Napoleon: Revolution to Empire

Posted: 23 Jan 2013

In Napoleon: Revolution to Empire, the National Gallery of Victoria’s Ted Gott and guest curator Karine Huguenaud (Fondation Napoléon) create the historical setting for the career of Napoléon Bonaparte, then enhance it by assembling an extraordinary range of pictures, documents, fashion and objets de vertu by some of the legendary French Royal Manufactories including porcelain from the Manufacture de Sevres (some seventeen items), tapestries from the Manufacture des Gobelins, and many other French and continental makers such as furniture from Jacob Freres and wallpapers from Manufacture Jacquemart et Benard.

The Revolution to Empire curators go to some length to establish the historic and artistic connections between France’s expeditions to Australian waters. Some of this is old news, as the Sydney Gazette, the nation’s first newspaper, covered Napoleon’s trajectory in detail as early as 1804. A century later, the emperor had reached the mining town of Broken Hill, NSW, as the local newspaper announced an August 1909 (!) screening of a “stirring historic panorama of events in the life of ‘Napoleon’ […] at the Town Hall”. In 1929, Abel Gance’s famous six-hour silent film, Napoleon, was screening in Adelaide to “the wildest enthusiasm”.

The composition of Revolution to Empire is somewhat unique in its integration of pictures with French design and architecture. This is a tradition established by the late Robert Haines, the NGV’s assistant director from 1947–1951. He was an enthusiastic supporter of design and the decorative arts, but more importantly, he melded these works into the august main galleries alongside pictures. The show continues this contextual methodology.

Context is critical in the discussion of French art and design during the Napoleonic era. The French political and cultural landscape became ruinous soon after Napoleon Bonaparte’s military career began. After the storming of the Bastille in July 1789 and terrorism arising on every quarter, the effect on royal patronage of the arts can only be imagined. Vanishing commissions for portraiture, equipage, fashions and the royal manufactories (Sevres, Gobelin) would have brought the many artists and designers associated with the Ancien Regime into ruin. It became dangerous to wear the clothing fashionable with the Bourbon court, homes of some of the outlawed aristocracy were sacked and the guillotine began to carve its way through the French elite.

Painters closely associated with the royal court were in difficulty. This includes Elizabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun, who is represented in Revolution to Empire by a studio copy of her minutely observed portrait of Queen Marie-Antoinette (c. 1788). Vigée-Le Brun went into exile during the revolution, returning under Napoleon. Even the doddering Hubert Robert, a painter of picturesque ruins (often ridiculed as Robert des ruines), found himself incarcerated at the age of sixty-two. His crime? Too closely associated with the Bourbon dynasty. But he managed to get painting supplies into prison and produced over fifty artworks as he was held. Two of his gaol scenes from the collection of the Musée Carnavalet, Paris are exhibited in Melbourne.

Revolution to Empire emphatically illustrates that nimble artists and designers adapted their subject matter to the new realities of the revolution until the emergence of Napoleon as a stabilising (and successful) military leader, then First Consul of the Government and later Emperor (1804). Amongst these agile artists were painters of the stature of the revolutionary Jacques-Louis David, represented here by his monumental propaganda machine, Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, crossing the Alps at Great St Bernard Pass, 20 May 1800 (on loan from Versailles); his Study for The Consecration or The Coronation of Napoleon (1805) Napoleon, crowned (1807) and a studio copy of his masterful The death of Marat (1793).

Furniture and furnishings were of particular importance to the Jacques-Louis David studio and over six fine examples of French armchairs are integrated into the exhibition, some attributed to Jacob Freres, Paris. David used this firm to produce furnishings for his studio to provide decor for his well-known ‘Roman’ pictures. Decor is the exhibition’s greatest strength as the Empire style favoured by the Emperor and his retinue appears in paintings, illustrations and singular objects, many reproduced in the catalogue.

Unfortunately for France and Napoleon’s legacy, his appetite for grandeur, rather than his civic achievements, has been emulated by a colourful carousel of dictators. This includes Nicolae Ceausescu (Romania), Colonel Gaddafi (Libya), Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe) and too many others who found the evangelical Empire decor (and the Napoleonic fondness for museums celebrating personal achievements and national days such as the 15 August, St Napoleon’s Day) bolstered their own enterprises.

Following Napoleon’s death in May 1821, the Hobart Town Gazette’s description of his character seems apt. “Grand, gloomy, and peculiar, he sat on the throne […] wrapt in the solitude of his own originality. […] He knew no motive but interest; he acknowledged no criterion but success; he worshipped no God but ambition.”

The exhibition ran from 2 June to 7 October 2012

Images from top:

Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, crossing the Alps at Great St Bernard Pass, 20 May 1800, 1803, oil on canvas, 267.5 x 223cm. Versailles, Musée National du Château.

Artist unknown, The storming of the Bastille prison and the arrest of its governor, Bernard-René de Launay, 14 July 1789, 1789, oil on canvas, 57 x 73cm. Versailles, Musée National du Château. ©RMN Château de Versailles.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun (after), Queen Marie-Antoinette (1755–1793) in a hoop skirt dress, c. 1778, oil on canvas, 223 x 158cm. Versailles, Musée National du Château.©RMN Château de Versailles.

Nicolas-André Monsiau, Louis XVI giving his instructions to the Comte de La Pérouse, 1817, oil on canvas, 172 x 227cm. Versailles, Musée National du Château. ©RMN Château de Versailles.

Jean-Baptiste Regnault, Empress Josephine, c.1810, oil on canvas, 59.4 x 46.8cm. Fondation Dosne-Thiers (Institut de France), Paris.

Bookmark and Share
blog comments powered by Disqus
© Copyright of artist images resides with the artist and may not be copied, reproduced or transmitted without prior written permission. Contravention would be an infringement under the Copyright Act 1968. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.
Issue 38