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MMFA's Napoleon show is a lavish tribute to a royal pretender

The exhibition in Montreal looks at the luxurious life of Napoleon Bonaparte, who flaunted his riches to make up for his lack of royal lineage. But it's a show that occasionally seems to fall for the emperor's conceit

Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau, Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835), sketch for the painting at the Salon of 1808, 1807, oil on canvas. Toledo Museum of Art, purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, gift of Edward Drummond Libbey.

One perennial problem faced by all big museums is what to do with the stuff people give you. It took the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts 10 years to figure out how best to present a 2008 bequest of items related to Napoleon – about as long as his reign as Emperor of the French.

The 39 items received a decade ago from Montreal fitness mogul Ben Weider and his family were the collection of a major Napoleon buff, who wrote several books about his hero. The MMFA's current exhibition uses one-third of those gifts, and nearly 400 other items, to show how the former servant of republican revolution created an aura of majesty for himself after taking the throne in 1804.

Napoleon: Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace shows how the new emperor used material splendour as an instrument of propaganda. He filled his three palaces with lavish furnishings, employed a liveried household staff of 3,500 and commissioned portraits of himself surrounded by symbols of kingship.

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Workshop of Baron Franois-Pascal-Simon Grard (1770-1837), Bust-length Portrait of Napoleon in Ceremonial Robes, about 1805-1814, oil on canvas. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Ben Weider Collection. Christine Guest/MMFA

He threw himself into the performance of majesty with surprising gusto, given how distasteful he found much of it to be. According to MMFA curator Sylvain Cordier, Napoleon disliked receptions and small talk, hated spending more than 15 minutes over a meal and felt "ill at ease" at his main palace, the Tuileries. He was a poor rider and a bad shot, but set up an extensive hunting establishment, because that's what kings did.

Even more surprising is how far he went beyond the norms of majestic display at other courts. By the end of the 18th century, European monarchs had mostly given up the kind of elaborate outfits worn by Louis XIV. They preferred plain frock coats and many of their courtiers wore military uniforms. Half the men at the English court dressed this way by the time Napoleon claimed his throne, according to historian Philip Mansel, author of Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II.

But rather than follow a trend that would have emphasized his military prowess, Napoleon reverted to Sun King magnificence. He became the greatest fop in the realm, loading his formal costumes with jewels, embroidery and feathers. According to Mansel, the emperor "wore more feathers in his hair than Marie Antoinette." He also fancied up his officer's uniforms, covering them with embroidery and gold braid.

Pierre-Antoine Bellang (1757-1827), Presentation armchair for the Grand Salon of the King of Rome's apartment at the Tuileries, intended for the Emperor and Empress, ca. 1804Ð15, gilded wood, silk. Paris, Mobilier national. Isabelle Bideau/Collection du Mobilier national

He became a magnet for luxury suppliers of all kinds. After the city of Lyon made him a present of a lavish court costume, Napoleon commissioned enough clothes and furnishings to revitalize the city's silk industry, following years of hard times during and after the Revolution. He did the same for the porcelain potteries of Sèvres.

Cordier and the MMFA emphasize how this excess served Napoleon politically, while inviting us to ogle the loot. Wandering through this show is sometimes like leafing through a magazine devoted to the homes of the rich and famous. Like many who come into great wealth, Napoleon overdid its display, in part to distract from one thing he couldn't buy: a royal lineage.

He appointed many aristocrats to his household staff and welcomed others to his court, some of whom left tart recollections of his pretensions and desire to impress. Riding to his wedding to an Austrian archduchess in 1810, in a gilded coach with windows on all sides, the emperor was "absorbed by the imposing spectacle's effect on the crowd," the Countess Potocka wrote in her memoirs.

Andrea Appiani (1754-1817), Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, in the Uniform of a General in the Army of Italy, 1801, oil on canvas. Montreal, private collection. Christine Guest/MMFA

A small coterie of court painters worked non-stop on official portraits, making multiple copies for other imperial residences or to be given as gifts. Napoleon often refused to sit for portraits, arguing that the point was not to capture his likeness but to exhibit his character and power. A workshop copy of François-Pascal-Simon Gérard's Bust-length Portrait of Napoleon in Coronation Robes shows how bland and idealized the results could be.

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Unfortunately, the show contains none of Jacques-Louis David's famous Napoleon portraits. It would have been interesting, in this context of pomp and luxury, to see David's 1812 full-length portrait of the emperor in his study, dressed in a colonel's uniform, after a night of labouring over his legal code. That painting is much more in tune with Napoleon's actual habits, and with the trend at other royal courts: to turn away from splendour and emphasize service.

The bulk of the exhibition consists of formal portraits of court officials; and of household items such as table services, court livery, furniture and ornamental vases. In a less focused setting, many museum-goers might not spend much time with such stuff. The Napoleonic frame makes it more interesting by association, or seemed to for most of the people there during my visit. It's harder to get excited about the curator's accounts of how this or that part of the emperor's household bureaucracy was organized.

Svres Imperial Manufactory, pair of ice pails with elephant-head handles, from the Greek iconography service given to cardinal Fesch in commemoration of the King of Rome's baptism, 1810Ð11, porcelain. Geneva, Collection Comte et Comtesse Charles-Andr Colonna Walewski. Thierry Genand

The show is good at detailing the republican nuances Napoleon's painters included in his portraits, but does little to position his court style in the broader European context. It glosses over the effects on the imperial household of Napoleon's long absences during military campaigns. It also offers no clue as to how the general population responded to his show of pomp and ceremony. Did they care, so long as he won on the battlefield?

His reign ended badly, of course, with exile to Saint Helena and a pathetic attempt to keep up appearances while in British captivity. A satirical British cartoon shows him receiving court visits from the island's rats. A modern parable for the former republican's adoption of royal pomp appears at the end of George Orwell's Animal Farm, when the rebellious animals put on the farmer's clothes.

Majestic pretension did not bring Napoleon's immediate heirs to his vacant throne. His brother Joseph, the former king of Spain, Naples and Sicily, went into exile in America. His only son, Napoléon François, portrayed as the infant King of Rome in one pseudo-religious portrait, died in exile in Austria at the age of 21. The son's unfulfilled life was dramatized in l'Aiglon , a 1936 opera by Arthur Honegger and Jacques Ibert, which was recorded by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra two years ago.

Henry Auguste (1759-1816), The EmperorÕs Grand Vermeil, pot oille and tray, 1789Ð1804, vermeil. Chteau de Fontainebleau, muse Napolon Ier (dpt du Mobilier national) RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY

When Bourbon rule was re-established, Cordier writes in the massive exhibition catalogue, "Louis XVIII moved in with [Napoleon's] Empire furniture, feeling quite at ease and unwilling to change anything but the emblems." Articles of silk-covered furniture commissioned by Napoleon continued to arrive – unintended house-warming gifts from a man who bet everything on a pan-European empire and lost.

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Napoleon: Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace continues at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until May 6, before travelling to two American museums and the Château de Fontainebleau in France.

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