It is assumed the reader knows about the myth of Oedipus and, beyond him killing his father and marrying his mother. He also had to confront a sphinx. In the city of Thebes, Oedipus met the terrifying creature which devoured any traveller who couldn’t solve her riddle. He either had to solve the riddle or die to the sphinx. In the story of Oedipus, this trial displays the hero’s wisdom and intelligence. But, of course, we know this is a legend. Oedipus is a hero, a creation, a myth. But what happens when these myths are paralleled with reality? What happens when historical figures become mythical?
Napoléon Bonaparte was one of those famous mythologized figures throughout the 19th century, even decades after his death. In 1886, Jean-Léon Gérôme depicted Napoléon in front of Egypt’s Sphinx. During his invasion of Egypt. Napoléon is out for greatness. Greatness for an emperor that is, conquering and expanding the French empire out of Europe.
Like Oedipus, facing the sphinx is a necessary trial before making history. Another artist who famously depicted the myth of Oedipus and the sphinx is Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Like many artists of his generation, Ingres also depicted Napoléon in his 1806 Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne. It is a highly different portrait from Gérôme’s painting. Not only is it making a myth out of Napoléon, but Ingres is also representing him like he would a god. For example, in 1811, the artist reproduced the pose to depict Jupiter. The painting is exceptionally imposing, measuring 259 by 162 cm. It idealizes and, most importantly, venerates Napoléon, making him the Emperor through his title and representation. He is elevated, richly draped and surrounded by eagles, eagles being a solid representation of empires, going back to the Roman empire and, later, the United States and Nazi Germany.
Napoléon was also revered, in some way, in a painting Antoine-Jean Gros’ made in 1804 titled Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Stricken in Jaffa. Napoléon’s image was tarnishing as he had to retreat from his Syrian expedition. Rumours were expressing that he had ordered 50 of his plague-infected soldiers to be executed. Napoleon is reaching out, heroically and selflessly, to a man infected with the plague. His officers try to stop him, but in a sudden burst of empathy, Napoleon gets in contact with his subjects. It can easily be paralleled with the myth of Jesus touching and healing a leper, even though his disciples advise him otherwise. This depiction of Napoleon was made explicitly to win public opinion, to have the French population believe that he would not murder people with the plague. This depiction gave Napoleon humanity, but this humanity was paradoxically dressed with messianic qualities.
Another famous depiction of Napoleon as an emperor is Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon, commemorating the accumulation of power in the hands of the new Emperor. Napoleon commissioned it, and David painted a monumental scene, which measures almost 10 meters wide, rendering the event on an almost life-sized scale. Focus on Pope Pius VII, Joséphine, the Emperor’s wife and, of course, Napoléon, holding the crown he’s about to wear. Initially, David intended to portray Napoléon crowning, but that could have been perceived as a bit authoritarian, so he went with this powerful and composed posture. But this painting was not only carefully crafted to make Napoleon likeable. It also modified reality. Bending the truth for political reasons, especially in imagery, has been a very effective way to control public perception. For example, the older brother of the Emperor, Joseph Bonaparte, did not attend the ceremony due to a fight with Napoléon but was still painted as if he did. More importantly, the Emperor’s mother, placed in a significant position in the composition, also boycotted the ceremony.
Napoléon could not afford such disorder and drama in his family to taint his coronation ceremony. One of the many moments he had to embody strength and stability to the French people. He, therefore, preferred perceived strength to reality. Lastly, we can finally look at the most famous depiction of Napoléon ever created: Napoléon Crossing the Alps. Jacques-Louis David also made it in 1801; of course, this picture is highly propagandistic. It depicts Napoléon’s invasion of Italy, which he courageously leads through the Great St-Bernard Pass in Switzerland. He is shown here, epically mounted on his horse, battling fierce wind, leading his men in rocky terrain. He carved, in the stone, his name next to History’s great leaders: Hannibal and Charlemagne, both generals having led troops through the Alps. Napoléon is positioning himself, through this portrait, among the greatest conquerors of history. He is calm and confident, although his horse is eager, and the wind blows strong. David is showing the French people and the whole world how strong and courageous of a leader Napoléon is. But that was all fake.
Once again, the truth was traded for political gain, for power consolidation. Paul Delaroche, another French artist, decided, in 1850, to recreate the scene more realistically, in conformity with what happened. This painting is a sober and accurate record of the event showing the mule and peasant who actually took the lead over the Great St Bernard Pass, trailed by his troops on the mountainside behind. Delaroche specialised in painting momentous historical events as if they were scenes from everyday life. This picture was intended as a corrective to the flamboyant, propagandist rendering of the same event by Napoleon’s own artists. Another version of this composition, in no way superior to Walker's painting, is at the Louvre, Paris. Both pictures and many other Napoleonic subjects by Delaroche were commissioned by a group of British collectors obsessed with the Napoleonic legend. Napoléon did not lead his troops through the Alps but followed them a couple of days after they crossed. Not only was he not leading, but he was also being led by a peasant who guided him. Perhaps most importantly, Napoléon did not cross the Alps on horseback but on a mule. Perhaps one of the most significant adjustments made by David in his original painting. Portraying Napoléon on a fiery horse is much more awe-inspiring than picturing him on a mule.
Portraying historical, or even current, events to conserve and strengthen power has been used for centuries. Napoléon, a very successful war strategist, was not only talented on the war field; he also had excellent abilities in fighting ideological wars. He understood the importance of manipulating the masses through either text or image; he understood the importance of propaganda. Napoleon could bend the truth to create a heroic image of himself and a following that would venerate him even after his death. He did all of this part with the help of art. One often believes that political art is about challenging power systems, rethinking and reshaping social hierarchies. Still, we cannot let ourselves forget that art can also sometimes bolster power and, for example, help create emperors. As art observers, we must remain vigilant.