Creation of the Legion of Honor

Creation of the Legion of Honor

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Title: First distribution of the decorations of the Legion of Honor, July 15, 1804.

Author : DEBRET Jean-Baptiste (1768 - 1848)

Creation date : 1812

Date shown: July 15, 1804

Dimensions: Height 403 - Width 531

Technique and other indications: Full title:First distribution of the decorations of the Legion of Honor, made by Napoleon in the church of the Imperial Hotel of Les Invalides, July 14, 1804 Oil on canvas

Storage location: National Museum of the Palace of Versailles (Versailles) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Picture reference: 87EE508 / MV 1504

First distribution of the decorations of the Legion of Honor, July 15, 1804.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

The distinctions were abolished in 1791. The first crosses attached to a red ribbon were not awarded until two years later, following the decree of July 11, 1804, creating a “star with five double rays, enameled in blue” decoration.

Under the Empire, when Napoleon instituted a new nobility, the Legion of Honor received a pyramidal organization similar to that of the old orders of chivalry, with ranks ranging from that of "legionnaire" (knight) to that of "grand cordon », Reserved for dignitaries of the regime. A mutual aid mission was then given to the order by the decree of Schönbrunn (December 15, 1805), which established three educational centers for the young girls of the legionaries.

Image Analysis

Cardinal Belloy, Archbishop of Paris, accompanied by his clergy, received the Emperor at the door of the Invalides Church and personally led him to the imperial throne. Napoleon took his place, having behind him the colonels and generals of the guard, the governor of Invalides and the great officers of the crown. On both sides and on the second step of the throne appear the great dignitaries; lower to the right, the ministers; on the left, the marshals of the Empire; at the foot of the steps of the throne, the grand master and the masters of ceremonies; opposite him, the chancellor and the grand treasurer of the Legion of Honor. The Emperor's aides-de-camp are standing. Surrounded by the new knights from the various state bodies, the Emperor particularly honors unhappy courage by himself hanging the cross of the Legion of Honor on the garment of a young invalid one-armed man.


Associating the pomp of ceremonial with the tragic destiny of the soldiers of the Empire, invalid or deceased, obeys the propagandist nature of the Napoleonic regime. We will see how much the tribute paid to his "old guard" by the Emperor, during his farewells at the Château de Fontainebleau, still insisted on the rooting of the regime in the working classes. In this regard, it should be noted that the first distribution of the Cross of the Legion of Honor was set for Saturday July 14, to mark the link with the Revolution. It was postponed to the next day, a public holiday, to allow the people to attend. All the Napoleonic legend is summarized here: the order of the Legion of Honor, order of merit and not of chivalry, consecrates the honor of the fighters of the Empire and not the birth or the rank of an aristocratic class whose military vocation had ceased, even before the Revolution, to found legitimacy.

Purchased in 1812 by the State, this painting, exhibited at the Salon of the same year (no. 241), could not fail to be noticed by the imperial administration. Debret's anecdotal and sentimental approach, his fondness for scenes where the courage of ordinary soldiers is rewarded by the Emperor (Napoleon pays homage to unhappy courage, 1806, Versailles; Napoleon decorates the Lazareff grenadier at Tilsitt, 1808, Versailles), assign it an original place in the painting of the Napoleonic legend.

  • army
  • bonapartism
  • Napoleonic legend
  • Legion of Honor
  • Bonaparte (Napoleon)


Yveline CANTAREL-BESSON, Claire CONSTANS, Bruno FOUCARD Napoleon, images and history: painting of the Palace of Versailles (1789-1815) Paris, RMN, 2001 Jean TULARD (dir.) Napoleon dictionary Paris, Fayard reed. 1999 Collective Napoleon and the Legion of Honor , Cat .Exp.Paris, mutual aid society for members of the Legion of Honor, 1968

To cite this article

Robert FOHR and Pascal TORRÈS, “Creation of the Legion of Honor”

Video: Legion of Honor Review