Seated on the great throne at the west end of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Napoleon raises his right hand to swear his constitutional oath. To his right, in a smaller throne, is Josephine. They are surrounded by princes, dignitaries and generals who all turn their attention to this dramatic gesture. It is 2 December 1804, and Napoleon is about to declare to uphold the constitution, the irrevocability of the sale of national property, and to preserve the gains of the French Revolution.
The coronation and consecration of Napoleon as Emperor of the French was a unique mix of ceremonies and rituals. Right from the start of the Consulate, Napoleon re-established and “riffed on” the symbols and structures of monarchical France, and the ceremony in Notre-Dame was the height of ancien régime pomp. But Napoleon drew on other sources than the French royal traditions too. In an express echo of Charlemagne’s coronation, the Pope himself consecrated Napoleon – though Napoleon did one better than his illustrious predecessor by requiring the Pope to leave the Vatican and travel to Paris. His constitutional oath, which ended with the remarkable words “Napoleon Emperor by the grace of God and the constitution”, was the cherry on the cake of this royal-imperial extravaganza.
Painted by Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine, this scene is one of eight studies acquired by the Fondation Napoléon in 1997 which depict the events of and decorations for Napoleon’s coronation. Fontaine, who had been an official government architect since 1801, was given the job, along with this lifelong friend and colleague Charles Percier, of creating the decorative schemes for the coronation ceremony and subsequent celebrations. Fontaine made these detailed coloured drawings as preparatory works for a series of engravings depicting the coronation that he and Percier published in 1807: Description des fêtes qui ont eu lieu pour le couronnement de L.L. M.M. Napoléon, empereur des Français et roi d’Italie et Joséphine son auguste épouse. Recueil de décorations exécutées dans l’église de Notre-Dame de Paris pour la cérémonie du 2 décembre 1804 et pour la fête de la distribution des aigles au champ-de-Mars, d’après les dessins et sous la conduite de Ch. Percier et P.F.L. Fontaine.
On 19 December 1804, in recognition of the success of his decorative scheme, Fontaine was appointed “Architecte du palais des Tuileries, du Louvre et dépendances, des manufactures impériales des tapisseries des Gobelins et des tapis de la Savonnerie, des magasins de marbre et tous les bâtiments situés dans l’enceinte de la Ville de Paris”, a post he would hold until 1848.
Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, August 2014
You can discover one of our other Fontaine watercolours from the series, The Rotunda, Decorated with Tapestries, which Greeted Guests on their Arrival at Notre-Dame for the Coronation of Napoleon as Emperor, here, as well as the 3D animation of the Coronation produced by Peter Hicks, Vaughan Hart and Joe Robson (2005) © Fondation Napoléon/Bath University.