Napoleon closely rivaled Louis XIV in patronage of art, for, like him, he wished to proclaim the glory and grandeur of France, and he hoped that the artists would keep him fresh in human memory. His own taste was not of the best, as became one bred and bound to soldiering, but he did what he could to provide the artists of France with historic originals and personal stimulus. He pilfered masterpieces not only as negotiable wealth (as they are bought today), and as trophies and testimonials of victories, but as models for students in the museums of France; so the Venus de’ Medici came from the Vatican, Correggio’s lissome saints from Parma, Vermeer’s Marriage of Cana from Venice, Rubens’ Descent from the Cross from Antwerp, Murillo’s Assumption of the Virginfrom Madrid …; even the bronze horses of St. Mark’s made their perilous way to Paris. Altogether, between 1796 and 1814, Napoleon sent 506 works of art from Italy to France; of these, 249 were returned after his fall, 248 remained, 9 were lost.5 Through such pillage Paris replaced Rome as the art capital of the Western world. As conquests multiplied, the spoils overflowed into the provinces; and to receive them Napoleon created museums in Nancy, Lille, Toulouse, Nantes, Rouen, Lyons, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Marseilles, Geneva, Brussels, Montpellier, Grenoble, Amiens … Over all these collections, and particularly over the Louvre, Napoleon appointed Dominique Denon, who had served him in many lands, and who never forgot that the Emperor himself had gone to drag him to safety from a plateau swept by enemy fire during the battle of Eylau.
Napoleon established competitions and substantial prizes in several fields of art. He renewed the Prix de Rome, and restored the French Academy at Rome. He invited artists to his table, and played art critic, even during campaigns. He valued most those painters who could most effectively commemorate his deeds, and those architects who could help him make Paris the most beautiful of cities, and his reign the apex of its history. He commissioned sculptors to adorn fifteen new fountains for its squares.
Just as his taste in painting ran to the classical, so in architecture he admired the monumental style of ancient Rome, and aimed at strength and sublimity rather than at grace of relief or charm of detail. So he commissioned Barthélemy Vignon to design a Temple of Glory in honor of the Grande Armée; he bade its builders use nothing but marble, iron, and gold in its construction. The task proved so costly and difficult that, begun in 1809, it remained unfinished when Napoleon fell. His successors completed it (1842) as a church dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalen—La Madeleine. France has never taken to it; neither the piety nor the gaiety of Paris accords with that forbidding façade, whose columns might better-express an advancing army than a tender sinner so penitent of her favors and so lavish in her love. —Monumental too is the Palais de la Bourse, or Stock Exchange, which Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart began in 1808, and which Étienne de La Barre continued in 1813; never elsewhere has Mammon been so majestically housed.
The preferred architects of the reign were Charles Percier and his usual associate, Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine. Together they labored to unite the Louvre with the Tuileries, despite the unevenness in their structural lines; so they built the north wing (Cour Carrée) of the Louvre (1806). They repaired and renovated the exterior, and connected the floors with massive stairways. They designed the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel (1806–08) in the style and proportions of the Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome. The more stately Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, at the farther end of the Champs Élysées, was begun (1806) by Jean-François Chalgrin, but had merely emerged from its foundations when Napoleon fell; it was not completed till 1837, three years before his ashes passed under it in their triumphant procession to his tomb in the Hôtel des Invalides. Frankly imitating the Arch of Constantine in Rome, it surpassed it—and any Roman arch—in beauty, partly because of its marble bas-reliefs. At the left Jean-Pierre Cortot carved The Crowning of Napoleon; at the right François Rudé, in The Marseillais (1833–36), caught the martial ecstasy of the Revolution. This is one of the high moments of nineteenth-century sculpture.
That difficult art, under Napoleon, rested on the laurels it had earned before his rise. Houdon survived till 1828, and made a bust of him (now in the Museum of Dijon) which earned the artist a place in the Legion of Honor. Still remembering Roman emperors—this time the sculptured record of Trajan’s victories—Napoleon commissioned Jean-Baptiste Le Père and Jacques Gondouin to tell the story of the Austerlitz campaign in bronze reliefs to be attached, plaque by plaque, in an ascending spiral on a column that would dominate the Place Vendôme. It was so done (1806–10), and in 1808 Antoine Chaudet crowned the shaft with a statue of Napoleon made from cannon captured from the enemy. Seldom had victorious pride mounted so high.
The minor arts—cabinetry, interior decoration, tapestry, needlepoint, pottery, porcelain, glass, jewelry, engraving, figurines—had almost died during the Revolution; they had begun recovery under the Directory; they flourished under Napoleon; Sèvres again produced fine porcelain. Furniture took on the solid, sturdy “Empire style.” The miniatures in which Isabey portrayed, with microscopic brilliance, the leading characters of the age are among the finest of their kind in history. Joseph Chinard made delectable terra-cotta busts of Josephine and Mme. Récamier; the latter is especially fine, with one breast bared as a sample and as befitted a woman who was resolved to remain half a virgin to the end.