“NAPOLEON: Power and Splendor” Exhibition

Mike and I were in Kansas City MO recently, visiting our son and some grandsons over a few days during which we celebrated our Golden Wedding Anniversary. While there we visited one of our favourite places, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where there is a marvellous exhibition, NAPOLEON Power and Splendor running until March 10th 2019. This sumptuous glimpse of the extravagant splendour of Napoleon’s court and understanding it’s continuing importance to all aspects of French Life today is really worth seeing if you are in the area.

A general view of one gallery with silver embroidered sage green jacket.

In the foreground of this general view of one of the galleries featuring elaborate tableware of candelabras, plates, cutlery and serving dishes in place settings along with some church or chapel altar pieces, stands a beautifully cut grey-green velvet jacket heavily embroidered with silver. According to the panel nearby it was the dress uniform of The Grand Master of The Hunt – to do obviously with management of all the horses and stables and featuring a lovely cut-away style. While I was standing marvelling at the elaborate embroidery and that the jacket was obviously worn but not worn out, one of the museum docents came along and remarked that she wasn’t certain whether this was beading or not. I could have said “Get your eyes tested lady!” but didn’t, instead nicely pointed out to her that this fabulous trim on the jacket was hand embroidered with silver thread, the textures resulting from different stitches, not beads – principally padded satin stitch and lots of couched threads and cords.

Uniforms identified which of the six Imperial Household departments the 3,500 staff members worked in: The Grand Equerry, Grand Master of The Hunt, Grand Chaplain, Grand Marshal of the Palace, Grand Master of Ceremonies and General Chamberlain. Wool tapestry weaving, production of silk fabrics and wallpaper, painting, particularly portraiture of the Emperor and his family plus the metal crafts, jewellery and furniture making are all represented in this fascinating insight into extravagant luxury that characterised the palaces and environment of Emperor’s court.

You know when you’re faced with a lot to take in, your brain sometimes seizes up and refuses to absorb any more! So it was with the couple of hours we spent at the museum. For a non-student of European history, there was a lot I needed to read and try to put in perspective as context to the incredible grandeur I was seeing. All the creative arts and design flourished anew under Bonaparte’s patronage as he sought to elevate his image from successful military campaigner, First Consul, to Emperor of France with extensive power over France, North America, Asia and North Africa. Having in effect restored the monarchy he aggrandised his own image as a succesful military campaigner (despite having had to retreat from The Battle of The Nile in Egypt) strong political leader, tireless administrator, military genius and even some level of semi-divinity with immense power, ultimately becoming Emperor, in effect a ruthless dictator. Architectural projects, household goods and equipment, jewellery and body ornaments plus other worn or held crowns, vessels and weapons symbolised his power. Textiles ranging from enormous tapestry weavings to curtains, upholstery, clothing and uniforms and equipment were lavishly ornamented by skilled craftsmen employing symbolic imagery lifted from ancient Greece and Rome plus others, such as bees, associated with very early French kings.

One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition is this beautiful chair, one of Napoleon’s many thrones in the imperial palaces. Upholstered in fabulous red velvet it has a touch of Egypt about it, in the style which came to be known as Empire. It’s in a gallery containing some huge tapestry hangings that had graced the reception rooms at Versailles. The colours of the galleries, in this case red – were stunning, adding so much to the feeling of opulence everywhere you looked.

Another gallery featured soft furnishings and various personal items owned and used by the imperial family. Apparently Napoleon maintained good dental hygiene, so his personal dentist, who travelled everywhere with him, never needed to use some of the handsome tools in the elaborately crafted set of dental tools exhibited. This may or may not be the actual set in the exhibition – but, if not, it is very like what I saw, and the text reads pretty much word for word what I read in that gallery – so I think it may be.

I don’t remember how many palaces the emperor had use of – you can google that! but below are some of the silk furnishing fabrics commissioned during his reign as apartments were refurbished. Gorgeous and no doubt important symbols are in these designs – you can see more Napoleonic symbol images here and, using the googler, explore around ’empire style’, ‘napoleonic’ and related terms come up with some wonderful antique furniture and objects from early to mid C19 France, United States and Regency England.

You and I probably share at least some love of textiles, which is why you’re reading this blog, right? And I hope you’re a regular! Through my long involvement in textiles I have learned a lot of history, but history was never my strong point at school, where the subject was taught by the school principal, Miss Margery Rooney. We adored her, but she was a very uninspiring teacher For most lessons, whe read aloud from the text book while we followed along, and just occasionally there was a change of activity as we copied notes from the blackboard. I hated her boring classes and opted out of history as soon as I could. In my late 20s, though, I realised what a shame it was this dreary teacher had killed ‘history’ as a subject for me. Though I’ve been making up for it over the past 50 years, my knowledge of European history in particular is still deficient in parts, of which I was very aware at this exhibition! While writing this account today, I found this link to the National Gallery of Victoria (Australia) setting out the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte in a way I found fairly easy and comfortable to wrap my mind around. And here’s a timeline site putting the Napoleonic period into context re textile fashions which I’ve bookmarked for the future.

In summary, we’ve all heard of Napoleon Bonaparte, but I’m sure I was not alone in not realising how much the world, not just France, owes to this extraordinary man. Apparently he was a total workaholic, excelled at devising systems to organise people and services, and slept perhaps 3 hours per night. From the NGV site’s interesting page of facts and figures one most striking to me is “The rule of Napoleon fostered numerous scientific discoveries, many related to warfare. The process of canning food was a product of the Napoleonic Wars and the search for a better means to preserve food for the troops.”  Napoleon was President of the French Academy of Sciences from 1801–1814. The more you learn the more you know there is to learn.

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