• Page 4: Neoclassicism.

• Page 5, 6: History of Napoleon.

• Page 7, 8: Napoleon crossing the Alps.

• Page 9, 10: Napoleon Bonaparte visiting the

plague-stricken in the house of Jaffa.

• Page 11, 12: Napoleon on his Imperial


Page 13, 14: Napoleon on the field of Eylau.

• Page 15, 16: Revolt in Cairo.

• Page 17: conclusion.

• Page 18: References and Bibliography.

What role did Neoclassicism play

in the rise of Napoleon?

For my practical portfolio I looked at studying paintings through out the history of art that

considered time. While looking into this I noticed death was closely linked with time and I

decided to develop my work towards death in time. From this I came across multiple

different styles and artists, I chose to create and exhibition for a gallery containing my

posters. There is a picture of my final poster below.

For my related study I have decided to look closer at one of the styles in my practical

portfolio. I was really fascinated with Neoclassicism, and my aim for the related study is to

determine how important this style was in the rise of the French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte.



This study will look at the Neoclassical movement in depth and consider how paintings of

Napoleon were used to fuel his reign as ruler of the new French Republic.

In order to achieve this I will study the following works………

Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1801, David

Napoleon in the house of Jaffa,

1804, Gros

Napoleon on his Imperial Throne,

1806, Ingres Napoleon on the field of Eylau,

1807, Gros

Napoleon on the

field of Eylau,

1807, Gros, oil

on canvas.


Neoclassicism was an art movement that was inspired by the classical work of ancient

Greece and Rome before it. The name was derived from the Greek word “Neo” meaning

new, a new form of classical works. In the late 18 th century Neoclassicism was born, in

France and Italy, after the Rococo period and lasted until the early to mid 19 th century.

Neoclassical work was know for its idealised forms and smooth surface treatment.

Neoclassical painters tried to achieve a completely smooth surface with no visible brush

marks. The figures in their work were based upon classical sculptures from Greece and

Rome. This was how it became Neoclassical meaning new.

David’s Oath of the Horatii is a typical Neoclassical painting. The painting depicts a Roman

legend of two battling cities. The lighting in this painting seems dramatic, David has

achieved an idealistic and dramatic style. The figures represent the classical work being

reborn in a new way. Typical to the Neoclassical style the composition is balanced and

ordered, with the diagonals of the figures and the arches in the background.


Oath of the



oil on canvas.

Neoclassicism is seen to be political and linear, this may have been inspired by the change in

governments at the time in France. The French people no longer wanted a monarch to rule

and wanted to have a voice in the government making it more democratic. During the

beginning of Neoclassicism, France was ruled by the absolute monarch King Louis XVI.

According to Palmer (2011) the Neoclassical style was referred to as the King Louis XVI style

in the early years, until it developed and became the empire style during the era of Napoleons

first French empire. However, France grew larger in debt due to the over spending of these

royals and the unfair system of taxing; poor people were taxed heavier than the rich, which

they couldn’t afford to pay. King Louis XVI noticed that the Nobles and rich were not taxed high

enough and he changed the laws so he could try and pay back his debt. This culminated in

1789 when the French Revolution broke out and the country was in anarchy.


Napoleon I

Napoleon I was born in Corsica 1769 to Carlo

Bonaparte, an Italian lawyer and politician.

Napoleons family was not rich but considered

by local standards to be well off. In 1785

Napoleon had finished his education and had

graduated 42 nd in his class of 58 from Paris's

military academy (BBC, 2017).

Napoleon was determined to succeed, he was first commissioned as 2 nd lieutenant to an artillery

and he studied tactics vigorously to prove himself. In 1793 the French revolution came around

during the reign of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette due to unfair taxing and starvation. For

Napoleon the French revolution brought around his families banishment from Corsica as his

younger brother claimed Pasquale Paoli, the leader of the resistance army against the French,

was a traitor. Napoleon was now a Frenchman (BBC, 2017).

The siege of Toulon was

Napoleons first major victory

were he could prove himself.

He drove the British troops

from the port and recovered

the city. His work didn’t go

unnoticed and just at the age

of 24 Napoleon was

promoted to Brigadier.

His achievements gained the attention of people in higher positions.

Maximilien Robespierre the leader of the Jacobins was leading the reign

of terror. The Jacobins were a political party who believed the revolution

was needed. By 1794 over 20,000 people who were against the French

revolution were executed at the guillotine (BBC, 2017 and Hart-Davis,


In 1796 Napoleon was made head of the army in Italy, from here

Napoleon went from strength to strength winning battles across

Europe, including the Papal army. He became know as a French

hero. However Napoleon was not content with being know as a

superb General he wanted high political power. In 1799 Napoleon

had become first consul he then went on to defeating the Austrians

again in Italy and Germany, this gave his the promotion of consul for

life. 1804 Napoleon declared himself emperor, in Notre dame

Cathedral Paris, which gave him the most power in Europe (Hart-

Davis, 2007).

1807, David, the coronation of

Napoleon, oil on canvas. (cropped).


As emperor Napoleon maneuvered large scale armies tactically across

Europe winning battle after battle. The massive scale of his armies often

sustained mass casualties. However Napoleon was still seen as a French

hero and he was popular with his soldiers. Napoleon often visited his armies

in the battle field to raise their spirits which increased his popularity. He also

knew how to congratulate his men by creating “Legion d’honneur” a reward to

inspire his men's effort (Hart-Davis, 2007).

In 1807 Napoleon was in control of

most of Europe, only Britain opposed

him. Napoleons plan was to create a

blockade and stop all trade to and

from Britain to force their surrender.

However this blockade was harder

than he thought to enforced and the

countries he already defeated started

to revolt. This was the beginning of

Napoleons downfall (Black, 1999).

Adapted from (Map collection, 2017)

1811 Napoleon had a son with his second wife the Austrian Archduchess Marie Louise. Napoleon

thought his son to be know as the King of Rome. However in 1813 Napoleon and his armies were

defeated by the combined forces of Prussia, Sweden and Austria. This lead to his abdication in

1814 because his allies had occupied Paris. Napoleon became exiled to a Mediterranean island but

escaped a year later and returned to Paris (Hart-Davis, 2007).

William Sadler II, The Battle of Waterloo, oil on

canvas, 1815.

Napoleon was defeated by the

British in 1815 during the battle

of waterloo by Wellington and

his Allies, he abdicated for a

second time and surrendered

to the British. This time

Napoleon didn’t escape and

died in 1821 on the island of St

Helena where he was prisoner

(BBC, 2017 and Hart-Davis,


I am now going to look at neoclassicism and how it has affect the rise of Napoleon.


Napoleon crossing the Alps, 1801, David, oil

on canvas.

Neoclassicism was strongly powered by the works of Jacques-Louis David. David

used propaganda in his work to raise the status of his subjects. I have chosen to

look into this painting as it demonstrates clearly how Napoleon used this painting to

increase his supporters.


This painting is depicting the Battle of Marengo which Napoleon is

supposedly leading his troops on a mighty steed. David depicted him to

be calm when his steed in certainly not. This could be to represent how

calm and level headed Napoleon will be in the war without panicking.

When in fact Napoleon travelled by mule after his troops had travelled

across making it safer. David has created a pure propaganda painting.

In the lower left hand corner of the image you can see the names of

people who have travelled the alps including Hannibal. Again trying to

show Napoleon as an equal to these powerful leaders who heroically

lead their troops through the alps.

In the background of

the image David’s use

of atmospheric

perspective adds to

the grandeur of the

painting, emphasising

Napoleons leadership

across the

treacherous terrain.

The geometric shapes created in this image by

the diagonals of the mountain ranges counter

balances the diagonals of Napoleon. These

geometric forms are typical of Neoclassical work.

The definitive diagonals show Napoleon as

strong and powerful.

When Napoleon ordered more copies of him

crossing the alps he made David change the

colours of the image to add more contrasts, this

was to make him appear bolder with a red cape

rather than the golden one. In all the images

there are echoing forms in the background with

the use of the mountains. The creation of

different versions of this piece raised Napoleons

status because people could see he is a

powerful strong leader due to the fact he could

commission multiple images of himself

In the background of the image

you can see Napoleons troops

also Crossing the Alps with him.

The use of propaganda David has

used in this painting raises the

status of Napoleon and makes the

French citizens see him and as a

strong powerful leader not afraid to

put himself in harms way leading

his armies.

The flapping of Napoleons cape and

the horses hair represents how high

up he is positioned and that

throughout his journey over the alps

he had to battle the elements.

Similarly to the Death of Marat, David has used Propaganda in this image. It was commissioned

by King Charles IV of Spain but later Napoleon ordered 3 more because he loved that David

portrayed him as calm on a distressed horse. With the hand pointing to the sky it figuratively

shows Napoleon conquering any mountain and or obstacle in his way ( French Revolution).


Napoleon Bonaparte visiting the plague

stricken in the house of Jaffa, 1804, Gros, oil

on canvas.

I am now going to look into this painting and how the propaganda

produced by Gros supported Napoleon in his reign. This style of this

painting contains the neoclassical features of the use of classical figure

poses and no visible brushwork.


Napoleon had this painting commissioned

because he wanted to destroy the rumors

about him poisoning his French troops

that were plague stricken. This painting

reflects the use of propaganda similar to

the use of propaganda used by David in

his Neoclassical paintings.

Napoleons troops became plague stricken

when fighting the British. In this painting Gros

has created a make-shift hospital inside a

mosque with Napoleon touching the victims

and not worrying about being contaminated as

he wonders through his fellow soldiers. This

shows Napoleon in a Christ like way, which is

complete propaganda. Gros has set this

painting in Africa.

Napoleon is also rumored to have bayoneted

the soldiers he had taken prisoner. This was

said to be because he didn’t want them

slowing him down and also he wanted to save

his gunpowder.

In this painting the use of Neoclassicism modeled Napoleon on a traditional

sculpture. This use of Neoclassicism raised the status of Napoleon showing him

as heroic and gaining the respects of the French citizens who heard about the


Gros modeled Napoleon after the Apollo Belvedere. Napoleon in this painting is

seen as Christ like and also modeled on traditional art works. These associations

add to the propaganda of the painting. This shows Napoleon in a heroic light

trying to help the plague stricken victims, similarly to the work Christ did.

Gros was mentored by David and

used similar techniques in his work.

According to (Louvre, 2017) Gros has

used a “stage like Backdrop”, a

similar style backdrop created in

David’s Oath of the Horatii.

Gros has positioned nude figures in this

painting as well similarly to the more traditional

art works. Positioning traditional figures in

these new paintings is typical of the

The way Gros has based his figures on Neoclassical style.

traditional sculpture is a typical feature of

neoclassical paintings. This painting is

considered to have Romanticism traits, however

the use of light and tone and the figures being

based on traditional statues makes it more

Neoclassical. In the bottom right hand corner of

the painting you can see the dying soldiers.

Napoleon had this painting created in 1804 when the event

actually took place in 1799. Having the paintings commissioned 5

years after the event was Napoleons way of raising his status.


Napoleon on his Imperial Throne, 1806, Ingres,

oil on canvas.

I’m now going to look at this painting because it represents Napoleon after he

has been crowned emperor. I think this clearly shows how neoclassicism

affected the rise of Napoleon.


In this painting Ingres has shown Napoleon

on his imperial throne, dressed in the

coronation robes just after he has be

crowned emperor. Napoleon wearing the

coronation robes and holding the

ceremonial staff, is suggestive that

Napoleon can be considered as powerful as


The coronation robes in this image cover

Napoleon with only his head visible. This

represents to the people that Napoleon is

just as wealthy and important as royalty.

Representing Napoleon as Royalty creates

the propaganda that Napoleon was born to

be emperor and it is his right to rule France.

This shows him as a higher social status

rather than just the fourth son of a

representative to the court.

The throne has arms made

of golden pilasters which are

topped with highly polished

marble balls and has eagles

encrusted on the sides. This

eagle is then painted again

on the rug to Napoleons right

hand side. On this rug you

can clearly see what could

be the scales of justice.

These scales show to the

people of France that

Napoleon is a trustworthy

emperor and fair to all.

This image is typical to the style of

Neoclassicism with the use of

classical references. Napoleons

seating position is suggestive that

he is powerful because it is the

same positioning as the almighty

god Jupiter. Ingres has created

this image with no visible

brushwork, it appears very photo

realistic another feature of

Neoclassical art works.

Similarly to the other images of napoleon I have looked at

propaganda plays an important role in his portrayal.

Ingres uses propaganda to portray Napoleon in the style

of royalty. The golden arching throne around the back of

Napoleons head reflects the shape of a halo suggesting

Napoleon is like Apollo. This use of propaganda shows

Napoleon as strong and powerful as if he were a God.

This was created through Ingres choice of furniture and

the attire he dressed Napoleon in.

Seen from under Napoleons arm there is a jewel

encrusted, golden sword this again could represent his

strength and the armies that Napoleon has at his side.

This again is propaganda created by Ingres. This

increases Napoleons status to the French people

because it signifies that he is equipped to defend and

protect them as their new emperor.

The scale of this painting is

massive and when the viewer

looks at Napoleon they have to

look up to him as he is not at

eye level. This shows to the

viewer that Napoleon is God

like, these references are typical

of the Neoclassical style.

In the painting Ingres has used strong

diagonal forms which highlight Napoleon

in the centre. This image has a

symmetrical composition which adds

emphasis to Napoleon rather than the

background. Napoleon fills the majority of

the canvas and he is positioned in the

foreground. This use of space again adds

the emphasis and attention to Napoleon.

This technique is successful at showing

Napoleons power because he is the

centre of attention and that is how he

wants the people of France to see him.


Napoleon on the field of Eylau, 1807,

Gros, oil on canvas.

This image I have decided to include in my research because it

depicts the battle of Eylau. Gros has painted Napoleon with his

arms raised above the wounded and defeated as if he were

blessing them.


Napoleon commissioned this painting a year after the battle took place.

Napoleon wanted this painting to depict his armies triumphantly

winning with the Prussian and Russian armies either surrendering or

retreating. For the right image to be produced Napoleon made the

opportunity for the commission into a competition.

This painting is pure propaganda of Napoleon and his armies. This

painting depicts Napoleon walking over the bodies and wounded of

the opposition, with his armies triumphantly following him. The battle of

Eylau was a tragic battle which saw many casualties to both sides.

The battle of Eylau never had a victor but both armies consider

massive losses of 15,000 to 25,000 men (sundarajkeun, 2017).

Gros has depicted the horrific seen of the frozen bodies

in the foreground. The battle took place during the winter

and Gros used this to depict Napoleon as a heroic

leader, by showing him with his soldiers covered in thick

coats and cloaks, where as the bodies and wounded on

the ground are not wearing very much. Napoleon didn’t

want to battle during the winter but the advancing armies

of the Russians and Prussians forced him to fight.

Gros created a sketch for the design of this

image out of black and brown ink over

graphite. Gros created this image because

he submitted it into the competition for the

commission. Gros won the competition which

lead to him creating the final piece from oil


Gros has created a similar composition to his Napoleon in

the Plague-stricken house of Jaffa. However in this painting

he depicts more bodies in the foreground which adds greater

emphasis on the blood shed. It also emphasises Napoleon

and how he can maneuver his armies to successfully defeat

a bigger army.

Gros has painted Napoleon in the centre of this painting, seated upon a

golden haired horse. This depicts Napoleon as godly with his arm raised

above his head as if he were blessing the wounded and dying. This again

is more propaganda produced by Gros to show the French people that

Napoleon is a French hero.

In this painting Gros has also

created the bodies in the foreground

to be larger than life size. This effect

depicts Napoleon again as a hero

because he won the battle against

an army of much larger men. Gros

may have used this to depict that

Napoleon was out number and his

armies were considerably smaller

than his enemies.

The layout of this image is similar to

the style of Neoclassical work with a

well balanced background and

echoing forms. However in this

painting Gros has created large

visible brushstrokes which goes

against the values of neoclassical

works. Even though Gros used

visible brushstrokes rather than

creating a photographic like painting,

it still depicts a dramatic seen of

Napoleon, and having the bodies in

the foreground cropped makes it look

as if they are falling out of the

painting. This use of repoussior is

successful because it leads the

viewer into the image and makes

them feel the horror and the pain.


Girodet-Trison, Revolt in Cairo, 1810,

oil on canvas.

I am now going to look at the use of neoclassicism in this painting and

also how propaganda again shows Napoleon as a French hero. This

image is a good example because it depicts one of Napoleons later

battles in which he lost many men.


This painting was commissioned 10 years after the battle. It depicts the

battle in which Napoleon stormed the city of Cairo but the citizens

fought back and became known as the rebels. The rebels slaughtered

every French man they saw in the streets. Napoleon became anxious

of the fact that the British were storming the coastal towns and now he

was loosing his men in Cairo. Therefore he decided to set up

barricades and force the rebels to retreat back to the Mosque. Once

inside the Mosque Napoleon said “God is too late- you have begun,

now I’ll finish”. Once all the rebels had gathered in the Mosque

Napoleon had his armies shoot down the building with canons to kill

everyone inside.

In this panting Girodet has depicted a massacre of Frenchmen

slaughtering the Egyptians. The painting shows French armies as strong

and powerful, with the man in the front of the painting swinging his arm

high above his head ready to kill the people in front of him.

In this painting Girodet has created propaganda with the use of making

the French soldiers well armed and slaughtering defenseless citizens.

However in the actual battle the rebels had been spreading weapons

around the city and were killing the French without mercy.

Girodet has created a dark smoky

background to reflect the cannons

that Napoleon used to slaughter the

remaining rebels in the Mosque. The

figure on the left hand side, Girodet

has made larger than the rest, this

make him appear unstoppable and

reflects that Napoleon and his

armies will not be beaten. This again

is pure propaganda which is fueling

the reign of Napoleon.

The composition of this painting also has typical elements of

Neoclassical paintings. The people in the foreground create a

diagonal incline towards the top right hand corner of the painting.

This creates the effect that they are retreating. This effect is very

successful because the propaganda is showing that the men are not

staying to fight but turning away. The large figure on the left hand

side also echo's the diagonal forms.

The strong use of colour and light in this painting depicts clearly the

violence of the scene alongside the bodies in the foreground.

Unintentionally Girodet has made the viewer feel sorry for the rebels

because he has painted them as weak and defenseless when it is

supposed to make Napoleon and his armies look stronger and more


This painting contains typical features of the Neoclassical

style as Girodet has created a picture with no visible brush

marks and he has created idealised figures of the people. This

painting is a very gruesome scene with the use of bodies in

the foreground that have been cropped. This is similar to the

style Gros used in the Battle of Eylau. This use of repoussior

pulls the view into the image and makes them feel the pain

and the horror of the battle.



Throughout this essay I have explored the life of Napoleon and chosen

key paintings that were used to celebrate him as an individual.

The Neoclassical style of these paintings all involved the idealised forms

and classical references. Napoleon utilised these classical references

by depicting himself in association with these heroic figures. Apart from

Napoleon on the field of Eylau, these paintings all created a smooth

surface with no visible brush strokes, this added to the drama of the

painting by creating a realistic world drawing the viewer in.

Napoleon manipulated these features in the creation of a body of work

that displays him in a heroic way. Napoleon used the language of history

painting to create contemporary historical documents that people


This was seen in the house of Jaffa, with the imitation of Apollo.

The use of neoclassicism also allowed artists to associate Napoleon

with greater past leaders. It was also seen in the portraits of Napoleon,

first by David in Napoleon crossing the Alps where he was associated

with Hannibal, and in Ingres portrait of Napoleon on his Imperial Throne,

he was likened to Jupiter and also the French monarchy. All these

aspects helped Napoleons rise because the French citizens saw him as

a heroic and strong leader.

Overall Napoleon utilised the Neoclassical style to fuel his character and

identity throughout his reign.



Palmer, L, A., (2011) ‘Historical Dictionary of Neoclassical Art and Architecture’.

Plymouth: Scarecrow Press.

Napoleon on his Imperial Throne, accessed at,

Bryan Zygmont

BBC, (2017), Iwonder Napoleon I.

Hart-Davis, A,. (2007) ‘History the definitive visual guide’. London: Dorling

Kindersley Limited.

Black, J,. (1999) ‘World History Atlas’. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited., (2017), Napoleon’s Empire 1810., (2017), Gros, Battle of Eylau.


Gros, Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa, accessed at, (2017)


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