The Artistic Legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte

BOTH adored and excoriated in his own time and through history, Napoleon Bonaparte was, like most people, a man of opposing traits. In ``War and Peace,'' Leo Tolstoy begins his first chapter with the remarks of a member of the Russian nobility, Anna Pavlovna Scherer, who calls the new French emperor the antichrist. That she did not even deign to give him his newly assumed title was not surprising, since France was then the enemy of Russia. She did not hesitate to brand him as a usurper and a murderer. Many of the French, uneasy and unhappy over the great power of this strange little Corsican, would secretly have agreed with her.

Napoleon's role as a military leader and empire builder is well documented in literature and history, but less familiar is the influence he exerted in the world of art. He seized treasure everywhere he could - as the spoils of war - notably the great horses of San Marco, which were eventually returned to Venice (though not to their earlier site, Constantinople). But the bulk of the art objects in France at this time were never returned to their owners. They had been appropriated during the French Revolution from French royal palaces, from the Roman Catholic Church, and from private collections. These were in storage at the Louvre and Versailles under the control of the government, which, fortunately, recognized that they really belonged to the nation.

It was under the aegis of Napoleon that the museum as we know it was born, organized, and fostered. The idea of a museum had certainly been envisioned earlier - as in Holland when a wealthy arts patron had left provisions in his will for his collection to be publicly viewed - but now the time had come for the widespread openings.

In a spirit of practical idealism, during those first cataclysmic years of the revolution, France set up 15 ``provincial museums,'' or ``miniature Louvres,'' filling them with the treasures at hand, which were mainly paintings. There was no lack of material, and no need to pay for it - that had been done through the centuries. An army of bureaucrats, inspired by the Enlightenment, now arose to handle the disbursement of the paintings.

IT is surprising that in the process of redistributing these priceless objects over so wide an area relatively little was damaged or misappropriated. Those in charge were animated by a genuine patriotic feeling that all this beauty belonged to the long-suffering people of France, who had always been deprived of their due. These people, it was believed, must now be educated to appreciate their heritage, to develop taste, to learn history. Inventories were drawn up and catalogs written, while attention was paid to conservation and preservation.

In that period the French entertained a wider concept of the term ``province'' - more like that of the Roman Empire - than the sense we have of the word today. Among the 15 sites selected for provincial museums were Milan, Mainz, and Geneva - because these cities had been incorporated into the Napoleonic empire, and it was hoped they would remain part of it forever. As Napoleon placed his relatives on many of the thrones of Europe, museums were also founded in distant capitals - the Prado in Madrid and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, for example. These new imperialists, in their wish to instill in their citizens a sense of taste and style, were in fact perpetuating elements that had distinguished the ancien regime, which they professed to detest. The new France had become the greatest possessor of artistic treasure since Rome had triumphed over Greece and Egypt, and from 1791 to the end of the century it had to regroup, transfer, and distribute a stream of valuables, a feat accomplished with success.

The city of Lille was a natural choice for one of the 15 provincial museums. Once part of the almost fabled kingdom of Burgundy, Lille was allied to the rich Flemish tradition, holding to its past as part of the southern Netherlands. It had been incorporated into France by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1668), by Louis XIV. Aware of the importance of this frontier city, wishing it to come over to France in spirit, Louis had given it handsome municipal buildings and monuments.

The pictures shown here are an indication of the diversity the Musee des Beaux Arts in Lille has achieved in the centuries since Napoleon's time. The striking oil painting ``The Letter'' by Francisco Goya (1746-1828) exemplifies not only his splendid virtuosity but also his propensity for caustic observation for society. In the foreground a beautiful woman, standing in full and brilliant light and holding the letter, commands the scene at first sight. At her side, but in shadow, is her dark duenna with a parasol. At first these two characters are almost all we see, till we perceive that behind and below them another drama is presented: a group of poor washerwomen, thin and desperate, avid. They are all part of the moral problem confronting Spain, which was in a condition of degradation and social collapse due to continuing wars and the greed of the governing classes. This had become so bad that in the end Goya left his own country and went to live in Bordeaux.

In his youth, Goya had painted a field with women washing in a brook, a lovely, laughing scene, and had also done a lady with a letter, a sweet and gentle figure. In ``The Letter,'' he combined these two scenes in a diametrically opposite mood, a piercing document of the times.

IN another painting from the museum at Lille, ``A Study of Cows, After Jacob Jordaens'' by Vincent van Gogh, we enter again an entirely different environment of development and inspiration. Van Gogh had a short life, only 10 years of which were given to painting, and in which he produced his amazing works. At points during this decade he was confined to mental homes, and in order to endure spent his time painting. Not accustomed to drawing upon his memory or imagination, he would then be obliged to copy prints, something of which he was ashamed. He justified it by explaining that he would base his work on another artist's, just as a musician composes variations on a theme, not realizing that he needed no defense. He could never have heard that the Chinese, for instance, considered copying an essential and admirable branch of painting, where each painter would express his own talents with subtle interpretations.

This wonderful picture of cows comes from a print by a rather obscure artist called Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, and which was, in turn, based on a famous painting of the same subject by Jacob Jordaens (1593-1687). The Dutch have traditionally been fond of painting cattle, and have done this with great eclat, their own low fields affording them a plethora of models. In Jordaens's time, nature study was a cultivated art, and pictures of flora and fauna were much admired. The Gachet print was therefore a stepping stone between Jordaens and van Gogh.

In all three of these studies, the field, the sky, and the position of the cows are roughly similar, but the results are as different as were the men themselves. Van Gogh's interpretation needs no discussion - it is a glorious tour de force, speaking for itself, lavish in its happiness and artistry, of so cheerful a tone that it sets everyone smiling.

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