Les jours de gloire

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  October 16, 2007

What’s missing from “Symbols of Power” is the most powerful symbol of all: Napoleon himself. We see him in coronation portraits by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Robert Lefèvre, a boyish face surrounded by symbols and subsumed in his robes. Was this the Napoleon that launched campaign after campaign? More likely it was Jacques-Louis David’s iconic 1801 painting of Napoleon Crossing the Alps on his first invasion of Northern Italy — he’s seated on a charger (white in the best-known version, but there were four others) that rears like the Lone Ranger’s Silver. Napoleon in fact crossed the Alps on a donkey, but David too knew how to use symbols and transform reality. So did Antoine-Jean Gros, whose Napoleon Visiting the Plague Victims at Jaffa (1804), which is in the show, puts a positive spin on the failure in Syria. Gros’s Napoleon at the Bridge of the Arcole (1801) and The Surrender of Madrid (1810) and David’s Napoleon in His Study (1812) depict the military leader who was able to return from Elba and take up where he’d left off the year before. After Waterloo, the British government had no choice but to exile him (execution of so popular a figure was out of the question) to St. Helena, thousands of miles away in the South Atlantic. The man lasted just another six years. The myth is still with us.

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