Napoleon, the exhibition: the emperor and his time come back to life in Paris

It was heralded as the high point of the commemoration of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death: the large exhibition simply entitled “Napoleon” at the Grande Halle de la Villette. The blockbuster takes over the same place as “Tutankhamun” who, two years earlier, had broken all attendance records for an exhibition in France (1.42 million visitors). And fortunately, the result is up to expectations – which are all the more acute as the entry ticket is displayed at the prohibitive price of 20 euros. First, thanks to loans from the largest French institutions with historical testimonies of the Emperor: the Army museum, the museum of the Château de Fontainebleau, the Louvre, the museum of the castles of Malmaison and Bois-Préau, the museum of the Palace of Versailles… Paintings, objects, digital projections, digital devices in perfect complementarity.

Napoleon told to the general public

The choice of simplicity pays off. The route revolves around great eras in Napoleon’s life: the pupil, the soldier, the republic, the Emperor, the family and the Empresses, the European war campaigns, the fall and exile. A very general public approach, which will not exclude those who know Napoleon only by name, at the risk of frustrating the scholar – except for the very detailed presentation of the strategies deployed during the main battles. But he will certainly be sensitive to this extraordinary concentration of works and objects.

The Grande halle de la Villette hosts the Napoleon exhibition. Credit: Mathieu Nowak

David’s famous “Bonaparte, First Consul, crossing the Great St. Bernard” is there (on loan from Versailles), like the Emperor’s throne (from the Senate) the famous hat worn during the Russian campaign ( from the Army Museum), the so-called “coronation” sword (from Fontainebleau), the bivouac tent (from the Mobilier national), the sedan of the wedding procession of Napoleon (from Versailles), the court coat of the Empress Joséphine (from Malmaison and Bois-Préau), etc.

Tables explained in video

David’s “Coronation of Napoleon” is missing (in the Louvre): it is replaced by a monumental and animated projection which allows the details of the painting to be explored. And to unravel its secrets such as the representation of the Emperor’s mother, requested by the latter while she was absent from the ceremony or the painter’s self-portrait in a gallery. Several other paintings present also benefit from a clever video accompaniment: a small screen next to the works draws the eye to the details making it possible to decipher their composition, their meaning and their symbolism. Less successful, the yet rich and didactic explanations of the commissioners on different aspects of Napoleon’s life, curiously presented on pairs of screens, the sounds of which, despite a sound fountain process, overlap.

Neither glorification nor conviction

On arrival, the exhibition offers an extraordinarily documented educational introduction to the history of the emperor. A very factual approach, because the time has passed for the glorification of the sovereign. In the catalog, the historian Jean Tulard wonders: “From the bicentenary of Napoleon’s birth in 1969 to the bicentenary of his death in 2021, 52 years have passed (…) does the image of Napoleon come out of it altered? (…) Of course, discordant voices were heard, calling into question the image of the warrior and that of the author of the Civil Code, reducing the rights of women. The reestablishment of slavery in 1802 (…) interfered with the work of the legal expert, heir to the French Revolution. “ These points are mentioned in the same way as the others in the course. But again, without wanting to provoke a debate.

The Napoleon exhibition are snapshots of life, brought together like never before. What then nourishes the reflection of each one on the deep nature of the character.

Napoleon, the exhibition

Paris, Grande Halle de la Villlette, from May 28 to December 19, 2021.

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