Welcome to the Imperial Palace! The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) presents Napoleon – Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace, a major exhibition that re-creates the sumptuous ambiance of Napoleon’s court through the eyes of the Grand Officers and artists of the “Emperor’s Household.”
Over 400 art works and objects from the French palaces, most of them never before been displayed in North America, reveal the essential role played by the Imperial Household during Napoleon’s reign, from his coronation in 1804 to his exile in 1815.
Some fifty distinguished lenders have allowed us to bring together in Montreal works from such institutions as the Louvre, the Château de Fontainebleau, the Mobilier national, the Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
The public is invited to visit the six departments that made up the “Imperial Household”. The institution with its 3,500 employees was responsible for the daily lives and ceremonies of Napoleon and his family. By studying the leading figures of the court, we discover all the luxury and prestige of palace life. In order to ally himself with the old nobility and register his new dynasty as a continuation of the Ancien Régime, Napoleon dreamed up an etiquette hedged about with meticulous regulations.
An innovative layout re-creates the splendour of the apartments by incorporating mapping projections. Visitors will discover paintings, sculptures, furniture, silverware and porcelain, tapestries, silk hangings and court dress illustrating the opulence characteristic of the Empire style displayed to serve the spectacle of power.
Nathalie Bondil, the MMFA’s Director General and Chief Curator, explains: “Ten years after we received the bequest of the Ben Weider Napoleon Collection, what a long way we have come! Thanks to Sylvain Cordier, curator at the Museum and an expert on the First Empire, and the loyal support of Ben Weider’s family and friends, we have been able to expand the collection considerably and extend our knowledge of the contents: it now ranks as the largest in North America.
Above all, this project which we initiated having needed in-depth research on the part of our curator, it has benefited from outstanding loans from our partners. The unique subject required him to travel through the United States and to France. Welcome to the Imperial Household! This “state within a state” provided all the necessary services for Napoleon and his family, to assert his dynastic power and to adopt his policies, even the most secret among them. You are invited to discover the pomp of court life thanks to those who organized the most private spaces of the Emperor’s life even in his exile on Saint Helena. This exhibition, a tribute to Ben Weider, is an opportunity to reflect on the staging of monarchical power and the persistence of certain codes even up to today.”
Sylvain Cordier, Curator of Early Decorative Arts at the MMFA and the curator of the exhibition, continues: “The Napoleonic court was a fascinating crucible in which a skillfully orchestrated publicity defined the nature of the new dynasty. With its codes of representation and staging – some inherited from the all too recent Revolution, others reviving the memory of the former kings of France and the aristocratic manners of former times – it presented an exciting combination of the spirit of the Enlightenment and the values of the Ancien Régime.
Beyond the pleasure of discovering the splendour of palace life between 1804 and 1815, the exhibition constitutes a fascinating topic for our own age and its relevance to the image of contemporary governments. The influence of teams of advisors and political commentators and the staging of media events may seem to us part and parcel of the contemporary culture of the power of images. And yet, the functioning of the Imperial Household shows to what extent these were already current two hundred years ago!”
Follow the Grand Officers! Venturing into the Imperial Household
The exhibition is laid out according to the roles of the leading figures in the service of the Imperial family, which helped to shape the image of power. Grand Officers, chamberlains, equerries, master of ceremonies, ladies-in-waiting, pages, artists and artisans were all involved in composing the Imperial legend. Their origins, functions and everyday responsibilities fashioned the Emperor’s life. The exhibition follows the circuits of the courtiers as they moved through the living areas within the palace, the public staterooms that were open to visitors and also the private apartments strictly separated from the rest of the palace, where Napoleon shut himself off to conduct the business of government.
The Napoleon Collection of the MMFA
Some twenty of the works and objects presented in this exhibition are from the holdings of the MMFA. Some come from the large collection of objects bequeathed to the Museum by the collector and amateur historian Ben Weider: the recently restored Half-length Portrait of Napoleon in Court Robes (about 1805-1814), an oil on canvas from the studio of François Gérard; one of Napoleon’s cocked hats worn during the Russian campaign, about 1812; riding gloves and a shirt worn by the Emperor on Saint Helena. Visitors will remark an outstanding pair of spindle vases in Sèvres porcelain, Fire and Water (1806), acquired in 2017. Also from Sèvres, a tea service presented to Cardinal Fesch, Grand Chaplain of the Imperial Household, is one of the outstanding exhibits. Lastly, this collection contains a discovery, a sketch painted on canvas by Horace Vernet, Napoleon, on the Eve of the Battle of Borodino, Presenting to His Staff Officers the Portrait of the King of Rome Recently Painted by Gérard (1813).
The exhibition is organized and circulated by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), with the participation of the Château de Fontainebleau and the exceptional support from Mobilier national de France.
The exhibition was curated by Sylvain Cordier, Curator of Early Decorative Arts at the MMFA, under the direction de Nathalie Bondil, Director General and Chief Curator at the MMFA.
The exhibition layout was designed in collaboration with Architem and Graphics eMotion, under the direction of Sandra Gagné, head of Exhibition Production at the Museum.
Virginia Museum, Richmond (June 9 – September 3, 2018), Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (October 26, 2018 – March 3, 2019), and château de Fontainebleau, France (April 13 – July 15, 2019).
The exhibition is accompanied by a 352-page catalogue, published in French and English, by the Museum’s Publishing Department, and Hazan, Paris. Produced under the direction of Sylvain Cordier, the catalogue presents essays by preeminent specialists, curators and art historians including Jean-Pierre Samoyault, Charles-Éloi Vial, Christophe Beyeler, Anne Dion-Tenenbaum, Audrey Gay-Mazuel and Cyril Lécosse. The graphic design was created by Paprika (Montreal).
This exhibition was made possible thanks to the generous support of the National Bank, in collaboration with Metro, Tourisme Montréal, Graphics eMotion and Mosaïque Surface. The Museum acknowledges the vital contribution of Air Canada, the Angel Circle of the MMFA and its media partners: Bell, La Presse + and the Montreal Gazette. The educational area of this exhibition was designed in collaboration with the artist Laurent Craste and benefited from the valuable patronage of France and Raymond Royer in memory of Pierre Denis. The Museum extends its thanks to Quebec’s Ministère de la Culture et des Communications and the Conseil des arts de Montréal for their ongoing support. The Museum’s International Exhibition Programme receives financial support from the Exhibition Fund of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Foundation and the Paul G. Desmarais Fund. The Museum would also like to thank its Volunteer Guides for their essential contribution, as well as all its members and the many individuals, corporations and foundations ̶ in particular the Fondation de la Chenelière, directed by Michel de la Chenelière, and the Arte Musica Foundation, presided over by Pierre Bourgie ̶ for their generosity. We would also like to extend our gratitude to all those who, through their generous assistance, encouragement and support, made this exhibition and its scholarly publication possible.