Louis Lafitte was born in Paris on 15 November, 1770. He was initially pupil to the engraver Gilles Antoine Demarteau (1750-1802), later going on to study under the painter Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754-1829), and in 1791 he won the Premier Prix de Rome for his composition on the subject Regulus returning to Carthage. His time in Rome was disturbed by the insurrection against the French in 1793 and he took refuge in Florence, whence he sent his Dying gladiator (1.73 x 2.23 m; Paris, Louvre) to the Salon of 1795.
He returned to Paris in 1796. However, because of financial difficulties he turned to drawing and decoration. It was in this capacity that he provided 12 drawings for the Republican calendar (one of his works, held in the Musée Magnin, in Dijon, is a reworking of his design for the month of Thermidor).
He also was a practitioner of 'transparents' (paintings executed on oiled paper and then backlit). At the Salon of 1798 he was to exhibit a portrait of Saint-Prix, artist at the Théâtre Français.
In 1800, he was to work with Percier for the decoration of the Château de Malmaison. "It would seem that his collaboration was not limited to the (eight) cameo-on-stucco female dancers in the Pompeian style for the dining room; the presence of about forty tracings indicated in the sale of his effects after his death might perhaps indicate that he also worked on other rooms..." (A. Pougetoux).
At the Salon of 1806, he exhibited the following paintings: Battle of Rivoli, Fireworks of 16 December, 1804, on the occasion of the coronation, Portrait of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, A subject from Paul and Virginie, Mars and Venus; and in 1808, he presented, his Napoleon showing mercy to Mme. de Hatzfeld.
In 1809, he received a commission for an enormous painting to be hung in the Sénat conservateur, to be entitled: The establishment of the Cisalpine Republic in Milan, 9 July, 1797 (oil on canvas, 334 x 252 cm, Ile d'Aix, Musée napoléonien; see L'Histoire de Napoléon par la peinture, Belfond, 1991, p. 29). However "despite his innate decorative sense, he did not manage to give the solemn scene the grandeur required by such a large format" (A. Pougetoux).
In 1810, Lafitte provided the decoration for the temporary triumphal arch erected at the Etoile for the passage of Napoleon and Marie-Louise, when they made their entrance into Paris, on 2 April, 1810. In fact the stone arch was only three metres tall, and workers were asked to build on it (in one month!) a wood and canvas arch painted to represent yellow marble, and based on the model made by Chalgrin. Lafitte executed the painted trompe-l'oeil bas-reliefs showing the Embellishments of Paris, Legislation, National industry, the Emperor's clemency, and the Arrival of the Empress. It is not known what Marie-Louise's opinion was of the structure; as for the Emperor, he was satisfied. "For a work on such a prodigious scale", Lafitte asked for 33,157 francs. This was reduced to 24,000, much to Lafitte's disgust (1) (2). At the Salon of 1810, he exhibited four sketches: The Emperor's clemency, Legislation, The Embellishments of Paris, and Industry (Paris, Musée Frédéric Masson).
In 1811, he painted a watercolour allegory of the birth of the Roi de Rome (21 x 10.8 cm), for the Senat. The composition was as follows: the Senate, represented by the figure Minerva, stood resting on the king's cradle; below, a she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus (Musée national du château de Fontainebleau). This watercolour was to become a model for a 'transparent', executed and installed above the entrance to the Senate (Palais de Luxembourg) on 9 June, 1811, (illuminations on the occasion of the baptism of the Roi de Rome).
Lafitte also produced a design for a commemorative medal for this baptism. The magnificent medal was engraved by Andrieu at the Monnaie de Paris (module 68 mm); source Musée de le Monnaie de Paris). On the obverse is a profile-view of the head of Napoleon, crowned with laurels; on the reverse is a representation of the emperor in grand imperial costume, his brow bearing a laurel wreath, standing before his throne, holding his young son up on his arms; below is the baptismal font. A second medal with the same decoration was also engraved, but on the reverse it bore the inscription "To the Emperor, from the good towns of the Empire" (Paris, Rome, Amsterdam..., in short 49 towns).
Between 1800 and 1814, Lafitte was one of the painters and sculptors to make models for the Sèvres manufactory; in particular, he drew the model for the vase entitled The triumph of the reign of Louis XIV (drawing held at the Sèvres manufactory). In 1814-1816, he worked with Merry-Joseph Blondel on an ensemble of wallpapers (twelve motifs) in grey and sepi a cameo portraying the history of Cupid and Psyche (from the novel by Jean de la Fontaine) published by Joseph Dufour (1752-1827; in Mâcon until 1806, and thereafter Paris) (3). Politically speaking, Lafitte did not suffer during the regime changes and worked as well for Napoleon as for Louis XVIII (he was appointed draughtsman to the Cabinet du Roi) and Charles X.
In 1818, he restored the paintings in the church at the Hôtel des Invalides. In December 1823, he provided the designs for the decorations for a fête held at the Paris Hôtel de ville on the return from Spain of the Duc d'Angoulême. He also made the models for the gold and silverware used at the coronation of Charles X, not to mention schemes for the embroidery on court costumes. In 1825, he worked on the Charles X's coronation book or Livre du sacre (Louvre, Cabinet des dessins), the engravings for which were never to be completed.
His works can be viewed in various French provincial museums, notably: Dijon (Portrait of a young man), Poitiers (Family Portrait). His drawings are held at the museums in Montpellier, Angers (Allegorical representation of Liberty and Reverses of commemorative medals) and Pontoise (Achilles weeping over the body of Patroclus).
Louis Lafitte died in Paris on 3 August, 1828, in his 58th year. He was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery, in the 28th division. His tomb bears sculpted palettes and his name L. Lafitte.
"After his death, Lafitte was remembered as a painter of great creativity, original in style and refined, but who never quite rose to the challenge of history painting" (Alain Pougetoux) (4).
Marc Allégret Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien n°439 Février-mars 2002 P.63
(1) Georges Poisson, Napoléon et Paris (Éd. Berger-Levrault, 1964, pp. 194-195). (2) After many false dawns, the Arc de triomphe was finally finished and inaugurated on 29 July, 1836. The three regimes (Empire, Restoration, July Monarchy) had each paid about one third of the costs. (3) Voir Style Empire, sous la direction de Bernard Chevallier (Valmont, éditeur, octobre 2000): Le papier peint une forme de revêtement mural, par Véronique de Bruignac-La Hougue (on Dufour and Louis Lafitte, pp. 63 - 65). (4) Sources: Roman d'Amat, Dictionnaire de biographie française, fascicule CIX, Lacombe-Laglenne, 1995, pp. 172-173; Dictionnaire Napoléon: notice L. Lafitte by A. Pougetoux, p. 1019.