The sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte, Napoleon's nieces, read a letter from their father, Joseph Bonaparte, who was exiled in the United States while they lived in Brussels, Belgium, after Napoleon's fall from power.
Jacques-Louis David juxtaposed the sisters' personalities through their expressions and attire. The elder Zénaïde appears worldly and elegant in a low-cut black velvet dress, sitting upright and protective of her younger sister. Charlotte appears timid and reticent as she shyly raises her eyes, and her dress, a modest gray-blue silk, suits her demeanor. The exiled princesses both wear tiaras and sit on a red velvet couch embroidered with golden bees, the Bonaparte family emblem.