Painting, Propaganda and Patriotism: David Welch Looks at the Way That Public Art Was Used in Both France and Britain to Celebrate Napoleon and Nelson as National Heroes, during Their Lifetimes and After

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For many centuries there have been rich, constant, and creative exchanges between France and Britain. Equally, however, Anglo-French relations have been marked by Suspicion and jealousy. This love/hate relationship has endured until the present day and partly explains the fascination each nation has for ennemi hereditaire.

The respective fortunes of the two nations during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are symbolized by dominant military leaders and adversaries, and indeed by the battles they fought. Napoleon Bonaparte and Horatio Nelson have become synonymous with power and represent the apotheosis of imperial splendour. It is not surprising that Paris has its Gare d'Austerlitz while London has Trafalgar Square. What better way of reinforcing the present and determining the future than by commemorating the glories of the past?

The French Revolution emboldened intellectual life and soon found expression in the arts where simplicity and austere grandeur marked political and artistic endeavours. In the aftermath of the Revolution, French leadership recognized the importance of art for political propaganda none more so than Napoleon who would dominate much of the art produced during this period. By 1799, Napoleon had risen from successful military leader to First Consul and virtual dictator. The Revolution and the Empire had systematically used art for the propagation of their ideologies and the commemoration of their achievements. Construction of the Arc de Triomphe at Place de Carrousel began during Napoleon's reign. Patterned after the Arch of Constantine in Rome, it is an excellent example of 'monument propaganda'.

The magnificent art collection in the Chateau de Versailles contains numerous examples of the systematic use of art for the propagation of revolutionary' ideologies and the commemoration of their achievements. The leading artist was Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), named premier peintre of the Empire. The so-called School of David, consisting of painters who had either been trained in his studio or who imitated his style, formed the most prestigious group of artists in Europe during the Empire (1804-14). David's influence was far-reaching. His followers continued his precepts well into the new century and disseminated them beyond the borders of France. Napoleon's patronage gave their works prestige and institutional backing and the official biennial exhibitions, the Paris Salon, gave them international visibility. Under the direction of Vivant Denon (1747-1825), Napoleon's director of artistic patronage, a cohort of official artists was assigned to produce works of art that celebrated Napoleonic triumphs.

The regime was determined to commemorate its power, not least the power of military victory and imperial aggrandisement. Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) was one of the most talented of David's immediate followers and during the years of the Empire was constantly employed to paint battles and military portraits. 'The Battle of Aboukir' (1806) commemorated the Egyptian campaign, while 'Napoleon at the Battle of Eylau' (1808) depicts Napoleon's visit to the battlefield in Prussia the morning after the slaughter (February 9th, 1807). Confronted by the horror of 25,000 dead and wounded soldiers scattered across the snow, Napoleon is alleged to have remarked: 'If all the kings of this earth could see this spectacle, they would be less eager for war and conquest'. Framed by the devastation of war--smouldering buildings and a ravaged countryside--Napoleon, clad in a grey silk coat lined with fur, is placed centre-stage on horse-back, with all eyes focusing on him. He extends his arm and raises his eyes in an expression of compassion. Gros' painting reflects the Emperor's self-image in a dramatic portrayal of a warrior monarch acting out the role of Prince of Peace.

Another pupil of David, Francois Pascal Gerard (1770-1837), exhibited his 'Battle of Austerlitz' (1810), a huge canvas originally destined to decorate the ceiling of the chamber of the Council of State. …


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