Napoleon’s two faces
A new look at Napoleon
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.
by Jacques-Louis David. Napoleon Crossing the Alps