Napoleon’s Political Portrait

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Napoleon on His Imperial Throne (1806) and Andy Warhol’s Mao Tse Tung (1972) are two political portraits created in two different geographical regions, made in very different art styles, with more than one hundred fifty years apart. Still, both paintings played major propaganda roles for the socio political scenario of their times.

In 1789, France was on the brink of a revolution, a movement that drew its radical new ideas from the Enlightenment. The world needed a different art style that could express its radical philosophy. Artists supported new ideas with the development of Neoclassical style that rejected the frivolous indifference of Baroque and Rococo and came to dominate European architecture, painting, and sculpture. Inspired by classical antiquity interest on proportion, symmetry and harmony, Neoclassicism was developed to express a rationality and seriousness that was fitting for Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century.

The same could be said about 20th century Pop Art. Developed in Britain, by the end of the 1940s, Pop Art came to be a new art style that reflected the consumer culture that occurred in America after World War II. “The years following the war saw enormous growth in the American economy, which, combined with innovations in technology and the media, spawned a consumer culture with more leisure time and expendable income than ever before”( Pop Art). Khan academy goes on to say how artists such as Warhol, or Roy Lichtenstein, found Modern art and Abstract Expressionism styles limited as a visual pictorial language to express what they were seeing in the world.

Ingres Napoleon on His Imperial Throne embodies the Neoclassical style characterized by Classical subject matter (or classicizing its contemporary subject matter). It modeled clarity of form, sculpted forms, and carefully painted surfaces with no visible brushwork. In his dramatic ascent to power Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) had a shrewd understanding of what art could do for his political image and agenda. Ingres’s painting serves this specific purpose. The painting shows Napoleon as emperor in his coronation robes atop the imperial eagle. Every iconographic aspect in the painting articulates his legitimacy as the new ruler, a new glorious and quasi-divine Emperor, “Antique forms and ornament, already seen in the Louis XVI style, blended with Napoleon’s imperial symbols, which included the bee, the letter N surrounded by a laurel wreath, red, the eagle came directly from Rome”(Gontar).

More than hundred years later in America another political portrait was being made. Andy Warhol had a fascination for the American culture, the celebrities, the news of the everyday man and in this way, he chronicles the news of his own day. He became famous for his portraits, some of them politically loaded. His silk-screen portrait — transferring photographed images to canvas— of the Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse Tung (1893–1976) was made in series of different versions, all based on the photographic image used as the frontispiece of Mao’s The Little Red Book, a compilation of his quotations (Sotheby’s). For Warhol the act of painting, that is, the direct application of color pigment onto a surface was outmoded and limiting. Thus, he created Mao’s portrait by applying colorful brushstrokes of red rouge and blue eyeshadow —resembling graffiti— to a Mao’s ready-made icon representing absolute political and cultural power.

These representations reflect, form part, or respond to a political propaganda apparatus. On one hand, Napoleon use art to fuel his propaganda machine, marshaled art in service of his regime and commissioned artists to document contemporary history as it unfolded. On the other hand, Warhol’s Mao’s over-life size portrait responded to the 20th century China Communist Party propaganda machine. While China was plastered with the dictator’s half-smiling image, Warhol adopted an irreverent mocking attitude towards its totalitarian propaganda. Both portraitures played a political role during their times.

Ingres’s portrait of Napoleon as emperor uses every iconographic detail in the painting to fulfill the function of legitimizing Bonaparte as the new emperor of France. First, it establishes historical connections with Roman times and France royal history. In the painting, Napoleon is crowned with laurels, symbolizing victory and recalling Augustus, founder of the Roman Empire. Around his neck, Napoleon wears the magnificent necklace of the Légion d’Honneur while holding in his right hand the scepter of Charlemagne; in his left hand, the rod of justice. The sword at his side, was inspired by Charlemagne’s legendary blade, “Joyeuse.” As a symbol of the empire (and reminiscent of Childeric’s cicada’s), black and golden bees decorate the emperor’s ermine robes. The geometry of the imposing gilded throne forms around Napoleon’s head an unequivocal halo-like effect. And his seating position is unmistakably taken from the well-known Greek sculpture of Zeus made in the 5th c. B.C. by Phidias, giving the emperor the divine final touch. In the foreground on the rug at his feet an imperial spread-winged eagle presides over Bonaparte’s god like figure( Napoleon).

In a different way, Mao’s well-known photographic image that Warhol used is also a representation of a god-like figure. The 1.5 tones portrait of Mao hung since 1949 in the centre of Beijing, at the monumental Gate of Heavenly Peace — widely used as symbol of China’s national identity— at the front of the Imperial City( History). The portrait is replaced every year and when vandalized, resulting in arrest and many years of prison for defacing his image. Warhol in a sense vandalized this untouchable image by applying graffiti-like flamboyant splashes of colour contrasting with the non-painterly, factual nature of the image. By so doing Warhol is also commenting in America’s culture, “These details [Warhol’s brushstrokes and use of color] can be interpreted as commentary on the resemblance of Communist propaganda to capitalist advertising media. Whether intended or not, Warhol depicts the painting ironically fashionable in the West with his use of wide, colourful brushstrokes and hand drawn lines to give Mao a friendly face in the eyes of Americans” ( Sothebys).

From different centuries, in different continents, directed to different public, for different reasons both colossal size portraits discussed in here served a sociopolitical agenda. Whether as Ingres’ Napoleon painting made as propaganda art to exalt his image and eloquently speak to his imperial power and authority or as in Mao Tse Tung portrait which “In Warhol’s hands, [this image] could be considered ominously and universally threatening, or a parody or both” (Sothebys). Art never fails to be a direct reflection of society and when manipulated can be successfully used to get an image or idea across to the people.