Napoleon’s Europe through the Lens of Art History – a survey of temporary exhibitions (1990-2011)

  • Abstract:
    As an essential figure of European history, Napoleon has been the subject in the last two decades of a wave of major historical exhibits organized by national museums across Europe in the context of the bi-centennial celebrations/commemorations of the major battles of the Napoleonic wars.
    The visual force of Napoleon’s place in European museums is largely the result of the way in which he orchestrated the diffusion of his own image – and his careful efforts to style his place in history through imagery – famously establishing himself as the successor of a prestigious genealogy of rulers that included Charlemagne. To this end he developed a cultural policy that supported a vast production of propagandistic history paintings and the development of an international artistic style that has since been considered in direct relation with his person and his Empire. The character of artistic production during Napoleonic era was recently defined in the 2010 exhibition Staging Power that took place in the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm. As stated in the introduction to this exhibit that compared Napoleon with Sweden’s Charles John and Russia’s Alexander I : “Art and power are like magnetic fields. They can attract each other, to form an inseparable whole, but they can also repel one another. At certain junctures in history, they have fused together with such force that entire societies have been remoulded.”
    Organized in cooperation with the St. Petersburg’s State Ermitage museum, its director clearly outlines its political significance in the preface of Staging Power “Two countries that for many years regarded each other as enemies have freed themselves from their firmly rooted stereotypes by seeking their shared history” . He goes on to underline that: “Our starting point is the role of art in these dramatic historical events, which finds concrete expression in the objects on display”, thus “the history narrated in this exhibition is fascinating, dramatic and beautiful.” The discourse of art history during Napoleonic Empire as expressed today in these exhibitions constitutes an excellent subject for a transnational study of the construction of a shared narrative of European history through the ambiguous role of art in political and diplomatic contexts.