The Curious Case Of The Female Napoleon At The Louvre
I am sitting on a bench in the Denon wing of the Musée du Louvre. It is almost noon and in front of me is The Consecration of Napoleon (otherwise known as The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Joséphine on December 2, 1804), one of the museum’s most famous works in its collection. In my hand is a tattered museum guide in English.
According to the guide there are still more wings with more floors with more important paintings that I should see. So far the only other painting of importance (as per the pamphlet) that I have seen is the Mona Lisa. However, I have already walked by, and sometimes even paused and examined at length, hundreds of other paintings so far.
Given the short amount of time I had in Paris, I had found myself traveling criss-crossing across the Seine, museum-hopping to the point that I was now becoming tired of all the art that was around me. My legs are tired but more than the physical exertion it is the loneliness that is weighing me down.
I can hear multiple languages spoken around me. Whenever I hear English being spoken I strain to overhear the conversation. Maybe eavesdropping in on them can make me forget that I am in Paris alone.
An elderly couple walks by and stops at the painting. After a brief examination, the lady remarks, “This is the second-largest painting . . . ,” and almost immediately lowers her voice so as not to disturb me. Oh, if only they knew how much I really wanted to silently listen in on their conversation. One can get a lot of information about a painting by simply sitting in front of it and listening in on people’s conversations. Not a lot of them spend time with the painting. Some of them are just happy clicking a picture. A few even bother to read the title.
In the time that I sit on that bench, I learn a lot of the history of the painting. The painting is by Jacques-Louis David and has been revised once. Napoleon did not consider the Pope worthy enough to crown him, so the original painting featured Napoleon holding the crown above his head in the act of crowning himself — the Pope merely present to consecrate the act. Napoleon’s mother was not happy with the fact that his son considered himself above the Pope and actually did not attend his “self-coronation,” but Napoleon had David include her anyway.
The version of the painting that I am sitting in front of is the revision of the original painting, again done by David. In the revised painting, Napoleon is seen crowning Josephine as the Empress, but the title remained unchanged, and hence the Consecration of Napoleon has Napoleon crowning Josephine as the Empress.
After the nameless faces move on to another painting I get up to get a closer look at the canvas.
I pore over the details of the painting in my mind when I hear them, long before I see them. There are about 10 students nearby, all dressed in yellow sweaters; a tall, muscular woman with them in red stuck out like a sore thumb — obviously their teacher.
The students walk behind her slowly, dragging their feet. A few of them have earphones plugged to their ears. They stop directly in front of the painting.
“This here is the Consecration of Napoleon. Come closer everybody.” With a wave of her hand the instructor gathers everyone around on either side of the painting. Well, almost everyone.
Two boys chewing gum refuse to join the fold. They stand aloof with their hands tucked into their pockets and their backs to the painting, completely unaware that they are blocking a poor lady from passing through.
“Mark! Andy! Step aside and let the nice lady pass, please,” the instructor shouts to them before giving the lady an apologetic smile.
The instructor seems unruffled by their lack of interest. Instead, she begins to explain the painting to the rest of the group who care to listen.
I return to my seat on the bench, hoping there is more I can learn about the painting. Mark and Andy sit on a bench beside mine.
The one with the curly hair bends down and puts his head within the palm of his hands while the other crosses his legs and digs his elbow into his friend’s back.
“Dude, the Mona Lisa sucked,” said the friend who had crossed his leg.
The curly-haired boy nods in agreement. “Yeah, she is not even pretty!”
“And the painting is so damn tiny!”
I can’t believe we came all the way to see that.”
“Sucks man. I am hungry.”
With that they plug their earphones to their ears and shake their heads to music loud enough for me to hear.
Meanwhile, the instructor wraps up her explanation, “. . . and that is why you only see Josephine kneeling for the consecration of Napoleon.”
With that the lady leads the group forward.
Andy and Mark show no signs of rejoining them. The instructor sighs. She walks over to the boys with her hands on her hips, and with an exasperated look asks, “Andy, Mark, would you like to join us?”
With that she heads back to the front of the group, leaving the two boys to make their decision.
The two get up slowly. One of them walks over to the painting, hands tucked into his pocket.
He reads the title. “The consecration of Napoleon.”
His curly-haired friend walks over and stands beside him, and in a sudden flash of revelation, shouts out, “Dude, I thought Napoleon was a guy!”
By Marie Lisa Jose
[Image via MapThePlanet]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lisa spends all her vacation days traveling to different corners of the world, seeking out adventures and finding stories waiting to be told. When not on vacation she is either planning for one or recovering from one. You can visit her blog at mjose.org.