Boilly was born and educated around Lille. He moved to Paris in 1785 and exhibited at the Salon between 1791 and 1824. A painter in the tradition of Dutch seventeenth-century naturalism, for which he prepared by studying trompe l’œil as well as caricature, Boilly was well-known for genre scenes and for small-scale portraits, of which he claimed to have painted 4,500, most in single two-hour sittings. His skills in these areas were combined in a select group of paintings which depict crowds in familiar contemporary settings, such as Arrival of a Stagecoach in the Cour des Messageries
(1803; Musée du Louvre, Paris) or Departure of the Volunteers in 1807
(1807; Musée Carnavalet, Paris). One way in which Boilly’s sense of humor and talent for caricature were brought to bear was by means of the juxtaposition of actual portraits and anonymous figures, who, as a result, tend to appear uncannily recognizable; the Gathering of Artists in Isabey’s Studio
(1798; Louvre), a group portrait of many of the leading artists of the era, was Boilly's first success in this genre. A decade would pass before he took the opportunity to follow up and extend the theme of that painting in the present work, thereby linking his reputation with that of Jacques Louis David, the greatest painter of the era.
David began to work on The Coronation of the Emperor and Empress
(Louvre, Paris), universally if inaccurately known as Le Sacre
, in 1804. He completed the vast composition—his largest, at over thirty feet long—in 1807 and retouched it in 1808. The painting, commissioned by the Imperial household, depicts the moment Napoleon crowned Josephine empress. It was exhibited three times: first, at the musée Napoléon (as the Louvre was then called) from February 7 to March 21, 1808; then at the Salon of 1808, from October 14, 1808 to January 1809 (no. 144); and finally at the Concours pour les Prix décennaux, again at the musée Napoléon, from August 25 until October 1810 (see Schnapper 1989, p. 419). It was presumably the retrospective nature of this last exhibition which made the display of the Sacre
possible at all at this moment: it opened a full ten months after Napoleon divorced Josephine in December 1809, and almost five months after he married his second wife, Marie-Louise of Austria, in April 1810.
What was to become the subject of Boilly’s painting—the spectacle of Parisians in the Louvre’s Salon carré viewing David’s canvas—was first noted in the press. Prior even to the official debut of the Sacre, Jean-Baptiste Boutard, critic for the Journal de l’Empire
, wrote: "The singular illusion produced by this coming together has struck all observers and delighted all the voters. The painting is to be found at the Salon; it will reproduce itself, more seductively than ever, when it occupies the place for which it is destined in the apartments of a palace." ("[L]’illusion singulière produite par ce rapprochement a frappé tous les yeux, ravi tous les suffrages. On la retrouve au Salon; elle se reproduira, plus séduisante que jamais, quand le tableau occupera dans les appartemens d’un palais la place qui lui est destinée." M. B. [Jean-Baptiste Boutard], "Beaux-Arts. Tableau du Couronnement; par M. David," Journal de l’Empire
, January 24, 1808, pp. 3–4; "Erratum," ibid
., January 26, 1808, p. 3; as quoted in Laveissière 2004, pp. 123, 187 n. 54; see also Schnapper 1989, p. 416).
Boilly wrote to David to ask permission to copy the Sacre
for his own work, but that letter is now lost. David called on Boilly to respond affirmatively, but finding his studio empty he left a delightful note that is undated but which scholars have assigned to the period between November 1808 and early 1810:
"David est venue rendre verbalement sa réponse à M. Boilly; elle lui sera favorable comme il avait tout lieu de l'attendre d'une personne qui a toujours fait cas de son talent, surtout voulant traiter un sujet qui ne peut que flatter infiniement. Il lui observe que pour le moment le tableau est encore roulé depuis qu'il est de retour du Salon; mais aussitôt que M. Boilly en aura besoin, c'est-à-dire d'ici à quelques jours, il sera maître de venir à son atelier, place de Sorbone, et là il fera tout ce qu'il pourra lui etre nécessaire pour son tableau, don’t l'idée est charmante et qui ne pourra que gagner traiter par lui.
Déjà je l'avais observé, et nous verrons si nous l'avons senti tous deux également.
P.-S. Cela n'empêche pas que d'ici à ce temps nous ne puissions causer ensemble soit à mon logement, rue de Seine no. 10, ou à mon atelier. Si c'est à mon logement, il ne faut pas passer onze heures."
(David came to give his response to M. Boilly verbally; it will be favorable, as he has every reason to expect from someone who had always made a case for his talent, above all [from someone] wanting to treat a subject which could only flatter him infinitely. He notes that, for the moment, the picture is still rolled up since its return from the Salon; but as soon as M. Boilly needs it—that is to say a few days from now—he should feel free to come to my studio, place de Sorbonne, and there he will do anything necessary for his [Boilly’s] painting, of which the idea is charming and can only gain by being treated by him.
I have already observed [the crowd looking at my painting], and we shall see if we both perceived it the same way.
P.-S. This does not prevent us, between now and then, from chatting together at my lodgings, rue de Seine no. 10, or at my atelier. If it’s at my lodgings, it can’t be after eleven o’clock.) [David ca. 1809–10; English translation based on that of Eliel 1989]
David’s letter suggests that Boilly had already fixed his subject. Although the occasion depicted in Boilly's painting has sometimes been called the Salon of 1810, the specific exhibition is by no means certain. Indeed, the Sacre
was not exhibited at the Salon of 1810 but rather at a special competition that year. Boilly probably conceived his picture on the occasion of the Sacre
’s debut at the Louvre in early 1808, and may well have made some sketches then, or when the painting was re-exhibited in October 1808 at the Salon. As David's letter makes plain, the Salon had already closed, in January 1809, when Boilly asked David for permission to see the painting again.
The painting is signed and dated 1810, and there is no reason to doubt this date. However, Harisse (1898), who calls this one of Boilly's "best canvases" ("meilleures toiles") speculates that the artist did not finish his painting by the end of the Empire (1814–15): otherwise, he reasons, he would likely have exhibited it, since he was represented in the Salon regularly until 1824; this conclusion is echoed by Mabille de Poncheville (1931), yet Marmottan (1913), following the inscription, states that the painting was completed in 1810.
There are more persuasive reasons—political—why Boilly may not have exhibited this painting soon after it was completed. It could well be that Boilly did not consider the painting appropriate for exhibition after Napoleon had divorced Josephine, given that the coronation of Josephine occupies nearly a quarter of his composition. Thus the last Salons of the Empire, 1812 and 1814, which took place during the reign of Napoleon's second empress, Marie-Louise, were ruled out as well. Moreover, the painting would not have been welcome in the Salons of the Bourbon Restoration, that is, after 1814, when all recidivist, Napoleonic and Revolutionary, imagery was expunged. The new political climate may inform the otherwise unknown reason why Boilly withdrew the painting from an auction to which he had consigned it in 1818 (see Provenance).
Eventually, however, Boilly sent this painting to the now famous "Exposition au profit des Grecs," held from May 17 until November 19, 1826 at the Galerie Lebrun, one of the first commercial art galleries in Paris, which was established by the canny dealer and connoisseur Jean-Baptiste Le Brun (1748–1813), husband of the painter Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Boilly had exhibited there as early as 1791 (see Marmottan 1913, pp. 38–40). Essentially a retrospective of the work of David (who died on December 29, 1825) and his legacy, the exhibition was seized by young painters who worked in the newly-nascent style of Romanticism, such as Delacroix and Vernet, as a venue for their art; it also featured a number of paintings, such as Gros's Napoleon at the Pest House at Jaffa
, that had not been seen since the fall of Napoleon. The exhibition was conceived as a means of raising funds for the Greek War of Independence, which the reactionary government of Louis XVIII, with its connections to the Ottoman sultan, wished to sit out. The cause was eagerly supported by the left, and although many of the exhibits were not germane to contemporary events, some were drawn from ancient Greece and there were others with evocative subjects, such as the Massacre of the Innocents. But the exhibition is best remembered for Delacroix’s Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi
(Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux), begun within a few weeks of the opening in May and completed between the middle of June and the middle of August. The relevance of Boilly's painting to the exhibition was that of an homage to David, the man who, more than any other, defined French painting of the prior half-century. Works lent to the exhibition included, among others, the Portrait of Pope Pius VII and Cardinal Caprara
(Philadelphia Museum of Art) that David executed in connection with the Sacre
, The Death of Socrates
(The Met, 31.45
), and The Oath of the Horatii
The right-wing press, supporting the Bourbon government, decried the attention given to the regicide David and resented the inclusion of paintings that glorified Napoleon's defunct regime. Although the exhibition was extensively reviewed, neither the present work nor Boilly’s other entry, Distribution of Wine and Food in the Champs-Élysées
(1822; Musée Carnavalet, Paris), was discussed at all. Nevertheless, the Metropolitan picture was remarked upon by the German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel in his travel diary (1826). Meanwhile, David’s autograph replica of the Sacre
(Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon), begun in 1808 and taken with him in exile to Brussels, where it was completed in 1822, was on tour in the United States, probably on view in Philadelphia at the time of the Lebrun exhibition (Schnapper 1989, p. 534).
In 1829 Boilly organized an auction of his own work; the sale catalogue was the first to identify figures depicted in the painting by name—four of them—among the crowd:
5. Le tableau du Sacre, exposé aux regards du public dans le grand salon du Louvre. – Dans le nombre considerable de spectateurs, on remarque les portraits forts ressemblants du docteur Gal, de Hoffman, homme de letters, de M. Baptiste de la Comédie française, et de Robert, peintre.
Harisse (1898) expanded the number to six, and Marmottan (1913) to eleven: to these figures members of the artist’s family, at the right, might be added. The list of identifiable figures has waxed and waned ever since, for both the preparatory drawing (National Gallery of Art, Washington) and the present work, with the occasional addition of an entirely new name (see table in Tinterow and Miller 2005, p. 288, fig. 5; and see Additional Images, fig. 1).
[2012; adapted from Tinterow and Miller 2005]