When I’m at the Louvre Museum, I seek out Jacques-Louis David’s imposing—if not exactly beautiful—painting of Napoleon and Josephine’s coronation. At thirty-two feet long by twenty feet tall, it’s slightly smaller than Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana, the Louvre’s largest painting.
The French refer to it as Le Sacre, but its official name is The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and the Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on 2 December 1804. That captures the historical facts since Napoleon crowned himself and Pope Pius VII “consecrated” the act. Then Napoleon performed Josephine’s less holy “coronation.”
There are enough fascinating stories about Le Sacre to fill a book, much less a single blog post. For example, Napoleon’s mother, who was feuding with him at the time, refused to attend the ceremony. Napoleon had David paint her into a prominent position, anyway. Also, originally, the painting showed Napoleon holding the crown above his own head, but the Emperor had David revise it to the moment of Josephine’s coronation.
My favorite story actually involves a different painting. In 1810, Le Sacre’s painter, David, produced this charming portrait of the Comtesse Daru, after just a few sittings. He painted the portrait free of charge, unveiling it as a surprise gift for Madame Daru’s husband. It seems the Comte Pierre Daru, a top administrator on Napoleon’s staff, had arranged for the French government to pay the long overdue bill owed to David for the Coronation painting.
The comtesse’s portrait now hangs in New York City in the Frick, one of the world’s great private art museums.