Les jours de gloire

Napoleon’s Empire style at the MFA
October 16, 2007 6:02:02 PM
NAPOLEON I ON HIS IMPERIAL THRONE: (1806) Ingres’s portrait presents the myth but not the

“Symbols of Power: Napoleon and The Art of The Empire Style, 1800–1815” | Museum Of Fine Arts: October 21–January 27
“In four days I should have been in London . . . not as a conqueror, but as a liberator. I should have been another William III; but I would have acted with greater generosity and disinterestedness. . . . We would have presented ourselves to them, not as conquerors, but as brothers, who came to restore them to their rights and liberties.” That’s Napoleon Bonaparte speaking, after his hopes of rescuing the British Isles had been blighted by the British blockade and the Battle of Trafalgar. America, after all, had thrown off the yoke of George III a quarter-century earlier, so why not the British themselves? Of course, Napoleon also attempted to liberate Egypt, Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany, Russia, and numerous other countries, and though some did regard him as the bearer of freedom, most did not. A mere decade after the Revolution had guillotined thousands for the crime of enjoying privilege, however, France suffered Napoleon to crown himself as emperor. Who was this conundrum of charisma and contradiction? “Symbols of Power: Napoleon and the Art of the Empire Style, 1800–1815” — which, after opening at the St. Louis Art Museum, comes to the Museum of Fine Arts (it’ll finish its tour at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris) — looks at the Napoleonic riddle in the mirror of its art.

He was, for starters, not French. He was born Napoleone di Buonaparte, in Corsica, in 1769, just one year after it was handed over to France, and though he learned French, at age nine, in order to be admitted to a military school near Troyes, he never spoke it without an Italian accent. Having distinguished himself during the Revolution, notably in quelling risings in Toulon and Paris, he won the favor of the ruling Directory and was given command of the French army in Italy. After successes there and in Egypt, he led the military coup that overthrew the Directory, and though at first he was only one of three consuls heading the new government, he secured his election as first consul. An assassination plot (charged to the Bourbons) enabled him to demand he be named emperor, to forestall further efforts at a Bourbon restoration.

The coronation took place, in the enforced presence of Pope Pius VII, on December 2, 1804. Over the next 10 years, Napoleon waged war — ostensibly in defense of the Revolution — against most of Europe. But he was also one of the founders of the modern nation state: centralized, bureaucratic, patriotic. He promulgated the civil laws we know as the Napoleonic Code; he brought everything from banking and taxation to education and the sewer system under his control. He led hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen to their deaths; yet when he escaped from Elba in 1815 and returned to France, hundreds of thousands more followed him. He looked back, consciously, to Caesar Augustus and Charlemagne, and ahead to Hitler and Stalin.

“Symbols of Power” is a domestic affair: apart from the throne and Napoleon’s campaign items, there’s nothing here you wouldn’t find in the home. Furniture, of course: console tables, tea tables, writing tables, writing cases and letter boxes, dressing tables, armchairs, curule seats, boat beds, full-length mirrors, wash basins, candelabras and sconces, andirons, clocks, vases. Tapestries and carpets and wallpaper. A theater lorgnette; a single musical instrument, a lyre guitar. Fewer dining-room implements than you might expect: the extraordinary coronation nef (described as a “ship-form spice cellar,” it’s two feet high) of Joséphine (Napoleon’s nef has never left France), and an imposing confiturier, or jam dish, and a bronze wine cooler, along with the elaborate plates and cups and saucers. Not many examples of clothing: Napoleon’s purple robe and a few gentleman’s outfits, but mostly women’s Empire gowns. At the Museum of Fine Arts, some 200 of these items are handsomely deployed in the Gund Gallery, but the catalogue categories — “Emblems of the Revolution,” “Society After the Revolution and Simplicity of Forms Under the Empire,” “Military Victory,” “Imperial Emblems,” “Victory in Daily Life and the Guardians of the Regime,” “Dance and Nudity,” “The Swan,” “The Butterfly,” “Flowers,” and “Luxury” — seem arbitrary, and the MFA layout, which proceeds in the same way, doesn’t build to any statement.

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