Napoleon exhibit at VMFA
VMFA exhibit explores mythic propaganda effort
In this age of social media and Instagram filters, the story of Napoleon could not be more timely. The self-made man carefully crafted all aspects of his public image.
“Napoleon: Power and Splendor,” the new traveling exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, takes a fresh look at Napoleon and the staff who helped him create his public persona as ruler.
“Napoleon was a mythic figure; he created his own narrative,” said Mitchell Merling, coordinating curator at the VMFA. “The Napoleonic image is quite complex. It’s a fantasy the exhibit seeks to understand in a new way.”
Napoleon’s storied rise from general in the French Revolution to selfcrowned emperor has captivated history lovers. But this exhibit, which comes from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, seeks to shine a light on how Napoleon and his court crafted his image to legitimize his reign.
“Napoleon as a hero is an image, one that implies a lot of propaganda,” said Sylvain Cordier, the Montreal curator of the exhibit. “Napoleon fashioned a team whose responsibility it was to cultivate his image as ruler. That approach is quite new.”
Using projections and installation techniques, the exhibit allows visitors to step inside an imagined version of Napoleon’s palace.
Portraits of Napoleon are, of course, a focal point of the exhibition. The portraits Napoleon commissioned show how he used art to help shape his image.
But portraits and paintings are only the beginning of this exhibit, which covers the time period from Napoleon’s coronation in 1804 to his second and final exile in 1815.
More than 200 works of art are on view, many of which have never been shown before in the U.S.: Rich tapestries, furniture, silverware and fine porcelain — all the trappings of an emperor at the height of his powers, as well as his demise — are on display.
The innovative layout symbolically re-creates rooms from Napoleon’s palace.
Take the Throne Room, for instance, with three thrones: one for Napoleon, one for his mother and another for the empress Marie Louise. The exhibit uses projection mapping to create a coffered palace ceiling, elevating the scale of the room and creating a truly immersive experience.
One room features a mural of a banquet at Napoleon’s court. Visitors can look under glass at the real items from the table in the artwork, including golden utensils and silver. The exhibit also includes examples of beautiful porcelain made by the Sèvres Imperial Manufactory.
“These weren’t just pretty dishes or tapestries to put on a wall, but Napoleon’s support of the French economy. To show that France, after the revolution, was rich enough to produce a fine vase,” Merling said.
Napoleon’s court life, from the public to the private, is explored. The exhibit moves into the imagined bedrooms of the empress and the emperor. Napoleon’s bedroom includes his battered bicorne hat from the Russian Campaign and the stunning painting “The Dream of Ossian” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
The exhibit’s final section explores Napoleon’s last years in exile on the island of Saint Helena. Requiring three days to assemble for the exhibit, an enormous birdcage, almost 9 feet tall, represents one of Napoleon’s last commissions.
“It’s a very poignant episode: the deposed emperor who builds a birdcage. Looking back, the whole palace in a way is a birdcage,” Merling said.
The exhibit ends with a chilling deathbed portrait of Napoleon by Denzil O. Ibbetson. Projections of waves, meant to represent those surrounding Saint Helena, crash upon the walls. It is a lonely end to Napoleon’s long and mythic propaganda mission.
The Montreal Museum of Art helped bring the “Rodin” and the “Picasso” shows to the VMFA. Its “Napoleon” show drew over 100,000 visitors during its run. The VMFA is the second venue to host the innovative exhibit.
“Those were immensely popular, spectacular shows,” Merling said of the VMFA’s collaboration with Montreal. “We expect the same with ‘Napoleon.’”
Portraits of Napoleon, including this one of him in ceremonial robes by Studio of François-Pascal-Simon Gérard, are a focal point of the traveling exhibition at VMFA.
A mural of a banquet called the Grand Couvert is featured in “Napoleon: Power and Splendor” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Real items, such as silver and golden utensils, from the banquet service in the art can be viewed under glass.
Sylvain Cordier from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts curated “Napoleon: Power and Splendor.” The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is the first U.S. museum to host the exhibit.
A table shows the intricate porcelain work of Napoleon’s time.