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Early Modern Times – Napoleoniconography

Early Modern Times - Napoleoniconography

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Dear readers,

A current exhibition at the Design Museum in London devoted to the films of Stanley Kubrick features materials related to perhaps the greatest film Kubrick never made: a biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1969, a year after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick composed a screenplay covering the life of Napoleon from his birth in Corsica in 1769 to his death in St. Helena in 1821. Kubrick, like many other artists before him and since, was fascinated by this world-historical figure; but the aura surrounding le petit caporal was as much a product of the manipulation of Napoleon’s image as his military and political victories and failures. This 2000 article by Annie Jourdan on ‘Images de Napoléon’ describes him as an ‘imperator’ seeking legitimacy. Let us consider the major phases of Napoleoniconography during his dramatic career.

The French Revolution and the demise of the Ancien Régime hardly ended the cult of personality characteristic of the reign of Louis XIV and his successors. During the revolutionary period, portraits were created of the ‘fathers of the [new] nation’–though for monarchists, these paintings were portraitors to French traditions. By 1798-99, such artistic propaganda was used to glorify Napoleon as well. But initial illustrations of his Italian campaign depicted Bonaparte as an undistinguished general with a puppet-like face and somewhat amusing chubbiness. He appeared more reblobican or replumpican than republican.

Artists such as Andrea Appiani, Antoine-Jean Gros, Carle Vernet, Louis Albert Guislain Bacler d’Albe, Jean-Urbain Guérin, and of course Jacques-Louis David departed from such verisimilitude. As Vernet’s portrait (pictured above) illustrates, Bonaparte was now depicted as a mighty general with sabre, sometimes mounted on a white horse, and often with a nose like an eagle’s beak, a sharper face, pursed lips, and forceful chin. This image of a determined, visionary warrior made him out to be a Napo-lion of a man. Unsurprisingly, Bonaparte preferred such idealised versions of himself to a close resemblance: the self-styled ‘liberator’ of France was a flib-erator.

Once Napoleon became the First Consul of France in 1800, he adopted a new guise as supreme magistrate of the state. He took on a hairstyle resembling that of Roman emperors (known as coiffure à la Titus) or of the republican hero Junius Brutus. Napoleon’s image was refashioned into that of an austere legistlator and administrator, not just military leader. Instead of a dynamic hero, he presented himself (and was now depicted) as a great man emanating tranquillity and sublimity: a Bon-apart from other human beings.

In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France: a total reversal of the ideals of the Revolution. Artistic renderings of the Emperor were designed to legitimise this betrayal of republicanism. They represented him with ancient glory, dignity and nobility, firmness and gravity, and a sense of power and rightful sovereignty. Imperial portraits incorporated both republican imagery and references to the great monarchs of history: accordingly, Napoleon sought to occupy a Ceasarian section as a Charlemagnanimous Bourbonaparte destined to conquer Europe.

Napoleon’s hubris led to disastrous defeats in Russia, Leipzig, and Waterloo between 1812 and 1815. Similarly, Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleonic ambition to make a biopic of Bonaparte also came to naught. His intended production, which would have included use of French palatial interiors and spectacular battle-scenes drawing upon some 40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry from the Romanian army, was too gargantuan for the new owners of the film studio MGM (with which the director only had a pre-production agreement). Thus, the project fell Bon-apart and was dropped like a ton of Ku-bricks.

’til next week,

Simon Kow

Emperor, Early Modern Napoleontological Proof for the Existence of God Studies Program


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