Tinder, Selfies, and Military Portraiture
War is the awful invention of man that has perpetrated some of the most horrific events in human history. War as a necessary evil is a debate for another time. Yet, from a fine art perspective, it is often romanticized where portraiture lifts these wartime leaders to a God-like status. The brutality of war is painted away and masqueraded in ceremonial dress, flashy medals, and some extravagant pose.
Sometimes, we overlook the true purpose of art throughout history. Be it, a tribute of an important ceremony, recording an event, storytelling, or just plain propaganda, art in this context becomes a part of our language – a part of our history. The artist is attempting to communicate something through their work. In some cases, it meant showing us the familiar through unfamiliar eyes. The works are purposeful. The artist’s intention is not only captured in style but content as well.
My absolute most favorite figure represented in historical art is Napoleon Bonaparte. There are about 13 major works where Napoleon is the primary subject matter, and, oh my, is he ever glorious. These works were in most part commissioned by him and represent his own self-aggrandizement. Napoleon’s boot print in European history comes not only with the creation of an entire legal system (which is still in use today…Louisiana?!?!), but also in many dramatic works of art.
Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne is one that wreaks of his egomania and one that I personally love for that reason alone. Consider this to be the ultimate selfie. Had he lived in the 21st century, this work was befitting of a Tinder profile pic. Upon his divorce from Joséphine, the eligible princesses would have definitely swiped right over all of that gold, silk, and velvet. The pose is representative of the colossal Statue of Zeus at Olympia by Phidias and the figure is modeled after God the Father by Jan van Eyck. The artist, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, was criticized during the public display for his stylistic eccentricities and imagery, but good Lord (or Napoleon as he would prefer) it is a sight.
In my perspective, many of these portraits are nothing more than overgrown selfies. A sort of branding of self in a lasting image. And, if you are going to brand yourself, effective imagery is achieved by peacocking ostentatiously with decoration and ornamentation...and a fur cap, of course.
Ultimately, for the time, Ingres’ painting of Napoleon was not well received by the public. Today, however, this painting and many others are celebrated in quite a different way. Viewing these paintings outside of historical context, they have become famous iconography and are viewed by millions of people every year. The connection between art and history is blurred, and with it, much of our understanding of the past.