EXHIBITION: UNDERSTANDING NAPOLEON

Published September 19, 2021
Napoleon Crossing the Alps by David Jacques Louis
Napoleon Crossing the Alps by David Jacques Louis

Certainly, no other historical figure anywhere in the world has remained so admired and idolised through centuries as Napoleon Bonaparte.

His military victories, political and social reforms are, of course, proof of his greatness, but his catastrophic defeats in Russia and at Waterloo, that ended in his exile and life imprisonment on the St Helena Island, reflect a complex personality, while also shedding light on a tragedy that his life finally turned into.

Much esteemed as a military hero and a revolutionary statesman, but also as a historical legend, Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquests of practically the entire continent during a relatively brief lifetime (15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821) remain controversial topics even today, two centuries after his demise.

A marble sculpture of Napoleon
A marble sculpture of Napoleon

This year, France is officially commemorating the 200th anniversary of his death. Earlier on May 5th, President Emmanuel Macron attended a ceremony at the Invalides Palace where Napoleon is buried. This ritual has been followed by many events taking place all over the country.

A Paris park is holding an exhibition of paintings, sculptures, scripts and other writings to mark the 200th death anniversary of the French icon

Taking advantage of the immense space at its disposal, the La Villette park in Paris has begun an unusual exhibition of paintings and sculptures as well as scripts and other writings, not only devoted to the political and military achievements of Napoleon but to the private life also of the deeply sensitive personality that was the youthful Emperor of France.

The show takes into account the formative years of Napoleon as a young student at the Brienne military school, and his earliest campaigns to Italy in 1796, and to Egypt in1799, followed by his emergence as the all-powerful Emperor of France in 1804 — at only 33 years of age.

Sculpture of Napoleon’s sister Paolina Bonaparte Borghese
Sculpture of Napoleon’s sister Paolina Bonaparte Borghese

The organisers have been careful not to ignore minor details such as some of the Emperor’s personal military material, such as his battleground tent, with its original furnishings and a canon along with its ammunition crate. Paintings include works by some of the legendary Napoleon-era artists such as Jacques-Louis David, Anotine-Jean Gros and François Gérard.

Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte by Francois Gerard
Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte by Francois Gerard

Commenting on the show, Professor Jean-Louis Lauvergéat, a well-known and respected art historian, says, “This is a very important event for all curious visitors. It makes them contemplate deeply over Napoleon Bonaparte’s life, over his achievements but also over his failures, as grasping Napoleon’s inner personality leads one to understand what France itself has been transformed into today, socially and politically!”

Professor Lauvergéat’s observations sound very true, as going through the vast spaces of La Villette you remain sensitive not just to the expressions on the face in different portraits of Napoleon, but also become increasingly aware of his role in politics and the army — including his campaigns, travels, life at the court, social evolutions, religion and eventually the two military debacles that brought his career and finally, his life, to an end.

The La Villette show is the result of an exceptional collaboration between the Louvre and Grand Palace museums and also of the Versailles, Fontainebleau and Malmaison palaces among others, bringing in some 150 art pieces.

The exhibition lasts until December 19 this year.

The writer is an art critic based in Paris. He may be reached on ZafMasud@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 19th, 2021

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