Featuring outstanding artworks from The Bowes Museum’s extensive permanent collection, The Allure of Napoleon offers an opportunity to learn more about the Museum founders’ (John and Joséphine Bowes) interest in the Emperor and the age he defined.
The show, which opens on Saturday 28 January, charts the emergence of the Napoleonic cult through paintings, prints, books and sculptures, and explores the fascination he generated on both sides of the Channel. It also kickstarts a series of exhibitions which celebrate, via the quality of its own collections, The Bowes Museum’s 125th anniversary in 2017.
Mixing the story of Napoleon’s meteoric rise and fall with his impact on the fine and decorative arts, the show is divided into five themes:
The Political Chameleon identifies the phases of Napoleon’s political career, from officer in the revolutionary armies to First Consul and eventually to an imperial crown. Prints, ceramics, sculptures and light-box reproductions of iconic works by Antoine-Jean Gros, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Jacque-Louis David reveal the many guises adopted by Napoleon on the path to power.
The Fall of a Titan traces the disintegration of Napoleon’s Empire through a number of rare prints - especially those purchased by John Bowes in Germany. From the disastrous invasion of Russia and the German Wars of Liberation, to imprisonment on Elba and the last-stand at Waterloo, this section traces the ruin of Napoleon’s ambitions. It concludes with a new presentation of the massive painting of Étienne-Jean Delécluze Augustus and Cinna, which was exhibited in 1814 and used Roman history to reflect upon treachery against the Emperor.
Luxury Reborn explores the impact of the First Empire in revamping a taste for luxury in the decorative arts. The Bowes Museum’s rich collection of porcelain, clocks, jewellery, textiles and miniatures offers an excellent showcase for the evolution of style in this period. Charles Percier’s design captures the splendour of a Napoleonic throne-room, while Louis Gauffier’s portrait sketches give a snapshot of fashion at the dawn of the nineteenth century. This section highlights the key role played by elite women as hostesses and patrons of taste.
A New Dynasty includes portraits and busts of the wider Napoleonic family, highlighting the complex emotional relationships between Napoleon, his mother, his siblings and his stepson Eugène de Beauharnais. In particular, The Bowes Museum has a fine collection of portraits by Flemish painter Franciscus Kinsoen of the Bonaparte dynasty.
A final section, The Napoleonic Legend, explores the attempt to revive the memory of Napoleon long after his death on St Helena in 1821. This includes nostalgic depictions of the soldiers of the Grande Armée, popular illustrated editions of his memoirs, and the recycling of Napoleonic motifs to legitimize the authoritarian regime created by his nephew in 1852, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. Living in Paris during the 1850s and 1860s, John and Joséphine Bowes appreciated that the story of Napoleon belonged not just to the past but to the present.
The Allure of Napoleon explores the fascination that Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) exerted on his subjects, and on his later foreign admirers, including John Bowes. The founders’ collection contains an exceptional range of artefacts relating to the First Empire, including portraits, prints, sculptural busts, furniture, porcelain, miniatures, books and autographs. These will be used in the show to document the rise and fall of Napoleon, from Corsican soldier to First Consul of France, from Emperor of Europe to exile in St Helena, and the glamour and fragility of the regime he created.
The exhibition will be complemented with period-display decoration, along with animated films, to bring this remarkable story to life. A series of talks will run throughout its duration, in which leading historians probe the iconography and legacies of Napoleon, and there will also be a workshop and recital of Napoleonic-era music. Gallery trails will also be employed to identify other key Napoleonic items in the Museum’s collection, such as the Anne-Louis Girodet portrait of the Emperor in coronation robes.