Pomp versus practicality
NEW ORLEANS — Two hundred years ago, the size of the United States doubled overnight when two starkly different men signed the Louisiana Purchase, a deal that paved the way for an expansive America.
To commemorate this bicentennial, the New Orleans Museum of Art is presenting "Jefferson's America & Napoleon's France." The exhibition, the largest in the museum's history, contrasts the lives of the two men responsible for engineering the unprecedented land deal, Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte. On view are more than 260 works of art, furniture, documents, ornate weaponry, jewelry, and native American objects from America and France in 1803 loaned by more than 100 museums and private lenders.
"Both Jefferson and Napoleon were preoccupied with how their visions of nation would be given concrete expression in art," says Gail Feigenbaum, the exhibition's curator. "The imperial grandeur of Napoleon's portraits next to the sober, republican portrayals of Jefferson drive home an unforgettable lesson in the power and eloquence of images."
Driven by dreams of westward expansion, in 1803 Jefferson sent an envoy to Paris to solicit Napoleon to sell the vital port city of New Orleans. After pondering the proposal, Napoleon countered with a more fantastic pitch. For $15 million, Napoleon would agree to sell all 900,000 square miles of the Louisiana Territory. Historians say he was motivated largely by the need to finance his vast European military ventures. Eventually, the territory would become all or part of 17 states.
Although the exhibition does juxtapose the lives of these great men, it does not try to judge the character of each man. For example, the exhibition only briefly touches on Jefferson's ownership of slaves and his alleged relationship with Sally Hemings.
What is clear from the exhibition is both men were immensely concerned with public image, and paid deliberate attention to the way they were represented in art. Jefferson sought to present himself as a man of the people. "When Jefferson was inaugurated president in 1801, the 'style' of the American republic was a contested issue," Feigenbaum says. "Jefferson pointedly rejected the pomp and elegance of his predecessor, John Adams, as too reminiscent of hated monarchy." Portraits of Jefferson portray strong images of reserved dignity with typical American informality, as if to eschew the showiness of European monarchs.
In Rembrandt Peale's "Portrait of Thomas Jefferson," the author of the Declaration of Independence is presented as a man of thought, dressed in leisurely attire. And in Gilbert Stuart's portrait, the president, shown sitting at a desk, is idealized as an exemplar of republican virtues and public service.
Napoleon, on the contrary, used art as propaganda in another way. He employed artisans to promote his legitimacy and military supremacy. Napoleon once declared, "The French love monarchy and all its trappings."
In Jacques-Louis David's legendary portrait, "Napoleon Crossing the Alps by the Great Bernard Pass," the commander is romantically depicted leading his men into the treacherous pass riding a bucking white stallion. In reality, he crossed the rocky pass on a mule.
When he assumed the throne, the portraits he commissioned evoked images associated with the emperor Charlemagne and Alexander the Great. In "Head of Napoleon as Emperor," David paints Napoleon crowned with a golden laurel wreath, his body garbed in ermine robes. "As his rule became more autocratic, he built and decorated on an increasingly lavish style," Feigenbaum notes.
Nowhere, however, is this stark contrast between the visual glories of Napoleon's France and the practical simplicity of Jefferson's America better manifested than in two chairs these leaders sat in while in power.
Napoleon's imperial ambitions are materialized in the form of a massive golden throne. Winged lions shoot out to form the chair's arms. Its back and seat cushions are upholstered in embroidered, plush red velvet. And the throne is topped by a colossal crown.
On the other hand, Jefferson's utilitarian chair would not seem out of place at a yard sale. This unusually tall easy chair has no ornate design features, and it stands stiff and awkward - akin to Jefferson, known for his unkempt hair and homely attire.
Three priceless documents that consummated the Louisiana Purchase are also displayed together for the first time.
Also on display are priceless possessions of Napoleon's wife, Josephine. She helped reinvigorate France's luxury industries, which had languished after the French Revolution. Her style became the rage from Stockholm to New York. Through gifts and unbridled spending, she acquired an unsurpassed collection of porcelain, glass, and silver that made her table among history's most beautiful.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the exhibition is the pair of "virtual windows" that peer into Jefferson's sparsely decorated Monticello library. In crisp, 3-D imagery, museumgoers can gaze into Jefferson's "essay in architecture," a place where he, ironically, retired to escape the gawks of trespassing tourists. "His home, Monticello, has become a symbol and icon of Jeffersonian ideals of beauty, science and learning," says Feigenbaum. With the aid of polarized glasses, exhibitiongoers can look into Jefferson's home.
"The virtual windows give visitors something they couldn't experience in New Orleans any other way," says E. John Bullard, one of the museum's directors.