Imperial Dialects: Monumentality and Anecdotalism in Napoleonic Painting
Derin Tanyol

Napoleon Bonaparte left a most impressive store of images in his wake, but only recently have scholars attempted to sift through the elaborate historical dialects of his representation. Notwithstanding what history knows to be the many faces of Napoleon, his artistic strategies have persistently been presumed one-sided: Napoleon, the canon suggests, chose neoclassicism as his propagandist language because, in its allusion to the emperors of ancient Rome, classicism most readily conveyed his own imperial aspirations. Familiar analogies between classicism and authoritarian politics, and conversely between Romanticism and cultural liberalism, have fueled our desire to view Napoleon's decidedly unliberal government as promoting a purely classical visual agenda. As a result, critical assumptions regarding Napoleon's reliance on an antique idiom have denied the possibility that an artistic reformation, and the foundations of a modernist narrative, could emerge from dictatorial propaganda.

Although the iconography of antiquity surely performed many of Napoleon's political tasks, his arts administration took as much recourse in the contemporary languages of journalism and genre painting. While on the one hand the monumental history paintings of Jacques-Louis David brandished authority and, by depending on academic traditions, flattered the educated elite, artists such as Nicolas-Antoine Taunay eased the less historically aware into approval of the Empire with smaller-scale, anecdotal paintings of Napoleonic lore, a kind of oral history in pictorial form. As these distinct categories of discourse performed symbiotically to produce a fiction of Napoleon not just as man of the people, but as a man who spoke all of the people's languages, the Salon walls simulated his paradoxical fusion of imperial ambitions and democratic pretensions. This paper, excerpted from a larger study of transformations in historical narrative under Napoleon, shall focus on instances in which the monumental and the anecdotal collide, one of the major factors destabilizing critical definitions of history painting and sending it plummeting to its death in the nineteenth century.  


Pierre Gautherot, Napoleon's Speech to the Second Corps on the Lech
Bridge (1808). Versailles, Musee National du Chateau.

Nicolas-Antoine Taunay
, Crossing the Sierra de Guadarrama (1812).
Versailles, Musee National du Chateau.