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,
Napoleon on his Imperial Throne,
1806, Ingres Napoleon on the field of Eylau,
Napoleon on the
field of Eylau,
1807, Gros, oil
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 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-
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
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
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
perspective adds to
the grandeur of the
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
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
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
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
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
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 https://www.khanacademy.org,
BBC, (2017), Iwonder Napoleon I.
Hart-Davis, A,. (2007) ‘History the definitive visual guide’. London: Dorling
Black, J,. (1999) ‘World History Atlas’. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited.
Mapcollection.worldpress.com, (2017), Napoleon’s Empire 1810.
simonsundarajkeun.wordpress.com, (2017), Gros, Battle of Eylau.
Gros, Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa, accessed at