Exhibition | Napoleon and Europe

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on April 2, 2013

As noted at Art Daily:

Napoléon et l’Europe
Musée de l’Armée, Hôtel National des Invalides, Paris, 27 March — 14 July 2013

Curated by Émilie Robbe

affiche-exposition-napoleon-et-europeNapoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) had a deep and lasting effect on the history of Europe, despite remaining in power for a mere fifteen years. The exhibition Napoléon et l’Europe [Napoleon and Europe], at the Musée de l’Armée from 27 March to the 14 July 2013, bears witness to Napoleon Bonaparte’s European ambitions between 1793 and 1815. The visit reveals his ambitious policies for expansion in Europe and the subsequent reactions by the various European countries, whether in support of, or against, such policies. The exhibition also highlights the consequences and the deep scars that such a conquest left on Europe.

Far removed from stereotype and biased opinion, this exhibition aims to present an influential episode in French and European history in a different manner; by combining the diverse, often-times opposing viewpoints of Napoleon’s contemporaries, on themes such as war, politics, diplomacy, the government, currency, propaganda and the arts… In order to recount or retrace this chapter of history, 250 artworks, objects and documents have been gathered together, on loan from fifty or so European museums and institutions, with more than half of these coming from outside France. Since the retrospective exhibition Napoléon held in 1969 at the Grand Palais, Paris, no other exhibition of this scope and ambition has been organized in France.

Conquest and Resistance

The entire exhibition is punctuated by or structured around two viewpoints that both question and mirror the other: the progressive and concrete creation of Napoleon’s Empire on the one hand, and the reactions of certain peoples and the main European powers to this direct quest for domination, on the other hand. From alliances to battles, from treaties to reform, this incredibly rapid succession of events is recounted in chronological fashion and explained in context.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s European ambitions were rooted in the ideals of the Revolution. He began to work towards these ambitions following his victories in the Italian campaign from 1796 to 1799. He became First Consul, then French Emperor in 1804 and put into place a political and military operation whose aim was to extend the frontiers of his Empire. Having done so, the challenge was then to organize and take control of this territory by any means in order to leave his imprint on physical places and institutions, as well as in the minds of the people. In the exhibition, the public can study several examples of the Civil Code, drafted in several languages, or the bust of Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, a major work by Canova. The public may also view a mysterious sketch, drawn by Napoleon in 1806, for the attention of the Crown Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria in order to explain to the latter the unfolding of the Battle of Austerlitz (1805).

In the face of French domination, there were two types of reaction: consent on the one hand – Southern Germany, Northern Italy or Poland…, and on the other hand, resistance, oftentimes of a particularly violent nature – in Spain, in the Tyrol region, in Calabria, Prussia, Russia… thereby inversing the dynamics of the Imperial conquest. The Russian campaign and the dramatic end of the Grande Armée precipitated the fall of the Napoleonic Empire. In 1814, Paris was besieged. In order to do away with Napoleon’s Europe, the former Emperor’s victors transformed the map of Europe to their advantage during the Congress of Vienna: France returned to its borders of 1792 and a new European order was born. This part of the exhibition includes a sketch by Goya dating from 1814 for his painting of the Dos de Mayo uprising, Turner’s The Field of Waterloo (1818), and even Napoleon’s famous grey frock coat.

250 artworks and objects provide the public with contrasting perspectives

The visitor is systematically presented with various and contrasting contemporary visions and representations of the same event: official and learned, popular or satirical, all of which are influenced by the artistic and political ambitions of the day. Over 250 artworks, objects and documents, ranging from the prestigious to the modest, combine their aesthetic qualities and emotional charge to narrate this epic: swords, knives and firearms, uniforms, historical figurines, decorations, coins, archival records, paintings, sculptures, prints, etc. The image is a powerful and ideal means of expression and indeed, this exhibition bears witness to the flourishing iconography of the 19th century which included images of this influential figure drawn by both supporters and opponents, all over the European continent. From the portrait of Bonaparte franchissant le Grand Saint Bernard painted by David in 1800 (Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon), an archetype of the great historical painting and hagiography, to the widely disseminated English caricatures depicting the conquering Emperor in situations that were as inventive as they were incongruous, there is a huge range of works on display here by a variety of artists, each with their own message. Alongside scenes of battle hang peacetime scenes. Next to images glorifying the figure of Napoleon, the visitor can find derisory ones…

The exhibition benefits from some exceptional loans, allowing for some very rich and unusual associations. Vice-Admiral Nelson’s uniform, worn at the Battle of Trafalgar, has been loaned for the first time outside of Britain by the National Maritime Museum. It will be displayed alongside the prestigious uniforms of Alexander I of Russia (State Museums of the Moscow Kremlin) and of Emperor Franz I of Austria (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna). Thanks to the support of institutions such as the Musée du Louvre, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Musées Nationaux des Châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau or Versailles, the exhibition brings together major pieces which are emblematic of the figure of Napoleon. Therefore, near the uniform of the Colonel of the Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard (Château de Fontainebleau), visitors can find the original text of Napoleon’s famous evening declaration after the Battle of Austerlitz, which opens with the solemn words “Soldiers, I am pleased with you…”, on loan from the Service Historique de la Défense [Historical Defence Service].

The public also has the opportunity to discover unknown or previously unseen objects and documents, such as the four volumes of the Mémoires manuscript in which a horseman of the Imperial Guard [cavalry regiment] recounts his adventures alongside the Emperor (on loan from the Bibliothèque Thiers). Another of our key partners in this event, the Fondation Napoléon, has loaned amongst other items, David’s compositional study for his monumental painting, Le Sacre [The Coronation of Napoleon], now housed at the Louvre. A highly-informative exhibition easily accessible to a large public Napoleon’s reputation extends beyond French shores.

In order to make this exhibition more accessible to a large public and to situate the major historical events of the Napoleonic era in space and time, mediation tools are on hand to accompany the public throughout their visit. Numerous maps help the public to situate the territories concerned and to understand the changing frontiers of the chessboard that was once the European continent. The maps should also help the public grasp the importance of diplomatic alliances which were both numerous and constantly changing. Listening stations allow the public to discover moving eye-witness accounts of soldiers. These listening stations are located next to the works on display and the archival records or documents. Slideshows present the major figures of that era – Chateaubriand, Goethe, Beethoven, Goya, Byron, Hegel … and their relationship with Napoleon. A multimedia display recounts the famous Battle of the Three Emperors, otherwise known as the Battle of Austerlitz, accompanied by an audio commentary consisting of Napoleon’s explanations on the strategic movements of his army to the Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria. The exhibition also includes a children’s tour with specially-designed display panels which explain several of the objects in the exhibition in a fun and educational fashion.

◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊

Émilie Robbe and François Lagrange, Napoléon et l’Europe (Paris: Somogy, 2013), 336 pages, ISBN: 978-2757206416, 39€.

Irène Delage of the Fondation Napoléon interviewed the exhibition’s director Émilie Robbe — available here»

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