Napoleon ex­hibit at VMFA

VMFA ex­hibit ex­plores mythic pro­pa­ganda ef­fort

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - BY COLLEEN CUR­RAN Rich­mond Times-Dis­patch

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.’”

DANIEL SANGJIB MIN/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

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.

DANIEL SANGJIB MIN/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

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.

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