What stunned me was the presence of Napoleon as I passed the gallery!
Dear Readers, we were home in DC for 2 days before coming Down Under to Australia. I was having an ART LOOK necessity. Other things have taken me away from you—important things—like getting the Little Ganesh Book ready for publication on November 11th, my birthday; and teaching an LRT in the Lake District in England. But now I am back for a breath of ART LOOK fresh air. Passing Napoleon at the National Gallery is stunning. I walked over there from our house. It takes me about 34 minutes each way. It was a wonderful sunny day in late October in Washington when I took the hike, intending to see this portrait of Napoleon by Jaques Louis David. I am always impressed that the act of passing Napoleon seems so nonchalant.
It is easy to forget the circumstances around an artist and his work. David was somewhat a propagandist on the side of the French Revolution. He had witnessed his father die in a duel when he was seven years of age. Then raised by uncles, he was always desirous of a life as a painter, studying in the studio of French Rococo painter Francois Boucher, who painted mainly for the entertainment of the Royalty. By the time David had decided that pink fleshy nudes and Idyllic scenes of upper class frolicking in Versailles gardens were not his cup of tea, he was onto painting The Oath of the Horatii.
Historic paintings like this one spurred on the notions of a republic. France had just supported the American Revolution, which had overthrown the British Royal rule, and was about to undergo a bloody revolution of her own. The Oath of the Horatii depicted the solidarity of three brothers, taking an oath to defend the Republic of Rome. The oath is sworn to their father, who holds up the swords of a “blood pact” that will encourage them onward. This painting foreshadows the French Revolution, and the oath of its participants to swear on a higher allegiance to the new French social and political order.
A lot came down. The Reign of Terror took out the Royalty, as both Louis the 16th and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, went to the Guillotine. Thousands of others did as well, and not just Royals. The journalist Marat and the political leader Robespierre promoted a paranoia which took the lives of thousands. When all was said and done, even Robespierre met his end on the Guillotine. Marat was assassinated by a more moderate revolutionary, Charlotte Corday. This figure and his death are depicted in the painting, The Death of Marat, by David.
Enter in the early 1800’s Napoleon Bonaparte. He seized the day and and overthrew the governing body to institute the Consulate, making himself the First Consul, and later the Emperor of the Republic. There is something stunning about Passing Napoleon in the National Gallery. David, bridging the gap between the Neo-Classical period of the early nineteenth century, through the Early Romantic period, and setting the stage for the Realism of Courbet and Corot, painted Napoleon as a noble figure, bigger than life, for the Love of the Republic. Whether one is taken in by the political implications of the work or not, one can appreciate the power of the image at the hand of a Master Painter.
In passing Napoleon I always get the feeling of greatness. No matter what you may think about his megalomania, and kinglike rule over a government based on the supposed elimination of Royalty, this painting looms large and majestic. David could paint humbler imagery, as he did of his wife, yet I am always struck by the grandeur of this portrait of Napoleon, every time I pass by it.
Walking in the Aura of Greatness
I always feel uplifted in the National Gallery of Art. The building itself makes me feel majestic. The art is classic and beyond belief. I come to a deep appreciation when I go there, walking in the aura of greatness. Treasure after treasure. How did it all end up in this one place? Who had the vision to amass such a collection, and make it totally free to the people? I am almost awestruck.
Another room—in the Italian Renaissance section—houses one of Raphael’s Madonnas. I go there and sit and watch it’s beauty. It is better than watching movies, or TV, or anything else. It gives me a sense of total tranquility and grace.
It is such a harmonious painting, like the Napoleon by David, one is almost mesmerized in its presence. The hands of the Masters are upon us when we sink into a gaze of these exceptional works of art. We don’t quite even know what is happening to us during our Art Look, but we do sense an uplifting of the soul.
The Timeless Out of the Corner of Your Eye
When walking past greatness unaware, the flash of something remarkable out of the corner of your eye makes an impression. I had walked by Napoleon a dozen times, and passed with the fleeting impact of a true presence, for only an instant, but nevertheless unforgettable. This drew me back again and again, until it formed an expectation in my mind, a kind of forthcoming glint of gladness I knew I would feel passing Napoleon at in the National Gallery. This is what beauty does to us. It is timelessly speaking and showing us a perfection and joy of life—distilled and more potent—in its ability to lift us out of the mundane and place us in the glorious.
Then something took over my intentions. Deliberately I walked to the room where David’s Napoleon lived, and took a closer, more sustained Art Look. I was not disappointed in the time taken. It’s impact on me increased; it’s sublimity ushered forth; it’s perfection made itself known. No longer just out of the corner of my eye, it came full on to my gaze. There he was. The modern man who made his own destiny. At the height of his powers, painted by a Master Painter at the height of his powers, Napoleon enters into us. His face looks into the depths of us. His clothes are commensurate with the holy garb of saints. One could say he was a ruthless dictator who finally met his Waterloo, but this personage in the David painting, shows us the better angels of his nature. Passing Napoleon became a great joy, that turned into a blessing of the highest order in an examination of artistic holiness.