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Power and Perception: How Napoléon Crafted His Public Image

“Napoleon: Power and Splendor” is a new exhibit at the VMFA that features more than two hundred works of art, including his throne and six foot high candlesticks, as well as regal portraits of the emperor and his court. The pieces reflect the trappings of wealth and reveal how Napoleon attempted to craft his public image. Peter Solomon has this report for Virginia Currents. WCVE’s Peter Solomon has more for Virginia Currents

Transcript:

Napoleon Bonaparte wasn't born into power and wealth. He was a minor nobleman from the Mediterranean Island of Corsica. His meteoric rise in the French military put him in the perfect position to stage a coup in 1799, as the government of France was faltering and its economy was in shambles.

Candlesticks and crucifix from Napoleon's wedding. (Photo David Stover VMFA) Sylvain Cordier: At the time we are like a few years after the beginning of the revolution.

Sylvain Cordier is Curator of Early Decorative Arts at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and curated this exhibit.

Cordier: The French Revolution started in 1789 and it’s the event that brought to an end centuries of royal monarchy, the dynasty of the Bourbons. In fact Napoleon Bonaparte as a military man and a general could achieve his military career thanks to the beginning of the revolution. 

Even prior to Napoleon becoming Emperor, Cordier says that  art played a crucial role in establishing the legitimacy of his regime.

Cordier: First of all, we need to think of Napoleon as the protector of the republic. So when he rose to power as the protector of the republic, he needs to be represented as such by artists. It’s very important to have images of himself created so the people can understand who he is and kind of be visually convinced of his legacy and of his legitimacy.

Some of these early portraits of Napoleon are based on images from the US, specifically a famous painting of George Washington.

 Cordier: At a time when Bonaparte is not yet an emperor but a protector of the republic, America was like the only Republican form of government and the representation of George Washington proved very influential in that regard.

Any pretense of being portrayed as a humble public servant was abandoned by 1804 when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France.

Cordier: So we’re looking at one of the most important representations of Napoleon as an emperor.

Cordier describes a painting by portrait artist Francois Gerard.

Cordier: It represents Napoleon standing in front of the throne of the Tuileries palace, his most important palace, his palace in Paris.

He’s in his coronation dress, wearing a big coat.

Cordier: This very heavy coat, ornate with gilt embroidery of red velvet showing bees.

And bees, says Cordier , are one of the symbols of the empire.

Cordier: You can tell this costume is evoking by itself the splendor and the magnificence  of the imperial status. 

Cordier says the composition of the painting and the symbols  it contains are based on a painting of Louis the XIV, known as the sun king.

Cordier: It’s very interesting to see that Napoleon was supposed to found a new dynasty after the collapse of the Bourbon dynasty but still was willing to come back to some visual references of the monarchy because - because it was really effective to represent the sovereign in his state attire with his crown, with his scepters, with all the apparatus of power.

As you make your way through the exhibit, you're confronted with the magnitude of Napoleon's Imperial household - about 3,500 people.

Curator Sylvain Cordier. (Photo @SPG Le Pigeon)Cordier: So it’s a huge, huge team of people involved in any time of the day  to day life of the emperor as well as in the fashioning of his propaganda and the spectacle of his power.

The very last image in the exhibit, displayed in a room by itself, is an oil painting of Napoleon on his deathbed.  It was made by a British officer at St. Helena, a small tropical South Atlantic island where Napoleon lived out the last six years of his life in exile in a scaled down household.

Cordier: We see Napoleon, it’s an image that’s almost a black and white representation . Napoleon looks very fat. You can tell that he has a fat face, He’s lying down. His hair is kind of covered in sweat. You see him in profile lying down on his bed. Obviously his eyes are closed. You understand immediately that he is dead. 

Ultimately, the painting was presented to King George the IV of England as proof of Napoleon's death. For the British government, Napoleon was an anti-hero. Not an Emperor, but a general, now defeated.

Cordier gives credit to Napoleon for some of the reforms enacted during his reign, but after spending years curating this expansive collection - 

Napoleon on His Deathbed by Denzel O. Ibbetson. (Courtesy VMFA)Cordier: I think it was an administration that was in charge of forging a hero. Most of the documents that we have were obviously very carefully crafted and designed and thought so that we would think of him as a hero, someone more talented, more powerful, more glorious than any other kind of person.

Cordier wants visitors to think deeply about the gilded throne, the six foot candlesticks, the portraits of Napoleon in his coronation garb and how they were used to shape the image of the powerful leader.

Cordier: Not buying it is the key concept, is the key interest in the subject. Like not studying Napoleon as a hero but studying the reason why there was this need to create a hero and craft a person like Napoleon into a hero.

“Napoleon: Power and Splendor” is on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts through September 3. For Virginia Currents, I'm Peter Solomon, WCVE News.