Napoleon: Power and Splendor

Napoleon was many things: a skilled general, a cunning strategist and politician, husband, father and a charismatic leader. He was also a master of managing appearances, and a sultan of signature style.

When Napoleon rose to power as First Consul of France in 1799, (FIG 1) he ordered a coat of arms. As a self-made man with no royal lineage, he needed to legitimize his position. The most effective way to achieve this was by carefully constructing his image. This extended to the symbols he chose to associate with his reign and hallmarks of style that he made his own.

After much discussion, the politician Emmanuel Crétet, who supported the coup that propelled Napoleon to power, proposed an eagle, a lion and an elephant for his new leader’s emblem. Napoleon selected the eagle, a symbol of imperial Rome associated with military victory. In fact, the day after Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor in 1804, he had an eagle placed on top of the shaft of every flag in the Napoleonic army. Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, Napoleon’s principal advisor on judicial matters, recommended bees. Symbol of immortality and resurrection, bees would also link Napoleon’s new dynasty to the very origins of France. Discovered in the tomb of Childeric I, founder of the Merovingian dynasty in 457 CE, bees were considered the oldest emblem of the sovereigns of France. Napoleon took the suggestion and ran with it.

Eagles and bees dominate the symbolic imagery that flourished during Napoleon’s reign. This is nowhere more evident than in François Gérard’s full-length portrait of Napoleon in full regalia. (FIG 2) It was, and remains, one of the most iconic images of the imperial regime. Three hundred embroidered bees appear on Napoleon’s hefty crimson velvet robe. They show up again around the magnificent gilt frame of the Bust-Length Portrait of Napoleon in Ceremonial Robes by Gérard’s workshop. (FIG 3) Not only does the frame feature a symbolic vocabulary clearly intended to assert imperial authority, but it also serves to fill in some of the missing elements the portrait loses when reduced and presented in bust-length format. The eagle from atop Napoleon’s staff in the full-length portrait stands proudly on top of the gilt frame of the bust-length picture. Perhaps a less obvious element of power communicated by the frame is the idea of Napoleon’s throne. The thick laurel wreath upon which the eagle stands imitates the back of Napoleon’s presentation armchair at the Tuileries, (FIG 4) which served as a symbol of the stability of the Empire.

While gilded bees and eagles proliferated at court, Napoleon’s personal style signifier on the battlefield was his black felt bicorne (two-pointed) hat made by the French hatters Poupard and Delaunay. (FIG 5) A deviation of the popular tricorne (three-pointed) headwear worn by American colonists during the American Revolution, the bicorne was a staple of a French officer’s military wardrobe. While most French soldiers wore their hats with their corners pointing forward and back, Napoleon wore his sideways, ensuring instant recognition on the battlefield.

Poupard made about 120 hats for Napoleon, only a handful of which survive. The example on view in the exhibition, which Napoleon wore during the Russian campaign in 1812, is in near perfect condition considering its age, save some wear on the underside of the brim and a small worn area along the bottom crease. Napoleon’s hat is evidence that its owner was not only a man of action, but one who understood, as Shakespeare’s Polonius said in Hamlet, that clothes (and in this case, the symbols as well) make the man.

Napoleon: Power and Splendor is organized and circulated by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) with the participation of Château de Fontainebleau and the exceptional support of the Mobilier national de France, in collaboration with The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It was curated by Sylvain Cordier, curator of Early Decorative Arts at MMFA.

–Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, Ph.D., The Louis L. and Adelaide C. Ward Senior Curator of European Arts

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