On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, a major figure in the history of France with a contrasting background, an imposing exhibition opened on Friday May 28 in Paris (until December 19, 2021), not eluding not the gray areas of the character and his balance sheet.
Two centuries after his death on May 5, 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte, the first emperor of the French at the start of the 19th century, aroused the most extreme feelings in both directions. If the military strategist impresses, the human toll of military campaigns is frightening. If his contribution to the building of republican institutions is recognized, certain measures to the detriment of women and blacks, and his authoritarian drift during his reign, moderate the enthusiasm. And his decision to reestablish slavery in 1802 did not pass. In short, two hundred years later, Napoleon I aroused more passions than ever before: he was admired or rejected, he fascinated or revolted. In this context, the mere fact of commemorating his disappearance at the age of 51, during his exile in Saint Helena, debated for months. Several cultural events nevertheless mark this anniversary, including this great Napoleon exhibition which opened on Friday May 28 in Paris, at the Grande Halle de la Villette, carefully prepared because it brings together precious works and pieces that forged the Napoleon myth. . An exhibition which speaks to us at the same time of the intimate man, the military chief, the political leader, without evading the darker sides of its record.
Jean-François Chalgrin (drawing) / François-Honoré Jacob-Desmalter (realization), Throne of the Emperor Napoleon 1st Bonaparte, 1804-1805 (Paris, Senate) (PASCAL SEGRETTE / RMN-GP / AGENCE PHOTO DE LA RMN-GP )
The imposing space of the Grande Halle lends itself perfectly to iconic figures from history. After Tutankhamun in 2019, it seemed the perfect place to host an exhibition on Napoleon and his monumental journey, as romantic as it is tragic. An exhibition tailored for the general public, both spectacular for the eyes and accessible for the mind.We have all remembered paintings since childhood (signed Jacques-Louis David, Antoine-Jean Gros, François Gérard … ) representing Napoleon on a beautiful horse, or in a beautiful soldier’s uniform, a red consul or emperor’s costume – almost! – Roman, charismatic, inaccessible … All these paintings – or almost – are gathered at the Grande Halle. They were painted to shape the legend of a man who, very early on, sensed the power of image, of communication. They are all highlights in the visitor’s journey through a didactic exhibition, designed chronologically, and which opens with a short film setting the historical context before launching the Napoleonic epic. history book, both annotated in his own hand, in the possession of the young officer Bonaparte, with the ultimate relics of the fate of the fallen Emperor Napoleon, some 150 works and pieces are presented. They are distributed in thematic spaces retracing the learning of the soldier, military campaigns such as Egypt, accession to power, the Empire then its decline, defeats, fall, exile, death. Regularly, under the texts presenting the works, comments and questions are addressed directly to children: the Napoleon exhibition is intended for the whole family.
In addition to the famous portraits of Napoleon, monumental paintings recall the scale of the great battles of the time, accompanied by a digital screen pointing to important details of the works. Likewise, military campaigns are presented on other screens retracing the movements and maneuvers of the armies. As for the coronation of Napoleon 1st in 1804, immortalized by the illustrious painting of David, it is reproduced in digital and giant format, several meters high, revealing details of the work and its process of elaboration by the painter.
Poupard, Paris, “Hat of the Emperor Napoleon I, said of the Russian campaign”, 1804-1811 (Paris, Musée de l’Armée) (CHRISTOPHE CHAVAN / RMN-GP / AGENCE PHOTO DE LA RMN-GP)
Iconic pieces are presented at the Grande Halle, such as swords, the first versions of the Legion of Honor (a creation of the First Consul Bonaparte), but also and above all legendary clothing: we observe that the famous black cocked hat and the gray frock coat have withstood the passage of time much better than the elegant red costume of Consul Bonaparte … Napoleon’s throne, usually kept in the Senate, is also on display at La Villette. films evoke the question of the reestablishment of slavery, but also the human toll of the military campaigns, the recruitment and the lives of the soldiers of the Grande Armée.
In addition to the military and political course, a large space evokes the private life of Napoleon, an integral part of his legend, and the splendours of the Empire. With a centerpiece: the splendid carriage that served for his marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria in 1810, exceptionally out of the Palace of Versailles. One can also contemplate the red coat of court of the Empress Josephine with its long train, and, more moving pieces, the cradle of the son of Napoleon, the king of Rome, baby clothes and toys.
Jean-Ernest-Auguste Getting (coachbuilder), Berline of the wedding procession of Napoleon I, known as “La Victoire”, around 1804 (Versailles, national museum of the châteaux of Versailles) (GÈRARD BLOT / RMN-GP / AGENCE PHOTO DE LA RMN- GP)
This more personal space houses short, fascinating thematic films on the Napoleonic regime and French society at that time: the treatment accorded to religions, to women (that doesn’t appeal!), The judicial system and the police. In a more sentimental angle, another video presents Lou Doillon reading letters from Napoleon to Joséphine.The Napoleon exhibition can be visited fairly quickly, and very freely: we are not inundated with data, works and pieces that are ‘would impose on our quickly saturated brain. But a lot of information is available, in very accessible and enjoyable video and multimedia formats. This is why this constitutes an excellent introduction for anyone who would later wish to explore this very particular period in the history of France and of Europe as a whole. la Villette, from May 28 to December 19 2021211, avenue Jean-Jaurès, Paris 19th An exhibition co-produced with the Réunion des Musées Nationaux – Grand Palais
REPLAY. “Napoleon Bonaparte is a part of us”, relive the speech of Emmanuel Macron during the commemoration of the bicentenary of the death of the emperor