For all of his military exploits as the great conqueror of modern times, Napoléon was equally astute as a cultural imperialist, bringing French art and industry to a new flowering that aimed to surpass the achievements of antiquity while serving to cement his power and advance his geopolitical ambitions. Drawn from the Chalençon Collection (Paris, France), perhaps the world’s foremost private collection of Napoléonic material, The Eye of Napoléon presents some 200 rare objects that together provide insight into Napoléon’s aesthetic interests, private life, and the remarkable achievement of French painters, draftsmen, and decorative artists working in the Empire Style.
The exhibition’s exceptional quality and range of materials and techniques demonstrates how Napoléon nurtured and harnessed the glories of French art and craftsmanship, always with a special understanding of how things would be interpreted out in the world. From the period’s most renowned artists—painters such as Antoine-Jean Gros and Jean-Baptiste Regnault, and sculptors Jean-Antoine Houdon and Antonio Canova—Napoléon commissioned signal works that imaged the pomp of his reign and diffused his likeness, while gesturing to the cultural authority of the antique. Recalling from his readings in history that every great ruler pervaded an era, Napoléon likewise sought to impress his mark on every domain of the decorative arts, exemplified in the exhibition through magnificent examples of Sèvres porcelain, jewellery and elaborate personal effects.
Also featuring personal items, including Napoléon’s hat, snuffbox and collapsible campaign bed, the exhibition affords us a glimpse of Napoléon the man and functions as an object lesson on how the things with which we surround ourselves define our public identity.