Napoleon - An Intimate Portrait

First Consul

When Napoléon returned to Paris from Egypt on October 16, 1799, his clever self-promotional campaign was a success and he was greeted as a hero. On the 18th Brumaire (November 9), he seized power over the French government in a bloodless coup and became First Consul. The other two consuls, Jean Jacques Cambacérès and Charles Francois Lebrun, were silent partners in the government.

Consolidating power in his own hands, Napoléon took measures to institutionalize the gains of the French Revolution. He quickly began a series of sweeping initiatives that restored political stability to the country. He reformed and revitalized the legal system through the Napoleonic Code. As a means of encouraging individual contributions to the French nation, Napoléon instituted the order of the Legion of Honour in 1802. He also patronized the arts, encouraged manufacturing and started building public works, sparking economic and architectural development that changed the face of France and of Europe itself.


“First Consul Bonaparte”
Baron Antoine-Jean Gros - c. 1802
As First Consul, Napoléon distinguished himself from the other two, Jean Jacques Cambacérès and Charles François Lebrun, by dressing in red, while they dressed in blue. Napoléon commissioned Gros to paint his official portrait as First Consul, as well as a series of copies intended as gifts for friends or to be sent to specific towns to commemorate his latest successes. Only a handful of these copies remain, most being destroyed during the political upheavals following Napoléon’s period in power.

Gros was introduced to Bonaparte by Joséphine, and Napoléon admired the artist greatly. The young and ambitious Consul was famous for his lack of willingness to sit for portraits, and he was too impatient or busy to sit for this work. Gros was consequently forced to use studies he had made for “Bonaparte at the Bridge of Arcole,” hence the similarity to that portrait.
Historical Provenance - Commissioned by Napoléon
Oil on canvas

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Images © Chalençon
A Traveling Exhibition from Russell Etling Company (c) 2011