When Napoleon fell, David preferred to stay in Brussels rather than work for the Bourbon monarchy after it took over. The sisters were also exiled in Brussels during that period. Julie Clary, the girls' mother, who after 1815 became the Comtesse de Survilliers, commissioned the painting.
The Napoleon Girls
Portrait of the Sisters Zenaide and Charlotte Bonaparte depicts the two women according to their characters. Zenaide, the eldest appears to be worldly. She sits upright on a sofa in a stunning velvet gown with a low-cut decolletage and short sleeves. A multi-coloured scarf draped around her back completes the outfit. Zenaide is looking straight at the viewer, oozing confidence. She has one arm around her little sister's back protectively. Her left arm holds a letter from their father who at the time was living in the United States.
In comparison, Charlotte lets out a timid and reserved aura. Her dress is much more conservative with a high neck and long sleeves. It's a plain grey-blue gown that is just as impressive as Zenaide's. A red shawl on the sofa sisters provides a lovely contrast between the two dresses. Both girls are wearing tiaras to complete that regal appearance. The demeanour of the sisters says a lot about their relationship. Charlotte appears to shrink almost instinctively behind her sister, and Zenaide is quick to protect her. From this scene, it is clear that the two are close.
It's All About Details
David used realism in this painting to give the viewer a better understanding of the scene. He was meticulous about each detail, and they serve to paint a clear image. The Napoleon sisters are sitting on a red embroidered sofa that speaks of wealth. It shows that even in exile, the two sisters managed to have a good life. The sofa back is decorated with golden bees, which was part of the Bonaparte family emblem. It shows that the remaining Bonaparte family members carried their history with them even in exile. Despite the luxurious nature of the setting, the wall behind the protagonists is bare.
It doesn't have a single painting or even a coat of paint. The plain background seems deliberate as if to say that even though the girls had a comfortable life in exile, something was missing. Another take is that the two were taken from a different setting and positioned in the current one. The letter shows creases and folds, and the writing is so distinct that it is almost possible to make out an address.
Receipts indicate that the artist received 4,000 francs for the original and 2,000 for two autograph copies. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles is thought to have the original painting while Musée d'Art in Toulon has one of the copies.