Les jours de gloire

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  October 16, 2007

“Symbols of Power” is a domestic affair: apart from the throne and Napoleon’s campaign items, there’s nothing here you wouldn’t find in the home. Furniture, of course: console tables, tea tables, writing tables, writing cases and letter boxes, dressing tables, armchairs, curule seats, boat beds, full-length mirrors, wash basins, candelabras and sconces, andirons, clocks, vases. Tapestries and carpets and wallpaper. A theater lorgnette; a single musical instrument, a lyre guitar. Fewer dining-room implements than you might expect: the extraordinary coronation nef (described as a “ship-form spice cellar,” it’s two feet high) of Joséphine (Napoleon’s nef has never left France), and an imposing confiturier, or jam dish, and a bronze wine cooler, along with the elaborate plates and cups and saucers. Not many examples of clothing: Napoleon’s purple robe and a few gentleman’s outfits, but mostly women’s Empire gowns. At the Museum of Fine Arts, some 200 of these items are handsomely deployed in the Gund Gallery, but the catalogue categories — “Emblems of the Revolution,” “Society After the Revolution and Simplicity of Forms Under the Empire,” “Military Victory,” “Imperial Emblems,” “Victory in Daily Life and the Guardians of the Regime,” “Dance and Nudity,” “The Swan,” “The Butterfly,” “Flowers,” and “Luxury” — seem arbitrary, and the MFA layout, which proceeds in the same way, doesn’t build to any statement.

03_Throneinside
THRONE (1805): The laurel wreath on the
pediment once enclosed the letter “N.”
The twin themes of Napoleon’s style are classicism and control. His Empire is heir to the Roman Empire, and so Empire art is peppered with gods and goddesses, and figures from mythology: Apollo and Daphne, Cupid and Psyche, Bacchus and Ariadne, Mars, Minerva, Diana, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Hebe, Jason and the Golden Fleece, the Muses, the Fates, Victory, Fame, Justice, Prudence, Charity. The forms of Empire objects (clocks being the conspicuous exception) are spare, direct, functional, the legacy of Rome but also of 18th-century Rationalism, and the Revolution, and Napoleon’s experience as a soldier. (He actually liked to sleep on his campaign bed.) Nothing is plush or overstuffed, as it might be in England; colors are bright but not warm, as they would be in Italy. Everything is ordered, even the wallpaper, whose patterns march straight up and down; there’s no sign of the Gothic-inspired Picturesque that was sweeping England in the first decade of the 19th-century. The chairs are visual poetry, but (apart from an 1809 paumier suitable for lounging) they don’t suggest they’d be comfortable to sit in. Everything is straight-faced; five humorous illustrations from the “Bon Genre” series (absent from the catalogue) seem to have wandered in from another show.

The seven women’s gowns (five have come to Boston) are remarkable for being so similar: cotton mull or muslin (there’s one silk), white (we also see brown), high-waisted, with a square or scooped neckline, short, puffy sleeves, and a long, gently flared skirt embroidered with flowers (in one case fruit). They’re classically inspired — one example being the magnificent gilded-bronze dancers on the flame-mahogany tea table from the Grand Trianon in Versailles — and flattering to many shapes, but not very individual: it’s women as Woman. (It would have been interesting to see what French Empire women wore in their hair.) Napoleon’s Empire is no less a man’s world than the Roman Empire was: a nation dedicated to the glory of France, and to its emperor, spreading its eagle wings in victory after victory. The letter “N” appears on his throne-room carpet (a mighty 25-by-25 feet), on his throne (later removed by Louis XVIII), on wall hangings, on andirons, on the chain of the Légion d’Honneur (the medal itself bore Napoleon’s likeness), even on Joséphine’s nef — a constant reminder of who that emperor was. The figure of Mars on his cuirass stamped him as the offspring of the god of war; the image of Jason and the Golden Fleece on a clock turned time back to the age when the ancients ranged far afield in search of plunder. (If Rome could invade England, why not France?) The Roman emperors had claimed to be gods; the Bourbon kings, like other European monarchs, had claimed the divine right of kings. Although Napoleon reached an accommodation with the Catholic Church, the religion of his Empire, as it would be of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, was patriotism. He ruled by the force of his personality, the Romantic hero of a Rationalist state.

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