Ten-year awards, an aesthetic debate

Ten-year awards, an aesthetic debate

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  • The Sabines.

    DAVID Jacques Louis (1748 - 1825)

  • Flood scene.

    GIRODET DE ROUCY TRIOSON Anne Louis (1767 - 1824)

  • Napoleon I as legislator.

    CHAUDET Antoine Denis (1763 - 1810)

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. G. Ojeda

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Napoleon I as legislator.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - J.-G. Berizzi

Publication date: September 2009

Historical context

An aesthetic debate involving the Emperor

In 1802, Bonaparte commissioned from the Institut de France, which replaced the royal academies suppressed by the Revolution, a general report on "the progress of science, letters and the arts since 1789". During the year, an exhibition of the named works was even organized at the Napoleon Museum, to no avail.

Image Analysis

The best subjects of heroic history

In painting and sculpture, the first-class prizes are double: they go to the best subjects of heroic history and national history.

For the prize of "best painting representing an honorable subject for national character", the Institute prefers The coronation from David (1807) to Plague victims of Jaffa de Gros (1804, both works are in the Louvre). On the other hand, he considers the Flood scene by Girodet (1806) as a better historical picture than The Sabines by his master David (1799, Same). In contrast, the Emperor asks the Institute to reconsider its choices. But he persists in declaring that in this matter, the work of Girodet constitutes the most representative creation of the French school of painting.

For the Institute, the Flood scene supplant The Sabines by "the poetic thought and the picturesque composition [which] are entirely the invention of the painter". Its subject matter is intended to be timeless and universal, thus surpassing the representation of the fight of the Sabines against the Romans which is based on historical textual sources. Its composition is also original and personal, while the Institute accuses David of having too much of a tendency to draw inspiration from ancient statuary. Finally, the subject and its treatment are considered more plausible, more properly pictorial and less inconceivable than a representation of naked Roman soldiers in the middle of a fight.

On the other hand, for the Institute as for the Emperor, the Napoleon legislator commissioned from Chaudet to decorate the assembly hall of the Corps Législatif (1804, original at the Hermitage Museum, replica in Compiègne) offers the best example of sculpture with a heroic subject, both through its antique representation of the character , naked and draped in a coat “in the shape […] we use today”, and by the “noble and calm serenity” of the facial treatment which perfectly suits the program.


Heroic nudity

In sculpture, the idealization that the Institute advocates in the representation of a historical subject must tend towards heroic nudity. The process proves problematic to portray the Emperor, who is the first to oppose it. The other statue of Napoleon commissioned from Chaudet for the Vendôme column, the naked figure, simply wearing a toga on the arm (sculpture destroyed during the Commune). Once completed (1810), it was quickly hoisted to its summit while, upon receipt in 1811, the colossal statue The Emperor in Peacekeeper mars by Canova, a true heroic nude, is hidden in the Louvre. In 1809, Napoleon wanted the Institute to include the Italian sculptor in the competition, but then he knew the work only through engraving ...

In order to compete in the supreme category of best painting in history, David must exhibit The Sabines for the first time in a Salon in 1808.

The Sabines and the Flood scene also illustrate the supremacy of the academic nude in painting. The first painting represents "the immobility following a great movement" (Alexandre Lenoir, in History of the arts in France, and chronological description, 1811), David having figured the moment when Hersilia successfully intervened between his father the king of the Sabines Tatius and her husband the Roman king Romulus. The Flood scene, on the contrary, illustrates the moment when "a family surprised during the night by the flood is about to be submerged under water" (Girodet in Posthumous works of Girodet-Trioson, 1829). Both paintings offer elements of ideal beauty, "a noble simplicity and a serene grandeur" that Winckelmann (in Reflections on the imitation of Greek works in painting and sculpture, 1755) admired in Greek statuary. But the attitudes and expressions of the family that, in the Flood scene, a father desperately tries to save mostly produce a feeling of terribilita specific to certain works of Michelangelo and to Laocoon, which touch the sublime.

The Sabines can be seen as a message of reconciliation after the revolutionary tears. With its Flood scene, Girodet wanted to represent the despair of men who, “in the midst of social storms, like this family, support their salvation and their fortune, on rotten support! ". More pre-romantic than classic, this painting nevertheless won the votes of the Institute. In fact, its members mostly blame David for his relentless participation in the dissolution of the old Academy under the Revolution and his equally harmful ambition as the Emperor's first painter.

Made even more famous by this abortive competition - the Emperor capitulating before rendering his final decision -, The Sabines and the Flood scene however, did not enter the Louvre until under the Restoration.

  • Acadamy of Arts
  • Bonaparte (Napoleon)
  • neoclassicism
  • ten-year prices
  • romanticism
  • Artistic current
  • Michelangelo
  • pre-romanticism


Sylvain LAVEISSIERE (dir.), Napoleon and the Louvre, Paris, Fayard: Louvre, copy 2004 Alexandre LENOIR, History of the arts in France, and chronological description, Paris, Imperial Museum of French Monuments, 1811.

To cite this article

Guillaume NICOUD, "Ten-year awards, an aesthetic debate"


  • Neoclassicism: An artistic movement that developed from the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century. Returning to the classicism of the 17th century, he intends to return to models inherited from Antiquity, rediscovered by nascent archeology. It is characterized by an idealized representation of the shapes highlighted by the drawing.

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