Napoleon Bonaparte Influence on Art

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In the 19th century the Europeans were enamored by the exotic culture that they believed was taking place in the Middle Eastern cultures. The Europeans believed that this eastern world was a very eccentric, foreign, feminized and sexualized culture in this far away land. European artists began to depict this Middle Eastern culture in their art whether or not they visited the land. These works were thought to be a clear glimpse into the Middle Eastern land and its people. But was it?

Europeans had already penetrated this Middle Eastern land through trade and some military campaigns but in 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt.

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At this time many westerners traveled to the Middle East and many of them then created paintings of this far away land. Also in 1809, the French government issued a very persuasive piece of information that described the culture, life, land, monuments, and people of the Middle East known as the ”Description de l’Egypte”. This had a very big effect on the French architecture and art works of this time as well. Furthermore, many of the orientalist paintings during the 19th century were propaganda that supported French imperialism. Many of these works of art portrayed the Middle East as eccentric, backwards, unruly, and strange. However, it was believed that this Middle Eastern culture was to be educated and disciplined by the rule of the French.

One piece of artwork that was believed to illustrate the life in the Far East was The Snake Charmer by French painter Jean-Leon Gerome. Gerome paints a young naked boy encased by a python with an older man playing the flute. There are several bystanders watching as they sit against an elaborate, beautiful blue tiled area. Was this a true depiction of oriental reality? Probably not.

After a twelve week excursion to the Near East in 1868, painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, created Bashi-Bazouk. Gérôme took a model and dressed him in the beautiful fabrics he had collected on his trip. In this painting Gérôme gives this soldier a sense of dignity as he shows him wearing an elaborate silk tunic which one wouldn’t think would be suitable war attire when fighting on the battlefield. Here, the desired silks are shown as an admired and sought after good of the Orient.

In 1814, artist Jean Auguste Domenique Ingres, creates The Grand Odalisque. As the viewer we see a beautiful nude women laying on a bed with a peacock feather fan, beautiful head wrap, and blue satin drapes as she lays on the blue velvet bed almost inviting the viewer. There was such beauty and service almost depicted in this painting which appealed to many westerners. But was this also a true picture of the Middle Eastern culture?

In contrast, in 1860, you had the oil on canvas by Henriette Browne, A Visit: Harem Interior. In this painting the women are all fully clothed and the scene is rather boring and not sexual in nature. This artist portrays this world in a very differ way. The Middle Eastern life doesn’t seem as intriguing as other artists portrayed back then. In the European world the consumers longed for these beautiful works of art and also goods from the Middle East and Asia. The beautiful tiles, clothes, carpet, porcelain etc. was longed for. This creation of the “Orient” resulted in tourism, increased consumption of goods, and settler colonialism in the 19th century.

Throughout art history there have been many art movements that are inspirational, beautiful, and intriguing. Two of them being romanticism and the other one being realism.

Romanticism was a movement around 1800-1850 where the art imposed imagination, feeling, and strong emotion. These were valuable ways of comprehending and appreciating the world. Romanticism embraced the imagination and intuition of the people in the search for everyone’s rights and liberty.

In 1827 Eugene Delacroix painted The Death of Sardanapalus. This painting is very chaotic and disturbing. It’s just full of emotions. Sardanapalus is in a losing battle, but instead of surrendering he is killing his beautiful women, his luxurious horses and getting rid of all of his worldly possessions. He would rather dispose of everyone including himself before he’d even consider surrendering. The king is propped up on his bed surrounded by a murderous scene. Delacroix has all of these objects falling into the viewer’s space where he intends to activate the viewer’s emotions. There’s even a woman being murdered right in front of you and a horse being violently pulled back. Delacroix also uses very vivid colors and large brush strokes in this painting which give the viewer a heightened sense of feeling stress and disturbed emotion in this murderous scene.

Another piece of artwork expressing the romanticism movement is the Grande Odalisque by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. This nude female slave is piercing the viewer’s eyes in a very provocative manner. She is almost inviting the viewer to join her on her luxurious couch. The beautiful bright blue and gold silk heighten the almost erotic emotion of the scene. She is wearing a very fancy headdress and holding a beautiful peacock fan which is gently touching her thigh. This painting exhibits a lot of sexuality and emotion which was appeasing to most viewers.

Then during the 1840’s in France, Realism transformed painting, spreading ideals of what constituted art. Working in a turbulent age marked by revolution and widespread social transformation, Realist painters replaced the idealistic images of traditional art with images of real everyday life. This decision to bring ordinary daily life into their artwork was an early reflection of the avant-garde desire to combine art and real life. This movement in art was a true depiction of society and nature, and political and social parody.

In 1857 Jean-Francois Millet painted The Gleaners. Millet shows the female laborers picking the sparse remnants of the harvest. In the background of the painting you see the significant amounts of wheat that have been harvested illustrating the abundance of food for those of higher classes. Millet is trying to emphasize the excruciating physical labor that these poor women had to endure. Millet also uses beautiful golden yellow highlights illuminating the field while the three women figures are just standing in the shadows.

In 1849 Gustave Courbet painted The Stone Breakers. Again we have faces of the lower social class lost in the shadows. This young boy and elderly man are wearing torn peasant clothes illustrating their lower class in society. They are involved in backbreaking work breaking up stones. For Courbet this scene was a true snapshot of poverty and after actually witnessing these two working, he invited them to his studio so he could study them and thus create a true painting of their real life. Courbet’s mission was accomplished and he used this painting as a political statement showing the brutal life (the injustice) of the poor in their society. Courbet uses very drab, dark colors, uneasy body poses and a stilted composition. He truly captured the injustice of the poor working class people at that time.

Both paintings, Self-Portrait with Isabella Brandt and Thomas Mifflin and Sarah Morris are portraits of married couples. Comparing the artist’s portrayal of each couple along with the history of that time sheds light on the message that the artist wished to exhibit.

From 1609 to 1610 Peter Paul Rubens painted his Self-Portrait with Isabella Brandt. Rubens was born in Germany and was the son of a protestant who left Antwerp to get away from religious persecution. Once his father died, Ruben’s mother took her children back to Antwerp and went back to Catholicism. When Rubens was twenty-one he joined the Antwerp painters’ guild. In 1600 he left for Italy and when in Venice the Duke of Mantua awarded him a court position. During this time in Italy he studied much of Caravaggio and Carracci’s works. Rubens went back to Antwerp in 1608 where one year later he became the court painter to the Habsburg rulers of Flanders. Right after that, he married Isabella Brandt who was 18 years old at the time. This marriage was an advantageous partnership for him as it greatly benefited him financially. But Rubens was sure to honor their marriage by painting a double portrait of himself and Isabella. This beautiful oil on canvas has Rubens and a kneeling Isabella looking at the viewer in a very calm and confident manner. As they sit under the honeysuckle bush the two gently hold their right hands together which symbolizes marriage. Rubens is dressed with beautifully embroidered attire gently holding his sword in his left hand symbolizing his wealth and power. He’s wearing bright orange hose while wearing a beautiful lace collar and black velvet hat. Isabella is dressed in a classy, rich wine and gold color silk dress, with a silky, floral corset and leather looking blazer with crisp lace around her neck and wrists topped off with high hat. Both look quite exquisite, wealthy, and most of all in love.

In 1773 this beautiful oil on canvas Thomas Mifflin and Sarah Morris was created by John Singleton Copley. Copley painted the couple’s portrait when they were in Boston for the funeral of a family member (around the same time as the Boston Tea Party). Mr. Mifflin was a very important politician and businessman. At the First Continental Congress, Mr. Mifflin aided in negotiating the best approach for the separation from Britain. This painting clearly shows Mr. and Mrs. Mifflin as true American patriots. In this portrait their marriage appears to be a strong balanced partnership with affection for one another and their mutual commitment to the foundation of independence. Sarah appears to be the focal point of this painting as she’s stares at the viewer with a conservative smirk showing off her dimple. She is dressed in a beautiful silk gown outlined with gorgeous, dainty lace. Mrs. Mifflin has her sleeves rolled up as she works on weaving elegant silk fringe on top of a red, polished desk. This type of silk fringe would normally be imported from England but in this painting she is showing that she can make this beautiful silk fringe by herself and she doesn’t need to import it from the British. Sarah is certainly sophisticated and wealthy and of a higher social status, but she is not afraid to work in her home. In the background of the painting we see Thomas Mifflin staring with confidence at his beautiful wife. With his arms crossed and his finger saving the place in his book he stares whole heartedly at her respecting the work she does in the home. They both work together, respect each other and work to resist the British colonial power.

Both of these large oil on canvas portraits of married couple signify a strong unity between both couples. The paint colors are rich and both couples are highlighted with lighter paint. Both couples are wearing very elegant attire letting the viewer know that they are rich and of higher stature. The portraits want to engage the viewer and give the viewer a sense of their commitment to each other. However, Ruben’s portrait wants to promote that thought especially since he was so much older than Isabella. He wouldn’t want anyone to think he married her for the money, whereas, Copley’s objective seems to want to portray the couple as a trustworthy, patriotic couple which obviously the Mifflin’s liked because they hung this portrait in their home in Philadelphia.

Both The Gleaners and The Angelus by Jean Francois Millet are landscape paintings illustrating the daily life of the poorest of peasants. Comparing their portrayals of the poor and their actions also explains the symbolic meaning of each painting.

In Jean Francois Millet’s oil on canvas painting from 1857, The Gleaners, the viewer sees three hunched over women from the poorest of the peasant class bent toward the ground in the hot sun rummaging for left over wheat. All of the faceless women are in simple working garments some with aprons to help them collect the few strands of wheat available. The one woman on the right looks as if she’s taking a break from the excruciating bent over position she must take in order to pick up the scarce amounts of wheat left. In this landscape painting, these three women working take up the foreground of the painting. The background is almost like a backdrop with the horse drawn cart full of hay, a man and a horse, and large piles of wheat along with the faded crowd of laborers. The three for women appear completely detached from the background scene. Millet does use some warm colors along with soft gold and light touching the women’s shoulders and illuminating the field and sky behind them. There appears to be a lot of balance and harmony with the land.

In the oil on canvas painting The Angelus by Millet we see a male and female peasant bowing in prayer in a field. The two appeared to be dressed in simple clothing as they take their break to pray at dusk. They have left their tools, baskets, and food picked at the base of their feet as they look downward in prayer possibly thanking God for the fruits of their labor. The background of this painting is rather plain. The two peasants take up most of the foreground and attention in this painting. Their faces and bodies appear to be quite shadowed as the sun is going down, but the sky is illuminated with the setting sun creating a silhouette effect of the two figures. Along the horizon there also appears to be a silhouette of a church in the deep background of this painting adding to the religious tone.

In both paintings Millet portrays the hard-working poor with much respect and dignity. However, in The Angelus painting there appears to be more of an obvious religious aspect coming through. The fact that the two peasants are actually putting all their work aside, focusing on prayer, gives them a strong feeling of thankfulness for the land and food that God has provided. The church in the background also emphasizes this religious tone. The Gleaners painting doesn’t have a visual religious tone or symbolization in it. However, I do think there might be a message being portrayed in this painting where the landowners could be expressing a sense of charity and community by letting the gleaners pick a few left over stocks of wheat off their land.

All in all, both paintings are meant to portray the poorest of the working poor in a very respectful manner. Millet uses warm colors highlighted with golden tones to provide a nice balance and harmony with the workers and the land. Clearly, he wishes to give the poorest of the poor dignity as he paints them with such finesse. Their faces which are lost in the shadows show that they had no say. Living this way was clearly a political injustice in Millet’s eyes even though the poor had such respect for the land and the little they were given. As a matter of fact many upper class people thought these paintings glorified the hard working poor and might ignite a rebellion in the lower classes. Millet was so desperate for money, he sold The Angelus for little money. However, after Millet passed, these paintings became very valuable. They became comfortable, sentimental memories of the simple hard life long ago. Then a wealthy business man purchased this Realist piece of art and put it on tour. He probably did this because he was extremely wealthy so he could afford to show this off, number two why not share this realist painting capturing a humble expression of the extreme poor while intertwining their deep faith and connection with the land given to them by their God. It might be a smart business choice as the painting could continue to rise in value.

From 1800-1801, Jacques-Lewis David painted the large oil on canvas Napoleon Crossing the Saint Bernard. The purpose of this painting was to glorify Napoleon and his increasing power prior to becoming emperor of France. David viewed Napoleon as the best option for obtaining France’s political goals whereas Napoleon saw David’s paintings as a means to get his political agenda through to the people. Napoleon wanted to be depicted as a creator of great empires. In this painting, David uses his creative and artistic talents to depict how a strong Napoleon might have looked as he commanded his troops over the Alps into Italy. David makes this painting very theatrical and full of action in order to make Napoleon appear spirited and in control. As Napoleon steers his stallion forward he does so with such vigor and authority. Napoleon’s large red cape and his right hand pointing lead the viewer’s eye toward Napoleon’s destination. The viewer can also see tiny soldiers apparently pushing canons up the mountain. This painting has an intense use of diagonals which gives the painting a very dynamic feel. The stallion and Napoleon are illuminated with light paint adding to the feeling of importance and power. In the lower left corner Bonaparte is inscribed into the rock symbolizing him as the leader of the troops ascending the Alps. To the lower right you can faintly see the French flag blowing in the wind symbolizing the appearance of France to this destiny.

In 1814-1815, Francisco Goya painted the very large oil on canvas painting known as Third of May, 1808. Napoleon was now the emperor of the French and he had plans to defeat Spain where he later places his brother on the throne. On May 2, 1808, the people of Madrid believed the French had plans to murder the royal family. So the people of Spain fought against the French to no avail. Hundreds of Spaniards were arrested and brought to a building where they were killed by the French soldiers. The painting Third of May, 1808 commemorates this violent slaughter. In this dark painting, one particular Spaniard wearing a bright white shirt and yellow pants stands out as he awaits death with his arms raised symbolizing the crucifixion of Christ. French soldiers are all in a line formation with guns pointed directly at the poor man. This Spanish rebel is surrounding by other rebels covering their eyes as they all know their fate. All of them are in anguish as two of their fellow Spaniards lie motionless in pools of their own blood. The scene is hopeless, violet, and full of despair as clearly death awaits these Spanish rebels. The hill behind them serves as a backdrop or execution wall for what’s to come next. The huge lantern of the French illuminates this deadly gory scene. This bright lighting, free brushwork, human figures, and unbalanced composition all add to the brutality of this scene and the fear of those executed.

Works Cited:

Demerdash, Nancy, Orientalism, Khan Academy, Khan Academy, 2014, (Nov. 2, 2018)

Harris,Beth and Zucker, Steven, Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, Khan Academy, Khan Academy, 2011, (Nov. 4, 2018)

Meagher, Jennifer. “Orientalism in Nineteenth-Century Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (November 2018)

PDF Iconography and Style, Tandeta, Canvas 2018

PDF Millet, Tandeta, Canvas 2018

Stokstad, M. & Cothren, M, Art History: Volume II, Pearson Education Inc., 2018, pp 749-751, 920-921, 956-958, 962, 982, 989-992.

Voorhies, James. “Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) and the Spanish Enlightenment.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (November 2018)  

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Napoleon Bonaparte Influence On Art. (2021, Jun 03). Retrieved from