Symbols of Power Brings to Life the Majesty of Napoleon and Josephine

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Symbols of Power Brings to Life the Majesty of Napoleon and Josephine
Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne, 1806, (Napoleon Enthroned), Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–67), Oil on canvas, 260 x 163 cm. Acquired during the August 1806 session of the Corps Législatif (now the Palais Bourbon); After the fall of the Empire, transferred to the Musée du Louvre (inc. 5420); loaned to the Hôtel des Invalides in 1832; transferred to the Musée historique de l’Armée (Musée de l’Armée from 1905) in 1897. Musée de l’Armée, Paris (inv. 4, Ea 89/1). Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

BOSTON, MA.- From his ornately carved gilded throne, Napoleon ruled much of early 19th -century Europe. One of his four surviving thrones, opulently upholstered in rich red velvet and accented with imperial emblems, is among the nearly 200 works of art—which include paintings, sculpture, costume, jewelry, silver, and furniture—to be featured in the upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), Symbols of Power: Napoleon and the Art of the Empire Style, 1800-1815. On view October 21, 2007, through January 27, 2008, in the MFA’s Gund Gallery, the exhibition is organized by the American Federation of Arts, New York, and Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Support for the exhibition is provided, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts. The television media sponsor is WCVB-TV 5. The national tour is made possible, in part, by the Joseph and Sylvia Slifka Foundation, Inc., and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. It also is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The exhibition will bring the grandeur of Napoleon’s empire and the splendor of his palaces at Fontainebleau, Versailles, Compiègne, and Saint-Cloud to Boston. Many of the works shown are masterpieces of the period and have never before been seen outside of France. A highlight of the exhibition, the monumental coronation painting Napoleon I on the Imperial Throne by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1806, 8 ½’ x 5 ¼’, Musée de l’Armée, Paris), shows Napoleon enrobed in ermine and velvet, crowned like Caesar, and holding the scepter and hand of justice of Charlemagne. It underscores the larger-than-life presence of the formidable French leader and military genius who promoted a new artistic style that allied his regime with those of the Roman imperial past and with the reign of Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800.

Objects made for Napoleon and his wife, Josephine, crowned emperor and empress in 1804, are a focal point of Symbols of Power. Their love affair is legendary, and made tangible by the inclusion in the exhibition of Empress Josephine’s Letter Box (1805-1810, Fondation Napoléon, Paris), a rootwood, ebony, and gilded bronze box that contained the many love letters sent to her by Napoleon. Also shown are the delicate gold-embroidered satin Slippers Worn by Empress Josephine at the Coronation (1804, Les Arts Décoratifs, Musée de la Mode et du Textile, Paris). As well, the emperor would have worn Napoleon’s Sword (1806, Musée National Château de Fontainebleau). Designed for use at official functions, it was made from gold, enamel, steel and tortoiseshell.

Napoleon came to power during the turbulent political climate of the late 18th century. [A few years earlier, American revolutionaries had won independence from the British Crown (1775-1783)]. In France, angry mobs had stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789, beginning a revolution and setting in motion 10 years of instability that peaked in the Reign of Terror (1793-94), during which King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette, and thousands of aristocrats were executed. Society was turned upside down in the name of liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, brotherhood), and France declared war on neighboring monarchies. Out of this tableau rose Napoleon Bonaparte, an ambitious and resourceful general who achieved political power as the First Consul in the Consulate government (1799-1804), then crowned himself emperor (1804-1814). With this regime came a bold new artistic style that celebrated the military power and grandeur of imperial France.

“As emperor, Napoleon allied himself with the great civilizations of the past, especially those of classical Rome and Greece and ancient Egypt, as a means of legitimizing his reign and creating an illusion of permanence, grandeur, and monumentality,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the Museum of Fine Arts. “This exhibition represents a rare opportunity to see many spectacular objects made for Napoleon and Josephine, which reflect the new French style that evolved from the austerity of the Revolution to the splendor of imperial France.”

Symbols of Power is the first comprehensive survey of the decorative arts of late 18th- and early 19th-century France and of the iconography pervasive in all the arts at the time. Many of the most important works of the Empire period will be displayed, representing virtually every visual medium: furniture, silver, porcelain, gilt bronzes, clocks, drawings, illustrated books, jewelry, costume, glass, sculpture, wallpapers, firearms, textiles and carpets, as well as paintings. A majority of these works reflect the influence of Charles Percier and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine, the official architects and designers of the Empire, who defined a new visual language glorifying the military and political power of the emperor.

The exhibition examines the artistic use of classical emblems of power—the Roman eagle, a symbol of imperial Rome and the god Jupiter; the laurel wreath, symbolizing victory; and Mars, Roman god of war—to underscore the military strength of France under Napoleon. Paintings such as Robert Jacques François Faust Lefèvre’s Portrait of Napoleon I in His Coronation Robes (1812, MFA, Boston) attest to the emperor’s dominant presence on the world stage. A steel and brass ceremonial breastplate, Napoleon’s Cuirass (ca. 1805, Musée Carnavalet, Paris), presented to the emperor by Parisian armorers in 1805, is decorated with an image of Mars intended to flatter him as a great military leader.

Napoleon appropriated symbols of power not only from antiquity, but also from France’s distant past in order to legitimize his reign and to glorify the new French empire. Often seen in his portraits are the hand of justice and the scepter, both part of Charlemagne’s imperial regalia and re-used for Napoleon’s coronation on December 2, 1804. The scepter, the baton of command and sign of sovereign authority, is mounted with a statuette of Charlemagne, the ancestor of the new political regime. Another pervasive emblem is the bee (an ancient symbol of immortality), which connected him to Childeric I, founder of the Merovingian dynasty in France. A magnificent example of the use of the bee is the Savonnerie Carpet from the Throne Room of the Tuileries Palace (1807-1809, 25 ½’ x 21’, Musée National des Châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau, Rueil-Malmaison), which depicts the emblems of the empire as well as the cipher “N.” Providing counterbalance to the masculine emblems favored by Napoleon is the feminine iconography seen in the decorative arts cherished by Josephine. The empress collected 10,000 rare and exotic trees, plants and flowers in the greenhouse and gardens at the château of Malmaison, the Bonapartes’ private residence near Paris. Botanical designs made from specimens in Josephine’s collection were used for the decoration of her porcelains, such as the two ice-cream coolers featured in Fourteen Pieces from the Service des Plantes de la Malmaison et les Liliacées (1802-1805, MFA, Boston), a dessert service with a different flower or plant decorating each piece that the Sèvres Manufactory created for her. The feminine iconography highlighted in the exhibition, including swans, butterflies, dance, the female nude, and flowers, served as metaphors for love and seduction. The Gondola Chair from Josephine Bonaparte’s Boudoir in Saint-Cloud (ca. 1802-1803, Musée National des Châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau, Rueil-Malmaison) is a striking example of one of Josephine’s favorite emblems—the swan—which serves as armrests on this elegant chair.

Symbols of Power offers a unique opportunity for museum-goers to see masterworks of the Napoleonic period brought together from a large number of museums and private collections. Approximately 80 percent of the works featured have been lent by French museums: the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Par

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