Paris, Institut Néerlandais, from October 10, 2007 to November 18, 2007
Louis Napoléon (1778-1846) reigned on the throne in Holland for only four years, acceeding in 1806 before the age of thirty. Stendhal, who experienced life during the Empire and included his impressions in his novels later, would say : “Nouvelle France, jeune France”.
About a hundred objects and images, paintings, drawings as well as engravings, arranged in a delicate staging at the Institut néerlandais succeed in evoking this brief but important reign, at once unfortunate and fruitful. The exhibition presents a large number of clocks with themes :The Horaces by David, Télémachusby Fénelon thus ironically reminding us that although the former Low-Countries ran on Parisian time, a new Caesar still set the clocks. In fact, Napoleon I appears on one of the timepieces. His elegantly pleated toga emphasizes the pose borrowed from Praxiteles and the helmet at his side immediately provides the meaning of the allegory. In return for making his brothers and sisters the new sovereigns of a French Europe, Napoleon expected authority and submission : authority over the people they were to “win over”, in his words, without “cajoling” them, also an expression of the times ;submission to his person and his grand vision. The thesis of Frédéric Masson who published his famous Napoléon et sa famille (Napoleon and his family) in 1897, today seems a bit short-sighted. According to the author French imperialism was above all an attempt to break the “napoléonides” (relatives) and satisfy their appetite to be princes or kings. This is the theory of the greedy clan, dear to Sacha Guitry, and which still has its followers….Looking back, it is now easy to see the ambiguities, the achievements and the failures of Napoleon’s European policy. The “large projet” that Las Cases mentions in his Mémorial is a result of French expansionism by the Republic under the Directoire, the period in which the French flag entered Dutch territory establishing the Batavian Republic, and with it the departure of the Duke of Orange. Ten years later, Napoleon decided to strengthen his power over the country and installed Louis. But the younger brother entered into direct conflict with the Emperor, who did not see eye to eye with him on how to impose imperial rule over local traditions and freedoms. After various clashes documented in the correspondence between the two brothers, Louis was called back to France in the summer of 1810. Three months earlier, Caesar had married Marie-Louise of Austria and thought perhaps for a fleeting instant he had at last become the master of Europe.
The idea of a “concentration” of different peoples under his inflexible scepter, more even than a consequence of the Revolution or of his conflict with England, was thus largely due to his lust for power. Seen from the elder’s viewpoint, Louis appears less concerned by personal glory than by his quest for political stability and good management. An assidous reader and writer, married to the beautiful Hortense, who the exhibition shows was a gifted writer and painter, the king of Holland had various castles lavishly decorated, in different cities and around the countryside. Convinced that he should work hand in hand with the people that had welcomed him, the furniture that Louis chose to surround him was not exclusively brought from Paris. Still, museum-goers will not be surprised to see works by Biennais, Jacob-Desmalter and other famous names from the French capital. The large chandeliers from the Royal Palace in Amsterdam are more rare, as is the magnificent City Hall transformed by the decoration of French bees. The show thus evokes this great decorative élan, including gardens and religious practices, and features also some masterpieces in painting, miniatures and sculpture : to mention just a few, Girodet – from whom Louis took drawing classes around 1801 on David’s recommendation – Gérard, Isabey, Laurent father and Cartellier. These names reflect the quality of the exhibition which also cannot help but remind us of the forgotten sources of the European Union, so out of grace at the moment.
Paul Rem and Georges Sanders, Louis-Napoléon. Premier roi de Hollande (1806-1810), Walburg Pers, 2007, 120 p., 20 €. ISBN : 978-90-5730-483-5.