INSIDE NAPOLEON’S EMPIRE
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts casts the military leader in a new light with a revelatory exhibition, opening today. Ian McGillis takes a look.
Nearly all of us have an image and conception of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The erstwhile Corsican customs clerk who delivered France from the trauma of its post-Revolution reign of terror and restored a monarchy, conveniently with himself as the self-proclaimed divinely ordained head, was also the endlessly ambitious expansionist whose fatal hubris was such that nearly two centuries after his death his very name is a universally understood shorthand for overcompensation.
No matter your view, whether nuanced or simplistic, it’s likely to be shaken up by Napoleon: Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ revelatory new exhibition does what only the best of such projects can: it takes something we thought we knew and shows it from a new angle.
The show is an undertaking bigger than the sum of its considerable parts, which include more than 400 objects. As you walk through the seven thematically arranged chambers, scaled big enough to feel comprehensive but not so big as to be daunting or exhausting (the Throne Room, with its projected ceiling images, is especially striking), it hits you that this show is doing more than evoking history — though it does that, and does it very well. It’s telling a larger story, and without being didactic it’s making a point — one with no shortage of contemporary relevance.
“We want people to have a good historical example of how art can be used in the service of power,” said curator Sylvain Cordier of the exhibition, which involved five years of preparation. “It’s not our wish to have a hagiographic representation of Napoleon. This is not about heroism; it’s about all the ways a staff can be employed to transform a man into a hero.
“It’s a curator’s role to provide tools for people to interpret works of art, especially art associated with politics. This is an exhibition to view as citizens of the 21st century. What you see represented here is what someone wanted you to see, and that propagandistic approach has to be understood if we are to appreciate the potential risk for a modern, democratic-oriented society.”
The hierarchic chain of influence inculcated by Napoleon — what Cordier describes as his genius for vertical integration — did more than consolidate his power; it fostered an insidious climate whereby artists, the greatest of them no less than the now-forgotten minor ones, were effectively co-opted as publicists for the regime.
“That’s fair to say, certainly,” Cordier said. “Artists, even those who were republicans and didn’t support the idea of a return to a monarchy, knew that they had to adapt in order to get contracts, and they knew it very quickly.
“Keep in mind, too, that there were levels of access to images, which made it all the more important to control the images people would have had access to. The actual portraits were intended for the decoration of palaces and private mansions, the homes of the big important people. But every two years the regime would organize the Salon, a public exhibition at the Louvre presenting the productions of the most important artists of the time, and obviously it had to be managed into propaganda.”
For the interiors of more humble abodes, there was the diffusion of those same images as prints.
“That’s very important,” said Cordier. “Images were highly controlled, but they could travel.
“You had a lot of print shops, including famous ones in the neighbourhood of the Louvre. The imperial household would also present prints as gifts, to staff and others.”
Was it seen as expedient to have the leader’s likeness in one’s home?
“Well, it wasn’t quite like North Korea today. There was the idea that people not fully supportive of the regime were tolerated. But certainly there would have been advantages to having a portrait of Napoleon in your home.”
For all the exhibition’s demonstration of how Napoleon delegated aspects of his world, make no mistake: he was nothing if not hands-on. At least until the late decline set in, everything was in aid of a carefully crafted brand, set and maintained from the top.
“Absolutely,” Cordier said. “He was the boss. Yes, there was a hierarchy of dignitaries, but he was always the ultimate decision-maker. It’s well known that even when he was off on the most distant military campaigns, he was signing orders regarding even minor things in France. His coup d’état embodied a very strict idea of power, rooted in his military identity. Orders were to be followed. Everything had to be vertical, but that meant you had to be able to elevate people you could trust. Which was the case most of the time, but not all the time.”
An essential part of the Napoleon myth, what infuses the highs with an undertow that’s equal parts tragedy and schadenfreude, is the knowledge that he didn’t write his own ending. On the contrary, he was deposed — not once, but twice — and ultimately brought low, seeing out his days as an exile on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena (“as far as could be imagined from Europe, so that people would be sure to never see him again,” Cordier said), overseen and humiliated on a daily basis by representatives of his longtime adversaries, the English.
Even there, though, the fallen Napoleon’s living quarters, little more than a simple apartment, had to be seen to contain at least a vestige of imperial grandeur. The exhibition’s last room evokes this downfall and desperation with a powerful sense of melancholy; an accompanying panel, with a refreshing candour typical of the show’s annotation, calls the lastditch attempt to keep up royal appearances “a pathetic simulacrum” of a real royal court.
One of the most powerful items in the exhibition is one of the last, and also one of the least physically imposing: a small death-bed portrait showing Napoleon in what can be seen, even in the artist’s simple execution, as reduced circumstances.
“That painting is by Denzil O. Ibbetson, who was also the goods and food purveyor to the house,” Cordier said. “He was English, so as far as he was concerned he wasn’t depicting an emperor — he was portraying a newly deceased general.
“He was one of the last people allowed in the bedchamber the day after Napoleon died; he made a few sketches of the corpse and went and made three portraits, of which I feel the one you see here is the best. Remember, to him and the other English this was a death that effectively meant the story was finished, that they could all go home. So it carries that meaning, in addition to the usual associations of a death portrait.”
The show, while containing large-scale paintings and tapestries that are masterpieces in their own right, is also replete with reminders that nothing evokes the everyday texture of a bygone age quite like the domestic minutiae: cutlery from the imperial kitchen and headboards from royal beds pack an emotional punch. You may find you even shed a tear for the little fellow. Oh, and if you think you’ve seen some fancy birdcages in your time, be prepared to have the bar raised.
For Cordier, there’s an especially satisfying poetic symbolism in the show’s final destination. After stops in Richmond, Va., and Kansas City, it finishes its run in a place that has loaned significant pieces to the exhibition and where a certain diminutive emperor once strode the halls: France’s impossibly grand Château de Fontainebleau.
“It was Napoleon’s third official residence during his reign, and both the first two were destroyed by fire in the 19th century, so Fontainebleau is where the imperial regime is best invoked,” Cordier said. “To have the show end there is very satisfying. It closes the circle.”