At the Salon in 1810, Jacques-Louis David unveiled Napoloenic commission The Distribution of the Eagle Standards, which now hangs at Versailles. His preparatory oil sketch for this large-scale work heads for sale at Christie's on May 1.
Arguably French Salon master Jacques-Louis David's most iconic work is the Coronation of Napoleon, the immense 32-foot wide work that hangs at the Louvre (a second version is at Versailles), that testifies to Napoleon I's imperial power.
However, what many don't know is that the Coronation was part of a commission of four, large-scale paintings that were to depict different aspects of Napoleon's rise to power, beginning with his coronation in 1804. Of the four works originally ordered, only two were ever finished by the preeminent French painter, who become the Imperial artist under Napoleon. The other completed work is The Distribution of the Eagles, painted between 1808-1810, which shows Napoleon distributing military honors (bronze "eagles"), which are raised excitedly by loyal regiments at the Champs de Mars, a ceremony that took place in 1804 after his coronation. The enormous work, intended to inspire support for Napoleon's military campaigns, is now on display in the Coronation Room at Versailles.
Before David started such a grand project, he would first complete drawings and an oil sketch to show Napoleon what to expect. And so he created two full composition preparatory studies for The Distribution of the Eagles, one of which is an ink drawing in the collection of the Louvre, and the other oil version is going under the hammer at Christie's Old Masters sale on May 1 in New York, with an estimated price of $1.5-2.5 million.
If one were to compare the sketches and the final product, a few discrepancies could be spotted because Napoleon demanded that some details be changed before the painting began. For example, in the drawing study, David had a large winged Allegory of Victory scattering laurel leaves above the regiments, but the figure was considered too unrealistic by Napoleon and was therefore removed for the oil sketch and final painting.
Also, in the drawing, Napoleon's wife, Empress Josephine, is seen sitting behind him with her entourage. However, at this time, Napoleon was preparing to divorce his wife as she had not bore him an heir. The couple was divorced in January 1810, and Napoleon remarried Marie-Louise of Austria three months later. Thus, David had to remove Josephine from the painting, which he expediently did in just a month by elongating the leg of Eugéne de Beauharnais, the military commander who stands behind Napoleon, so that the painting could be debuted at the Salon in November 1810. The empty space where the Empress once sat is already apparent in the oil sketch.
After the painting was shown at the Salon, it was considered too large and difficult to hang in the Tuileries Palace, so it was sent back to David's studio. There was tension between David and the government about payment for the two paintings - he demanded 100,000 francs for each, but ultimately received only 114,000 francs total. The final two paintings were therefore never completed: he had started a study for the third, Reception at the Hôtel de Ville, (now at the Louvre), but never began the fourth, The Enthronement. By 1814, Napoleon was exiled to Elba and the Bourbon royal family took back the throne. David was pardoned by the King and even offered the title of court painter, but self-exiled himself to Belgium.
In fact, this oil sketch was only made public in 2017 after being previously held in a private collection and was sold in Paris in March of that year for just 7,800 euros ($8,700) because it was believed to be from the 19th century French School, by followers of David.
However after extensive scholarship, the work has been verified as the hand of David and will be featured in the Met's upcoming exhibit of Jacques-Louis David's drawings in 2021. The study heads to auction at Christie's on May 1 and is estimated to fetch up to $2.5 million, almost 300 times what it last sold for only two years ago.