Few historical figures have as contentious an image as Napoleon Bonaparte.
A military genius, he ended 10 years of revolutionary bloodletting in France, wrote a code that still underpins many of the world’s legal systems, introduced the metric system, gave the continent its first telegraph network, and emancipated Jews and Christian dissidents across Europe.
At the same time, his armies executed prisoners and looted art throughout Europe. He muzzled the press in France and imposed his family as rulers across Europe, and reinstated slavery in French colonies. Millions died in his wars, though France was as often the victim of aggression as the aggressor.
A new exhibition at the Paris Invalides War Museum makes no effort to hide the bad side of the emperor whose imprint is still felt on every aspect of modern France.
At the start of the show, the viewer comes face to face with Jacques-Louis David’s heroic painting of a dashing Napoleon crossing the Alps in 1800 on a fine steed. The panels make clear the painting was a work of propaganda, and include copies of other paintings that show him more prosaically, and accurately, riding a sturdy mule in a heavy wool coat.
The display makes ample use of such contrasts. David’s sketch for his massive adulatory painting of Napoleon’s 1804 coronation is hung next to a drawing by English caricaturist George Cruikshank showing a bratty Napoleon and an obese Josephine.
A Baron Lejeune painting presenting Napoleon’s coup d’etat in 1799 as a democratic exercise is partnered with an English cartoon showing Napoleon as a crocodile scaring a room of frogs.
The exhibition doesn’t have a military theme, even if it’s in France’s national war museum. There are no mock ups of battlefields and few weapons on display. The show’s title makes it clear the emphasis is on how Napoleon influenced Europe, and how other Europeans viewed him.
Paintings, cartoons, statues, newspapers, and coins show that during his rule, portrayals throughout Europe ranged from dashing liberator to squat tyrant.
Maps show the imprint his monuments and public works left in cities as far apart as Paris, Milan, and Antwerp.
Interestingly, his height was often underestimated by the scorning English, partly due to differing sizes of English and French “pouce,” or thumb. In fact, he was 1.70 meters or 5-feet-7-inches, about average for his times.
Nine European countries shared collections for the show, including Greenwich’s National Maritime Museum, which lent Lord Nelson’s uniform from the Battle of Trafalgar, complete with deadly bullet hole; and the Kremlin Museum, which sent a Russian general’s uniform and standard.
There’s Turner’s watercolor of Waterloo and a gruesome Goya work showing the bloody repression of Spanish rebels.
The explanatory panels are excellent, full of detail and never didactic. Unfortunately, they are only in French, though there are pamphlets in English and Spanish.
By the end of his reign, Napoleon had made enemies of all of Europe. Toward the end of the show, a uniform of Napoleon is cleverly placed surrounded by biographical panels of George III of England, Ferdinand VII of Spain, Czar Alexander I, Pope Pius VII, Austrian Emperor Francis I, Prussian Queen Louise Augusta, and the exiled Louis XVII.
A quote best sums up Napoleon’s energetic rule. “You kings, defeated, can return to your thrones. I, to remain, need victories.”
How right he was, as shown by a final statue by Vincenzo Vela of an emaciated Napoleon dying on the faraway island of Saint Helena.
“Napoleon and Europe” runs through July 14 at Musee de L’armee, 129 rue de Grenelle, Paris. Information: http://www.musee-armee.fr/en/english-version.html
(Greg Viscusi is a reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the art market; Warwick Thompson on U.K. theater; Ryan Sutton on New York dining; Craig Seligman and Greg Evans on film; and Jeremy Gerard on New York theater.