Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Napoleon Exhibit at the Musee des Beaux Arts in Montreal

Napoleon, painted by Francois Gerard

He's short and stout, like a little tea pot. He wrote dirty letters to his wife that she shouldn't bathe until he got home. He hung out in Egypt for awhile, and controlled a major Empire in the wake of the French Revolution. Yes, the man of the moment is Napoleon. He, like many of the world's greatest leaders in history, attracts a following even now.

Right under our noses, Ben Weider amassed a collection of memorbillia and art related to Napoleon and the First Empire. Weider made a gift of his collection to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Starting October 23, 2008, the museum opened its new galleries to display this collection along with loaned and donated objects from other generous patrons. Furniture, clocks, clothing, enamels, bronzes, sculptures, painting, and works in other media make up the collection.

The exhibit is a delightful assemblage, well worth a visit. Personal effects bring Napoleon into close proximity to the visitor. I was especially struck by the cocked hat. This hat is one of the few authenticated hats worldwide, and was worn during Napoleon's failed Russian campaign. The hat is lined with silk, in order to protect Napoleon from the harsh winter weather, and adorned with a small tricolor cockade stitched on near the point. Its worn appearance coupled with its iconic familiarity is intimate and poignant.

No Napoleonic exhibit would be complete without some of the carefully tailored portraiture, the bread and butter of propaganda. Napoleon cuts a striking pose as First Consul in a painting by Andrea Appiani from Milan. Heroic, stately, attractive... Napoleon was something of a looker in the early days. However, the more familiar, more regal portraits are included as well, such as a bust length portrait of Napoleon in his coronation robes from the workshop of Baron Francois-Pascal-Simon Gerard in Rome. Napoleon liked the painting so much that he had multiple copies produced of this image and distributed them to foreign dignitaries and diplomats, as well as redone in prints, porcelains, and medallions. Complementing this official image is a neo-classical marble sculpture of the late Napoleon done by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen.

Overall, this exhibit does a fine job of bringing together grand pieces with more humble objects. Nothing is lost or overshadowed in the display. Montreal is lucky to have such a generous donor in Weider and he deserves a hearty Merci for offering his collection to the public. Perhaps others will follow his example in years to come.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
1380 Sherbrooke West
Guy-Concordia Metro, or buses along Sherbrooke
Permanent Collection is Free, Tuesday-Friday 11-17h; Sat/Sun 10-17 h

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