5 Minutes With Specialist on Oil Sketch Commissioned by Napoleon That Was Lost for 200 Years

In 2017, at an anonymous sale in Paris, an oil sketch depicting Napoleon was sold at US$8,287. This painting will be sold again this year in London, with an estimate of US$1.5m. This work, completed in 1810 but was only rediscovered in 2017, is in fact a masterpiece by Napoleon’s commissioned artist. We have invited John Stainton, Deputy Chairman of Christie's Old Masters Group, to tell us the story behind this painting.

Part of The Distribution of the Eagle Standards (oil sketch) |Estimate: US$1.5m - 2.5m

Part of The Distribution of the Eagle Standards (oil sketch) |Estimate: US$1.5m - 2.5m

Before diving into the story of the painting, we should first get to know the master behind it- Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), a pioneer in Neoclassical art. Perhaps you have not heard of his name, but you might recognise many of his masterpieces.

David’s famous works include several paintings of Napoleon: Napoleon Crossing the Alps, The Coronation of Napoleon, The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries and The Distribution of the Eagle Standards. These paintings now reside in top museums around the world. Let us see what the specialist has to say about the rediscovered oil sketch.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps is exhibited at Château de Malmaison in France

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries. Collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

John Stainton (left), Deputy Chairman, Christie's Old Masters Group; Cecille Xichu Wang (right), Representative, Christie's Old Masters Group

Today, you can see David’s The Distribution of the Eagle Standards at the Palace of Versailles. The protagonist of this sale is in fact the oil sketch of this incredible painting by David. How can one of the most celebrated artworks be lost for 200 years, only coming to light two years ago?

When the sketch was auctioned in Paris in 2017, it was covered with a dirty old varnish which obscured its true quality. We do not know where the painting was before it reappeared. But after removing the varnish, an artwork of immeasurable value was revealed. 

The Distribution of the Eagle Standards (oil sketch) is up for sale 

The final product of The Distribution of the Eagle Standards at the Palace of Versailles

The making of The Distribution of the Eagle Standards was commissioned by the Emperor Napoleon himself. The work depicts a ceremonial event in which the French military swore allegiance to the newly crowned emperor on 5 December 1804. The purpose of the event was to instill pride among the troops and loyalty to the emperor.

Shortly before the final painting was completed and publicly exhibited in 1810 at the Palace of Versailles, Napoleon insisted David to make two important changes to the composition.

Under x-rays, we can see the changes that David made to the painting

Firstly, an allegorical figure of a Winged Victory, who flew over the heads of the soldiers, had to be removed as the emperor wanted the painting to be an entirely realistic representation of the event depicted.

More crucially, the figure of the Empress Josephine, who was seated behind the standing figure of Napoleon, had to be excised, as the emperor had divorced her earlier that year and married Marie-Louise of Austria shortly thereafter.

Figure of a Winged Victory which was removed

The Empress Josephine in the initial sketch

Under infrared radiography and x-radiography, we can clearly see these significant changes that have been made to the huge, 30-foot-wide final painting in a matter of days. And for the painting to be exhibited on time, David began by making these major revisions first in the present oil sketch.

Apart from the revisions, the x-rays show that the soldiers in the painting were originally drawn in ink and were entirely nude: their costumes were added over the nude under-drawing only in the final paint layers, an otherwise unusual practice that was entirely typical of David’s working method.

The Coronation of Napoleon is exhibited at the Louvre Museum in Paris

Three days after the coronation of Napoleon at Notre-Dame de Paris, a ceremony was held on the Champs-de-Mar on 5 December 1804 when Napoleon distributed Imperial flags topped with bronze, eagle-shaped emblems modelled on ancient Roman prototypes, to the soldiers of the army regiments raised by each of the regional departments of France. Although Napoleon commissioned David to create four paintings, only The Coronation of Napoleon and The Distribution of the Eagle Standards were completed in 1808 and 1810 respectively. The former is currently on show in the Louvre Museum and the latter at the Palace of Versailles as mentioned.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has already requested a loan of this oil sketch for the forthcoming exhibition devoted to the drawings of Jacques-Louis David in the autumn of 2021.

Jacques-Louis David (Paris 1748-1825 Brussels). The Distribution of the Eagle Standards (oil sketch).

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: Old Masters
Viewings: 25 - 30 April 2019
Sale date: 1 May 2019
Lot no.: 45
Provenance (arranged by The Value):

  • Private collection, France
  • Anonymous sale; Millon, Hôtel Drouot, 22 March 2017, lot 53(€7,800 realised,equivalent to HK$65,000)
  • Art market, Paris, where acquired by a private collector, London, 2017, from whom acquired by the present owner

Estimate: US$1,500,000 - 2,500,000