Parisian style not in vogue

Napoleon and his Artists
August 29, 1997

When, in October 1789, the people of revolutionary Paris brought the royal family to the capital, they ignominiously ended the long association between the monarch and Versailles. Long before the modernisation of Paris carried out by Haussmann under Napoleon III, Bonaparte had clearly signalled his own intention to make Paris the centre of imperial power. Timothy Wilson-Smith makes the power shift from Versailles to Paris the organising principle of his well-illustrated book.

Napoleon also set out to make Paris a European cultural centre that would not only eclipse Versailles, but overshadow Rome itself. This was achieved firstly by centralising the plunder of conquest, the Rubens from Belgium, the Murillos from Spain, the Raphaels and Titians, the Laocoon and the Apollo Belvedere from Italy. All these were brought to the Louvre, which for the first time found its destiny as an art gallery. Paris was also to be transformed by a huge programme of public works dedicated to Napoleon's personal glory. There were new streets planned, bridges, churches, obelisks and fountains. The Tuileries palace and the Louvre were refurbished, the Madeleine church and the Bourse were both made to look like Roman temples, the Etoile and the Arc de Triomphe were begun. The architecture of the empire style was cold, monumental and bombastic. It combined the austerity of Greece, the grandiosity of ancient Rome and the exoticism of Egypt, as sphinxes, swans' heads, serpents and lion's feet captivated interior designers. Thus I.M. Pei's pyramid of the Louvre was a fitting acknowledgement of style empire. Many of Napoleon's designs for Paris were never realised, and others did not last. The palace of St Cloud, for example, like many others, was virtually destroyed in 1870-71, the last phase of the ongoing conflict between Paris and Versailles.

This theme is a redeeming feature of a book which leaves a lot to be desired. It is general history, written in a breezy style unencumbered by footnotes. Unfortunately, its political judgements teeter between cliche and sensationalism. The Directory, we learn, was an "effete regime", and in 1799, "France was swept along by a yearning for a new kind of hero''. Gracchus Babeuf, central figure of the Conspiracy of the Equals in 1796, "might have been the Pol Pot of the 18th century". This extraordinary verdict may be the orthodoxy at Eton College, where the author teaches, but for most students of the French revolution it will not do. Many teachers will want to keep this book away from undergraduates.

Wilson-Smith is on safer ground when he discusses the artisans and designers of the empire style. He is interesting on Percier and Fontaine, the inseparable duo who designed, among other things, the grand staircase of the Louvre, and on Vivant Denon, the director of the Louvre, whose main job was apparently to label the loot. The French revolution, the dispersal of the royal court and the aristocratic emigration had devastated the luxury trades. Napoleon revived them, giving work to skilled artisans, and encouraging the decorative arts. S vres porcelain, Gobelins tapestries and Savonnerie carpets all needed a court to survive, and the Napoleonic empire spawned several.

Much of Wilson-Smith's account reads like a fashion history of the period. It is as much about Josephine's intimate sphere and its furnishings as it is about Napoleon's tasteless public schemes. But I doubt if it really helps us to take society women seriously when Juliette Recamier is described as a "tease". In a rare translation lapse, Wilson-Smith also gives us Talleyrand of the "Foreign Office" - an invention worthy of John Le Carre.

In 1815, the empire collapsed, and the luxury trades with it, even if its artworks survived. The victorious allies gathered in Paris, and marched on the Louvre to bully Denon into returning stolen artworks. This was looting in reverse. The Prussians took paintings looted from Germany, plus a few others while they were at it. The Duke of Wellington went home with a very worthwhile collection. Denon, a minnow among sharks in this grab for artefacts, made sure he too had something to remember the empire by: a mass of drawings, Voltaire's tooth and Robespierre's death mask. We should be grateful to Wilson-Smith for briefly bringing him to life for us.

Martyn Lyons is associate professor of history and European Studies, University of New South Wales, Australia.

Napoleon and his Artists

Author - Timothy Wilson-Smith
ISBN - 0 09 476110 8
Publisher - Constable
Price - £25.00
Pages - 306

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