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Napoleon’s Court is on Brilliant Display at VMFA

In the most recent of its collaborations with its sister museum in Montreal, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has brought the splendor of Napoleon Bonaparte’s court to Richmond in Napoleon: Power and Splendor.

The curator of early decorative arts at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Sylvain Cordier, says the exhibit catalogues the images chosen by a man who wanted his legacy to last. Think of it as Napoleon carefully curating the aesthetics of his brand, the same way many teens do with their Instagram accounts.

The exhibit is helpfully, but not constrictively, organized based on the various positions in Napoleon’s Court, from the Grand Master of the Hunt to the Grand Master of Ceremonies. Though the exhibit is advertised as an exploration of the emperor himself, it focuses just as much on the opulent offices that surrounded the emperor and the inhabitants of those offices. Fans of the Art Deco section of the VMFA will find the imperial furnishings especially interesting. One particularly striking room contains a full row of gilded place settings. The plaque clarifies that while Napoleon himself was not fond of state dinners, the imperial court still abided by the strictest of etiquette standards. We learned that next time we serve appetizers at a dinner, we’ll place them on porcelain instead of gold plates.

The exhibit is as enticing to history buffs as those appreciative of the decorative arts. The Emperor’s Image, the first room in this exhibition, explores the importance of establishing a visual brand for Napoleon and the newfangled means by which he governed. Symbols of our own revolution serve as evidence of the revolutionary nature of the Napoleonic Empire. I was initially baffled to see a flattering picture of George Washington, dressed in his military garb, on the walls of an exhibit about a most decidedly undemocratic regime. However, the secular, republican portraiture depicting American presidents obviously served as inspiration for Napoleon’s own depiction. The exhibit emphasizes the tension of the First Empire between obedience and individuality, republicanism, and totalitarianism.

With more than 200 works of art – many of which have never before been exhibited in the United States – plan to spend at least an hour exploring the galleries. Young kids should appreciate the visual experience, even if the history is lost on them. There are benches throughout the exhibit for rest breaks. Also, the time line at the end of the exhibit provides important context. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to take a look at it before you begin your exploration. Napoleon: Power and Splendor does more than provide a look into France’s first imperial court. It fashions an opulent lens through which to view world history. The art’s portrayal of what the Europeans knew of the Americas, Asia, and Africa is also enlightening, ensuring that the exhibit does not limit the visitor to the halls of Napoleon’s court.

Napoleon: Power and Splendor runs through September 3. For ticket information, VMFA members receive free and exclusive access to Napoleon: Power and Splendor. Exhibit visitors can apply the cost of their tickets to a VMFA membership.


A graduate of the University of Richmond, Sam lives and works in Richmond. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking in Virginia’s state parks, exploring Richmond’s arts and history scene, and spending time with her family.

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