Napoleon Bonaparte, the Corsican who turned himself into the governor of Europe in two decades, was renowned for his military exploits and numerous conquests.
Though I now live in Montreal, as a Frenchman, I am particularly passionate about his fearless personality and revolutionary vision. So, when I heard that the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is hosting, along with its permanent Napoleon Gallery inside the Pavilion for Peace, the exhibit Napoleon: Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace from February 3rd to May 6th, I rushed to the museum.
Known for his use of images in the constitution of his myth and the inclusion of art and architecture in his polycentric vision for France, which eventually led to the creation of the Empire style, this exhibition seemed to be a good occasion to study the relationship between Napoleon’s life and its depiction. As we could have guessed, the narrative starts with a room dedicated to the grandeur of his character.
Napoleon the Hero
When François-Pascal-Simon Gérard (1770 – 1837) painted the neoclassic Portrait of Napoleon I in 1805, the First Consul had just been crowned Emperor of the French.
Depicted in the clothes worn during the ceremony, we can see the symbols of his power: crowns and scepters signal the newly gained position. His stance and head carriage are indeed imperial, with his proud gaze directed straight at the viewer; yet he looks clement, serene, confident – giving his persona a status of merciful savior who kindly looks at the people he is sworn to protect. Nevertheless, along the 400 works brought together for the occasion, the narrative progressively shifts from grandiloquence to normality.
Napoleon the Man
In the next room, we can admire Carle Vernet’s (1758 – 1836) Napoléon I Hunting In The Forest of Fontainebleau, painted at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Here, it is the game that occupies the foreground: Napoleon, with five of his men is merely a follower of the fickle deer.
The monumental size of the nearby tree, when compared to his small body, emphasizes Napoleon's non-importance in the composition, as if he was not the primary subject of the artwork. Absorbed by his prey, we could almost imagine him as made vulnerable by this utmost concentration; he is no longer a hero, but an ordinary man enjoying the thrill of hunting.
Powerful sovereign and extraordinary military commander who was close to his men and to his people, Napoleon I nonetheless got himself exiled, twice. After having been driven out of France by Great Britain in 1814, he came back from the island of Elba in triumph by 1815, though he was forced to end his political career only a hundred days later, left forgotten on Saint-Helena where he died from illness in 1821.