This pen, ink and watercolour drawing depicts the rear façade of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame (referred to at the time as the Metropolitan Church of Paris) as it appeared on 2 December 1804 for the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte as Emperor of the French. The east end of Notre-Dame has been augmented with a rotunda, elaborately decorated with tapestries from the Gobelins manufactory. Initially conceived for a visit of the King of Etruria to Malmaison in 1801 but never used, the rotunda was set up for the Coronation to allow the most important guests and dignitaries to disembark from their coaches whilst protected from the elements. In fact, the rotunda was almost destroyed by a storm the night before and, repaired in extremis, probably did not look this pristine on the day itself! This sheet captures both the decorations for the Coronation and the excitement around it in great detail, from the tapestries themselves to the filigree decoration of the rotunda, from the large number of mounted guards to the crowds hanging out of every window.
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 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 Oath, here, as well as the 3D animation of the Coronation produced by Peter Hicks, Vaughan Hart and Joe Robson (2005) © Fondation Napoléon/Bath University.