This newly discovered, previously unpublished oil sketch is the most important addition to the corpus of Jacques-Louis David’s oeuvre in many decades. It is the final compositional design and only oil study for La Distribution des Aigles (“The Distribution of the Eagles”), a vast painting completed in 1810 and housed today in Versailles that was one of the most prestigious and ambitious compositions of David’s career and the last great commission that the artist completed for the Emperor Napoleon (fig. 1). Its emergence allows us a fuller appreciation of the genesis of one of David’s most celebrated and important achievements and provides new insights into the artist’s working practice in the later part of his career.
The history of the commission of The Distribution of the Eagles and its subsequent creation and exhibition is exhaustively documented. Napoleon Bonaparte, heretofore ‘Consul for Life’, was declared ‘Emperor of the French’ by the Senate and Tribune on 16 May 1804 and was crowned in the Cathedral of Nôtre Dame on 2 December 1804. David -- by then the most celebrated and influential painter in Europe -- was appointed his Premier Peintre. Already, by autumn of that year, Napoleon and David had had private conversations in which an ambitious plan was initiated for the artist to commemorate the coronation in a series of four enormous canvases to be exhibited at the annual salons and placed on permanent public display; the commission was confirmed on 18 December with David’s official appointment. The exact subjects were not specified and it was not until 19 June 1806 that David submitted a detailed description of the four planned paintings (although he had begun preparatory studies already). The subjects were the ‘Coronation of Napoleon in Nôtre-Dame’, ‘The Enthronement’, the ceremony of ‘The Distribution of the Eagles’ and the reception of ‘The Emperor and Empress at the Hôtel de Ville’. Of these, only The Coronation (Louvre) and The Distribution of the Eagles (Versailles) were completed; the ‘Reception at the Hôtel de Ville’ progressed no further than a detailed compositional study (Louvre) and ‘The Enthronement’ seems never to have been started.
The planning and execution of The Coronation (also known as Le Sacre) occupied the artist from 1805 to November 1807 (with small alterations made at Napoleon’s insistence in January 1808). Measuring over 20 x 30 feet in scale and consisting of more than 80 nearly life-sized figures – almost all of them identified members of the court and based on meticulous portrait studies – the painting is an epic masterpiece to rival the Life of Marie de Medicis cycle by Rubens and the Wedding at Cana by Veronese, and consciously intended to do so. Exhibited at the Musée Napoléon in February and March 1808, and again at the annual Salon in October of that year, it was an unprecedented critical and popular triumph.
Following the grand success of The Coronation, David intended to turn his attention to ‘The Reception of the Emperor and Empress at the Hôtel de Ville’, but on an Imperial viewing of the Salon on 22 October, Napoleon met with David and ordered him to change the priorities of the Coronation suite and begin work immediately on The Distribution of the Eagles. The battle for control of the Iberian Peninsula escalated in 1808 and Napoleon departed for Spain several days after his conversation with David in order to survey the war’s progress. It is probable that Napoleon hoped that in expediting David’s Distribution of the Eagles – a painting whose subject depicted the oath of allegiance by the French military to the emperor – its public exhibition would help to mobilize public opinion in support of the army and his aggressive military campaigns. In a letter of 22 October to Pierre Daru, Intendant général de la Maison de l’Empeurer, David wrote: “His Majesty the Emperor, who has suspended the painting already begun of the Hôtel de Ville, urges me to set to work immediately on the one he prefers, the distribution of the Imperial flags on the Champ-de-Mars…. I shall not take on any other works. My time and talent are entirely devoted to my sovereign.” True to his word, by December 1808, the date inscribed on the complete compositional drawing in the Louvre, the design of the picture was in its essence composed, although it would be nearly two more years before the vast canvas was finished and exhibited.
The painting commemorates a ceremony held on the Champ-de-Mar on 5 December 1804, three days after the coronation, designed to revive the military ethos of the Roman Empire. On an enormous, tented portico set up in front of the Ecôle Militaire, the newly crowned emperor “presented flags to the corps of all branches of the army and to the national guards of the 108 departments and heard all their oaths.” Napoleon distributed ‘eagles’ – emblems that were based on the Roman Aquila of the legions of Rome. The standards represented each of the regiments raised by the various departments of France, and they were intended to instill pride among the troops, and loyalty to the emperor. Each ‘eagle” was a bronze figure of an eagle that toped the regimental flagpoles. The prototype was sculpted by Antoine-Denis Chaudet, then cast and replicated in the workshop of Pierre-Philippe Thomire; each weighed approximately 4 pounds. Le Moniteur of 4 December 1804 presented the program for the next day’s ceremony to its readers, concluding: “The emperor will say, ‘Soldiers, here are your flags; these eagles will always be your rallying point; they will be wherever your Emperor deems them necessary to protect his throne and his people. You will swear to guard them with your life and to uphold them constantly by your courage on the road to victory,’ at which point the colonels holding the Eagles are to raise them in the air and say ‘We swear!’ The oath will be repeated by all the military and departmental deputations to the sound of artillery salvos. The soldiers will present arms and put their caps on the points of their bayonets, and stay in that position until the flags have gone back to their regiments.”
The portico where the event took place was designed by architects Percier and Fontaine, the central forepart hung with heavy draperies and reached by colossal steps. It was surmounted by gilded Victories, with galleries on either side that were each divided into eight sections representing the sixteen cohorts of the Legion of Honor, each bearing the emblem and eagle of one of them. Observing the ceremony from behind the emperor’s throne, in an area of the structure which was partially sheltered from the sleet that fell all day, were, Le Moniteur informs us, “princes, dignitaries, princesses, ministers, marshals, and the high civil and military officers of the Emperor’s household, placed around the throne according to custom. The Emperor’s officers and the Empress’s ladies-in-waiting will be behind their Majesties.’ To the right and left stood the diplomatic corps, foreign princes, the senate, the Council of State, the Legislature, the Tribunate and the Supreme Court of Appeal. The eagles were set out on the steps of the throne; each was carried by the colonel of the regiment, and the departmental ones by the presidents of the electoral bodies. The army and national guard formed into three columns and maneuvered in formation up the stairs to the throne, preceded by drums and music.
As with The Coronation, David worked out his composition in several compositional studies, in which his ideas for the basic layout for his complex design evolved toward their final resolution. The first, formerly in the Saunier Collection and now in the collection of P-J Chalençon, Paris (fig. 2), is a rapid and loose rendering in black chalk that may date from as early as 1805, when David first began to contemplate the project. It, and a subsequent study in a carnet in the Louvre (fig. 3), which may date from only shortly thereafter, place Napoleon at the exact center of the composition and reproduce a setting that closely replicates the colonnaded dais of Percier and Fontaine’s actual structure. However, in both, the large columns intrude on the central event in a somewhat distracting way, and marginalize the Empress Josephine by separating her from the main action. In the finished preparatory drawing dated ‘December 1808’ and completed as the artist readied himself to begin the actual painting, the architecture is diminished in scale and the columns relegated to a backdrop (fig. 4).
Presumably after he completed the finished compositional drawing in the Louvre, David made most of the large number of individual figure studies for the painting, including both the sketches for the identifiable participants -- notably Napoleon himself, Josephine, members of the Bonaparte family, and important ministers and members of the court – as well as many studies of the anonymous officers climbing the stairs. Of the latter, a number are depicted completely nude, an academic practice that David followed throughout his career which enabled him to understand the precise underlying anatomy and movement of the figures that would eventually populate the painting fully clothed. Far too numerous to mention in detail, these many studies are scattered throughout the world in private collections and museums, notably the museums in Lille (inv. 1208-1209; 1228-1229); Versailles (inv. MV 7689, 7690, 7692); Marseilles (inv. L.74.2.3) and Besançon (inv. D1995, D1996). However, the largest groupings of studies for The Distribution are contained in three albums or carnets: one, in the Louvre (inv. RF 6071), consists of sixty-three pages, many devoted to the composition; another, probably dated to 1808, and also in the Louvre (inv. RF 23 007), contains many sheets with annotations in David’s hand; and a third, in the Art Institute of Chicago (The Helen Regenstein Collection, inv. 1961.393), is principally dedicated to studies for the painting, a number of which include annotations by David and squaring for transfer.
After two years of labor, David finished The Distribution of the Eagles and was readying it for exhibition at the Salon, scheduled to open on 1 November 1810. On 8 October, Dominique-Vivant Denon, Director-General of Museums, visited David’s studio in Cluny to see the progress on the painting and observed two crucial problems that required alteration before it could be exhibited. One was the presence in the sky of a winged figure of the Allegory of Victory dropping laurel from the heavens, a prominent feature of the completed composition (as evident in the 1808 Louvre drawing), which had to be removed at the Emperor’s request because Napoleon disliked allegory and wanted the painting to be modern and realistic. A small study for the Winged Victory in the Louvre carnet (fig. 5) carries a hand-written note from David complaining that the emperor’s insistence on its removal from the composition was disfiguring, because without it, the group of marshals and courtiers look up and gesture toward an empty sky.
A second, far more problematic demand required that the Empress Josephine be excised from the painting altogether. After failing to produce an heir, Napoleon had divorced her on 10 January 1810; he subsequently married Marie-Louise of Austria that April. As former wife and former empress, Josephine could no longer be represented in the official image, so David was forced to remove her seated figure, as well as her entire retinue from the group on the left. Doing so left an awkward compositional void next to Napoleon which the painter eventually filled -- rather unconvincingly -- by extending the right leg of Eugéne de Beauharnais into the space formerly occupied by Josephine. We know from various sources that David locked himself in his studio to complete these enormous changes in less than one month.
The present modello, executed in oil on sheets of paper mounted on canvas and only discovered in 2017, provides the vital evidence for how, in October 1810, David reconceived his painting to accord with the demands of his patrons, while in fact improving it and injecting into it a new energy and verve. Most obviously, the offending presence of the winged Victory and the former empress and her entourage are now gone, replaced with a cloud-roiled sky and a repositioned Eugéne de Beauharnais holding a great, golden sabre in his left hand. However, these changes exist only in the upper-most painted layer. As x-rays (fig. 6) and infrared reflectography (fig. 7) make fully legible, beneath the paint is David’s earlier underdrawing, which still includes the flying Victory and Josephine. (The now-hidden figure of Josephine closely follows David’s two highly sympathetic studies of her seated figure in the Chicago album (fig. 8).) Infrared reflectography reveals beneath the paint the nude figure drawing of the soldiers as they charge their way up the steps, including several excluded in the paint layer; for many of these figures, their clothing exists only in the uppermost layer of paint. Additionally, squaring is evident throughout for the transfer of the drawn studies, much of it apparent to the naked eye, as is much of the drawing of the architecture, and several hand-written (though obscure) notations.
The modello reconceives the group of soldiers racing up the steps with a new energy and a balletic, almost acrobatic, forward movement absent in David’s earlier, more static renderings of the composition, notably the Louvre drawing of December 1808, an effect of dynamic movement heightened further in the final application of paint. David applies the pigment broadly and thickly, but with finesse and undisputable mastery, leaving many areas of exposed, brick-colored ground and capturing with effortless skill the unifying atmospheric effects of sunlight and shadow.
The present work would have set out not just the design but also the color palette as a guide for David and his assistants in executing the enormous final painting, and was presumably made late in 1808 or early in 1809. However, following his 8 October 1810 meeting with Denon, David must have taken his brush once again to this sketch and quickly painted out the Victory and obscured Josephine with the standing Eugéne de Beauharnais, using it to work out the revised composition and perhaps to present the revisions to Denon for his approval before incorporating them into the final painting. Nevertheless, the final painting differs in a number of respects from the modello, most notably in the figure of Eugéne de Beauharnais, Josephine's son from her previous marriage to the Viscomte Alexander de Beauharnais, who was repositioned yet again, with his right leg awkwardly extended unto the spot where the Empress had been placed.
The existence of the modello also challenges our accepted understanding of David’s artistic practice in the later decades of his career. Although he often made complete compositional oil sketches in preparation for his history paintings in the 1770s and 1780s – including fine oil sketches for Antiochus and Stratonice (1774; private collection), Andromache Mourning Hector (1783; Pushkin Museum, Moscow), the Oath of the Horatii (1784; Musée du Louvre, Paris), Paris and Helen (1788; private collection, New York), and the Brutus (1789; Nationalmuseum, Stockholm) -- none were known to exist until now for his works after the Revolution, and it has been widely assumed among scholars that it is a practice he abandoned. The emergence of the present sketch, its high quality and impressive size (it is the largest of the surviving oil sketches), inevitably raises the question of whether it is a unique exception or whether other oil sketches, lost or yet to be discovered, existed for ambitious history subjects in the Napoleonic period and beyond.
Remarkably, the opening of the 1810 Salon had to be postponed for only five days to accommodate David and his immense, quickly revised Distribution of the Eagles, which was unveiled to the public on 5 November. After the closing of the Salon, the question of where to put the 30-foot-wide painting became pressing; by May 1811, it was decided to hang it in Salle des Gardes of the Tuileries Palace. Installing it required significant architectural modifications and, once in place, the huge canvas was constantly in jeopardy of being damaged by its location. Within a month, it was removed and sent back to David’s studio in Cluny, before eventually finding its permanent home in Versailles.
With The Distribution of the Eagles, David’s official work for Napoleon ended. Over the previous six years there had been constant haggling over prices and tense dealings with Vivant Denon and officials of the imperial household. The artist demanded 100,000 francs for each of his four huge pictures, a fee considered exorbitant by the authorities; he was eventually paid 65,000 francs for The Coronation and 52,000 francs for The Distribution of the Eagles. However, as the political winds shifted in France the continuation of the Coronation suite was abandoned and the remaining two paintings never realized.
The present work has been requested as a loan for the forthcoming exhibition devoted to the drawings of Jacques-Louis David to be held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in the autumn of 2021.
This entry relies extensively on numerous publications on David and The Distribution of the Eagles by Perrin Stein, Antoine Schnapper, Philippe Bordes, Valérie Bajou and Simon Lee. Thanks also to Benjamin Peronnet for examining the painting in person and sharing their insights with the author.