At Home With Napoleon

“Napoleon: Power and Splendor” Exhibition Offers an Inside Look at the Royal Household

A synergy of image, color and sound greets the viewer to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s special exhibition, “Napoleon: Power and Splendor.” Replicating the ruler’s so-called “Imperial Household” are flooring designs recreated from authentic carpets. Walking from gallery to gallery, against backdrops of rich teal blue, burnished burgundy and forest green you encounter dozens of paintings, sketches, mosaics, architectural drawings and panoramas by Napoleon’s court painters: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Jacques-Louis David, François Gerard and others. Video projections of moving forested images add to the gallery experience.

There is an abundance of ornately carved furnishings, tapestries, sculptures and busts, an elaborate table setting, a gigantic three-tiered birdcage (from Napoleon’s garden at Longwood House, 1819-1820) and a collection of period swords and flintlocks.

A sumptuous throne room is awash in royal crimson, a gigantic silver candelabrum soars six feet in the air, and one of the few surviving bicorne hats worn by the man himself resides in its own special glass case. Napoleon loved Arabian horses, and several paintings honor these noble steeds. There’s even a chamber pot, which his British captors forbade him to use, since it was decorated with Imperial eagles.

Ornamental motifs of the bee and the eagle can be seen everywhere, on snuffboxes, wallpaper, carpeting and coronation robes alike. The bee and the eagle were both derived from Imperial Rome, symbolizing Napoleon’s power and industry and, yes, nobility. (The day after his coronation, Napoleon demanded that an eagle be placed atop the shaft of every flag in his armies.)

And the music, piped in to the galleries — ah, the ceremonial trumpets and drums of Napoleon’s favorite composers! They tell their own story: You step to the “Marche des Marseillais” of Claude Balbastre, who taught harpsichord to Marie Antoinette, and the “Coronation March” of Jean-Francois Lesueur, Napoleon’s music director of the Tuileries Chapel. Selections include the dances of Michel-Joseph Gebauer, who followed Napoleon during four campaigns and died of exhaustion on the retreat from Russia in 1812; works by Jan Ladislav Dussek, who worked in the service of Talleyrand; and, of course, Ludwig van Beethoven, who famously tore up the title-page dedication to Napoleon in his “Eroica” Symphony after learning Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor.

The Household as Napoleonic Campaign

The exhibition is organized in six sections, each corresponding to the departments of the Imperial Household. During the years 1804-1821, when he went from First Consul, to Emperor, to the years in exile, Napoleon took his Household with him on his travels.

“The Household was responsible for the daily lives of the brand-new imperial family,” said Sylvain Cordier, curator of the exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia, and now the Nelson-Atkins. “This was a profound transformation of the French national ideal of 1789, from the republican general to royal monarch.” Each section was headed by a Grand Officer — the Grand Chaplain, the Grand Marshal of the Palace, the Grand Master of Ceremonies, the Grand Chamberlain, the Grand Equerry and the Grand Master of the Hunt.

Cordier admitted one might consider this “Household” as a Napoleonic “campaign” in itself, but rather different from our customary image of the conqueror stomping his way across Italy, Egypt and Russia. “It’s not an exhibition about Napoleon’s life and career, or even about him as a mythic figure. That’s something I wanted to avoid,” he said.

“Napoleon surrounded himself with his staff of 3,500 people. He was everywhere at home,” Cordier added. “You might have thought of him as a very solitary hero — there’s the familiar symbolism of the Imperial Eagle flying above everything — but no, this is a very real Court. It’s like your Presidential White House. It goes wherever the President goes. And Napoleon’s Household went everywhere he went. It was intentionally designed to spread the image of the private and public person.

“I’m sounding very “Star Wars” here,” Cordier said with a wry smile, “but that’s what is suggested with the turning from the French Republic to the Empire after 1804. Placing a crown on his head was something that scandalized people on the liberal side, like Beethoven. Chateaubriand, too, remained Royalist, and he despised the idea that the throne of the Bourbons had been stolen. Even at the end of Bonaparte’s life, with his defeat and exile, when he was only a General in the eyes of the British, we still see a semblance of the Household. This is the story that has not gained as much public attention as his militaristic image.”

Cordier’s own fascination with the man is obvious: “Think of that generation around Napoleon, those people who had been born servants, the sons and daughters of innkeepers, who after 1789 found their lives completely transformed by the Revolution. And when Napoleon comes, they become princes and dukes. They start their own dynasties of aristocratic families. For them, everything was possible!”

Cordier brought his own staff from Montreal to Kansas City to assist in the mounting of the exhibition. “Our challenge is to integrate the ideas from the original Montreal exhibition to the specific conditions of the galleries here,” he explained. “It’s an adaptation, a collaboration.”

Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, senior curator of European arts at the Nelson-Atkins, worked with Cordier and his crew on the installation in Kansas City.

Don’t miss the impossibly romanticized portrait of Napoleon by Andrea Appiani. Here is a young man in 1801, the First Consul, poised before his first high flights of power. The right hand casually rests on his hip and the left lightly clutches a scabbard. The hair is carefully tousled, the collar rises in a blaze of scarlet, and the waistcoat lapel boasts a profusion of golden oak clusters. His defiant gaze, touched with a certain disdain, turns away toward some distant horizon.

There is a disarming, relative simplicity about the pose and the costume. Contrast that with the more formal costuming of the court, regulated by the etiquette du palais of Jean-Baptiste Isabey. The portrait of Joseph Bonaparte, for example, shows him in a flared white mantle, white breeches, silk hose and white jacket, elaborately embroidered with silver and gold bees.

Women of the court, including Napoleon’s sisters and Empress Josephine herself, enjoyed more latitude and simplicity in their choice of dress. In Appiani’s portrait of her, Josephine wears a flowing, floor-length gown of white satin, open at the neck, and cinched at the high waist by a long blue sash.

As if in somber rebuke to all this pomp and splendor is the small portrait of Napoleon on his death bed. It was sketched by his British captor, Denzil Ibbetson, on the morning of May 6, 1815, one day after Napoleon’s death. One of two “reliquary” paintings Ibbetson subsequently executed from his preliminary sketches, it occupies its own space against a black backdrop. Stark, isolated and alone, it commands your attention with its mute grandeur.

Toward the end of the exhibit, Napoleon’s bedchamber inspires a flight of fancy. The headboard is sculpted from wood and comprised of two great eagles with outstretched wings linked by a laurel wreath.

If one were to sleep beneath these wings, would he or she share the visions of glory Napoleon inscribed in the clouds?

“Napoleon: Power and Splendor” continues at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., through March 10. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Tickets to the exhibition cost $18 for adults, $16 for seniors and $10 for students with ID. Free to museum members and children 12 and under. For more information, 816.751.1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org.

About The Author: John C. Tibbetts

John C. Tibbetts

John C. Tibbetts is an associate professor in film and media studies at the University of Kansas. He is a broadcaster, musician and artist, and his many books include "Performing Music History" (2018), "The Gothic Imagination" (2011) and "Composers in the Movies" (2005).

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