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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

11/27/23 pdf
November 27, 2023

Symbols of Power

At a height somewhere below five feet six inches, Napoleon Bonaparte was anything but a physically imposing figure. He did not tower over any of his contemporaries, and yet, in the early years of the 19th century, he was the most powerful and most feared man in all of Europe. The petite ruler became a monumental force through his brilliant military leadership and the opulence and splendor with which he surrounded himself. Presently, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is displaying many of the spectacular objects that filled the palaces of the French emperor in its exhibition “Symbols of Power: Napoleon and the Art of the Empire Style, 1800-1815.”

The exhibition contains nearly 200 works of art of all varieties, many of which have never been shown outside of France. There are paintings, such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ oil-on-canvas masterpiece, “Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne.” The painting, created in 1806, is one of the premier accomplishments by the French Neoclassical painter. The portrait shows Napoleon covered in lavish, elegant robes of vibrant red velvet, complimented by a layer of pristine white cloth draped about his shoulders, accented nicely by a necklace of golden thread. In one hand Napoleon holds the scepter of Charlemagne, and across his opposite knee rests the hand of justice. A golden crown of olive hearkens back to the rule of Caesar and the great emperors of Rome who followed.

It was magnificent pieces such as Ingres’ that created the image of Napoleon as the formidable emperor robed in the finest materials, wielding immense power from his glittering throne. What this exhibition, organized by the American Federation of Arts in New York, and Les Arts Decoratifs in Paris, aims to showcase is the fine emperor style that swept across Europe behind Napoleon’s marching armies between 1800 and 1815. Like Napoleon’s rule, the artistic style of Napoleonic France stretched across much of Europe during the brilliant military commander’s reign. At the height of the empire, Napoleon’s domain stretched from Spain to the Russian frontier. With this influence came the incorporation of the new artistic French style.

The exhibition perfectly encapsulates this unique style. Every piece, in someway, celebrates the grandeur and military might of the empire, its regal leader and his wife, Josephine. In addition to the paintings, the collection includes sculptures, costumes, jewelry, as well as personal items of the royal couple that offer a more intimate view of their lives. Objects made specifically for Napoleon and his wife are a major feature of the exhibition, as the couple’s love affair is so well known. One of the pieces found in the exhibition is “Empress Josephine’s Letter Box.” The beautifully crafted, bronze gilded box contains many love letters sent to her from Napoleon.

Not far from one of Josephine’s most personal possessions is one of Napoleon’s most recognizable items, a meticulously carved gilded throne, one of only four surviving thrones belonging to the emperor. Winged lions act as arms and legs to this detailed seat of power, while its velvet cushions are embroidered with symbolic designs of power such as majestic eagles, scepters and scales.

The throne is contrasted by a much more feminine velvet chair from Josephine’s boudoir, and the juxtaposition allows visitors to truly get a sense of the two sides of Napoleon that of the ruler, and that of the private man. You will also see Napoleon the commander, as the exhibition provides a peek into how Napoleon’s military campaigns changed the style of the decorative arts. Following the great French victories of the day, many artisans began adorning their handiwork with designs relating to warfare such as amour, helmets and weaponry.

Visitors, however, will not see much about the conquests or the horrors committed in any of the battles waged from the dunes of Egypt to barren winter landscape of Russia. “Symbols of Power” is all about the spectacle and pageantry of Napoleon’s reign; fine robes and exquisite furnishing fill the halls of the MFA’s Gund Gallery. This does not mean that the exhibition is not worth seeing, because it is. It presents a time capsule of life in 1812 France, at the height of Napoleon’s power.

“Symbols of Power” runs through Jan. 27. Admission to the museum is free to students with a valid UMB ID. Visit www.mfa.org/napoleon for more information on this exciting exhibit.