Napoleon’s two faces

A new look at Napoleon

Vocable (All English) - - Sommaire - KIM WILLSHER

The em­peror goes on view.

Napoleon is the sub­ject of an ex­hi­bi­tion in Ar­ras (to 4 Novem­ber, 2018). The there has as­sem­bled 160 arte­facts sur­round­ing his life and leg­end. Bri­tish news­pa­per, The Guardian has used the oc­ca­sion to dis­cuss the am­biva­lent at­ti­tude of the French to­wards their ex­cep­tional em­peror. Mer­ci­less despot or ge­nius reformer? Napoleon will never cease to di­vide and fas­ci­nate.

Ay­oung, well-read and highly in­tel­li­gent French­man comes to power, de­feat­ing an ul­tra-rightwing group. He has am­bi­tions to re­form France and place his coun­try at the heart of a uni­fied Europe. Bri­tain, with its con­stant de­mands for free trade with the con­ti­nent, is a con­stant ir­ri­tant. French ex­iles who have taken refuge in Lon­don must be lured back, he de­clares. Sound fa­mil­iar?

2. Bri­tish his­to­rian An­drew Roberts says his de­scrip­tion could fit French pres­i­dent Emma- musée des Beaux-Arts nuel Macron and his pre­de­ces­sor Napoleon Bon­a­parte equally well.

3. Nearly 200 years af­ter the man his English en­e­mies called Old Boney died on the re­mote, Bri­tish-owned, South At­lantic is­land of St Helena, where he was ex­iled af­ter the bat­tle of Water­loo, Bon­a­parte con­tin­ues to fas­ci­nate, es­pe­cially in the UK.

4. Across the Chan­nel, how­ever, the Cor­si­can­born Bon­a­parte di­vides opin­ion be­tween those who view him as a mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal ge­nius and oth­ers as a war­mon­ger­ing despot.

IM­AGES OF THE LEG­END

5. A new ex­hi­bi­tion of rarely seen works aims to per­suade the French to take a new look at their for­mer em­peror and his two decades as the most feared and re­spected man in Europe.

6. Napoleon: Im­ages of the Leg­end is be­ing staged in the north­ern French town of Ar­ras,

where the Château de Ver­sailles has lent 160 paint­ings, sculp­tures and items of fur­ni­ture from its ex­ten­sive but of­ten over­looked Napoleonic col­lec­tion.

7. Frédéric La­caille, cu­ra­tor at Ver­sailles, who has over­seen the ex­hi­bi­tion, says he hopes it will help re­ha­bil­i­tate Bon­a­parte’s rep­u­ta­tion in France and put him back in the school his­tory books. “It’s worse than be­ing de­tested, he is ig­nored, and yet Bon­a­parte had a stun­ning his­tory,” he said. “Many French see him as rep­re­sent­ing a war­mon­ger­ing, au­thor­i­tar­ian regime and for­get the many things we in­her­ited from him, in­clud­ing his great ad­min­is­tra­tive re­or­gan­i­sa­tion. Quite of­ten in France we have dif­fi­culty com­ing to terms with our his­tory; it’s a great pity in the case of Napoleon.”

8. In his 2014 bi­og­ra­phy, Napoleon the Great, Roberts writes: “The ideas that un­der­pin our mod­ern world – mer­i­toc­racy, equal­ity be­fore the law, prop­erty rights, re­li­gious tol­er­a­tion, mod­ern sec­u­lar ed­u­ca­tion, sound fi­nances, and so on – were cham­pi­oned, con­sol­i­dated, cod­i­fied and ge­o­graph­i­cally ex­tended by Napoleon. To them he added a ra­tio­nal and ef­fi­cient lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion, an end to ru­ral ban­ditry, the en­cour­age­ment of science and the arts, the abo­li­tion of feu­dal­ism and the great­est cod­i­fi­ca­tion of laws since the fall of the Ro­man em­pire.”

MICROMANAGING THE EM­PIRE

9. Roberts told the Ob­server: “The 33,000 letters Napoleon wrote that still sur­vive are used ex­ten­sively to il­lus­trate the as­ton­ish­ing ca­pac­ity that Napoleon had for com­part­men­tal­is­ing his mind – he laid down the rules for a girls’ board­ing school on the eve of the bat­tle of Borodino, for ex­am­ple, and the reg­u­la­tions for Paris’s Comédie-Française while camped in the Krem­lin.

10.“They also show Napoleon’s ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­pac­ity for micromanaging his em­pire: he would write to the pre­fect of Genoa telling him not to al­low his mis­tress into his box at the the­atre, and to a cor­po­ral of the 13th Line reg­i­ment warn­ing him not to drink so much.”

11. La­caille said the ex­hi­bi­tion, in chrono­log­i­cal or­der and fea­tur­ing cel­e­brated por­traits of Bon­a­parte – in­clud­ing one of the most fa­mous by Jac­ques-Louis David show­ing him upon a rear­ing white horse – many of which he com­mis­sioned, also re­veal what an early ge­nius the for­mer em­peror was at com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

12.“We wanted to show the man, not just the mil­i­tary leader,” La­caille said. “And we can see through these works how even early on he used paint­ings and im­ages to com­mu­ni­cate.”

13. La­caille said few as­so­ciate Bon­a­parte, of­ten re­ferred to as a son of the French Rev­o­lu­tion and who fought to pre­vent the re­turn of the Bour­bon royal dy­nasty, with Ver­sailles and over­look the royal château’s Napoleon col­lec­tion, amassed by the Or­leanist king, Louis-Philippe.

14.“France is a lit­tle out of love with Napoleon Bon­a­parte at the mo­ment, but it won’t last,” La­caille said.

(RMN-GP (Château de Ver­sailles))

by Jac­ques-Louis David. Napoleon Cross­ing the Alps

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