The Emperor’s New Clothes

In their preamble the Musée des beaux arts makes a point of explaining that the current blockbuster exhibition should be considered more for it’s subtitle: Napoléon Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace.  And indeed the focus is on the elaborate dress, art work, and accoutrements of Emperor of the French as Bonaparte was declared in a referendum which involved the participation of 3.6 million voters.  If tallies and Talleyrand are to believed 99% of those who went to the polls were in favour of crowning Napoléon Emperor.  And I would say that 99% of the exhibition is made up of objects surrounding the Emperor; however the last room looks at him in exile – first on Elba and then St Helena.  And more specifically a section looks at the glee with which his downfall was celebrated in Europe and particularly England.

The room is line with a remarkable collection of caricatures and satirical drawings many from the McGill University collection and many by English satirist James Gillray.  I recognized his style and a few of the drawings but had never put a name to either.  His pen was indeed dipped in acid no matter if his subject was French or English.

Gillray’s version of the Coronation on December 2, 1804 was quite different from but just as imaginative as David’s famous painting.  Needless to say it had a very “Anglo” spin to the event.

coronation_procession_of_Napoleone_the_1st_Emperor_of_France,_from_the_church_of_Notre-Dame_Decr_2d_1804_by_James_GillrayThe Imperial procession wends its way out of Notre Dame through a phalanx of banner totting guards.  Overhead a banner proclaims ‘Redeunt Satania regna, Iam nova progenies cœlo demittitur alto!’ (The Kingdom of Satan returns, already a new generation has appeared on high.)  Not an anthem or antiphon that would have been sung during Paisello’s monumental coronation mass.


procession-1The procession is lead by ‘His Imperial Highness Prince Louis Buonaparte Marbœuf’ (a delicate hint that perhaps Carlo Bonaparte had worn horns), ‘High Constable of the Empire,’ very theatrically dressed and carrying a drum-major’s staff. Behind him gambol ‘The Three Imperial Graces, viz. their Imp. High. Princess Borghese, Princess Louis (cher amie of ye Emperor) & Princess Joseph Bonaparte.’ Pauline Borghese was Napoleon’s sister; Hortense was Josephine’s daughter who was married to Napoleon’s brother Louis; Julie Clary was married to Joseph Bonaparte who was having a disagreement with his brother and did not attend the coronation.  Napoleon’s mother sided with her older son and was also absent.

procession-2After them comes ‘Madame Talleyrand (ci-devant Mrs. Halhead the Prophetess*),’ a stout woman, who is ‘Conducting the Heir Apparent** in ye Path of Glory’ – and a most precocious little imp it looks. After them hobbles ‘Talleyrand Perigord, Prime Minister and King at Arms, bearing the Emperor’s Genealogy,’ which begins with ‘Buone Butcher,’ goes on with ‘Bonny Cuckold,’ till it reaches the apex of ‘Boney Emperor.’

* An obscure reference possibly to Joanna Southcott who purported to be a Prophetess and pregnant at the age of 64 with the new Messiah. **Napoléon Charles was the Emperor’s nephew and Josephine’s grand-son – he was in line for the throne but was only three at the time of the Coronation.  He died two years later.

procession-3Pope Pius VII. follows, and leading him by St Peter’s Keys is ‘his old Faithful Friend’ the devil disguised as an acolyte.  Cardinal Fesch (Napoleon’s uncle) sends up clouds of incense filled with the praise of the great unwashed and uninformed: ‘Les Addresses des Municipalités de Paris – Les Adorations des Badauds – Les Hommages des Canailles – Les Admirations des Fous – Les Congratulations des Grenouilles – Les Humilités des Poltrons.’

procession-4Then comes the central figures of the pageant, ‘His Imperial Majesty Napoleone ye 1st and the Empress Josephine,’ the former scowling ferociously, the latter looking blowsy, and fearfully stout.  As we know the Empress was neither and was considered one of the beauties of the age.

procession-5Three harridans, ‘ci-devant Poissardes,’ (formerly fishwives) support Josephine’s train, whilst that of Napoleon is borne by a Spanish don, an Austrian hussar, and a Dutchman, whose tattered breeches testify to his poverty. These are styled ‘Puissant Continental Powers – Train Bearers to the Emperor.’

procession-6Following them come ‘Berthier, Bernadotte, Angerou, and all the brave Train of Republican Generals …’ but they are handcuffed, and their faces display, unmistakably, their scorn for their old comrade.

procession-7Behind them poses a short corpulent figure, ‘Senator Fouché, Intendant General of ye Police, bearing the Sword of Justice.’ But not content with that weapon Fouché grasps an assassin’s dagger.  Both it and the sword are soaked in blood.  The rear of the procession is brought up by a ‘Garde d’Honneur,’: a jailer with the keys of the Temple Prison and a set of fetters; a spy with his report, ‘Espionnage de Paris;’ Monsieur de Paris, the executioner, bears a coil of rope with a noose, and a banner with a representation of the guillotine – and a prisoner, holding aloft two bottles respectively labelled Arsenic and Opium.

But as well as the satirical jabs at the fallen Napoléon there is one object that dominates the room and has with it an air of melancholy: a large wooden bird cage.  In 1819 Henri-Gratien Bertrand, who had accompanied Napoleon into exile, designed a large birdcage for the gardens of Longwood House. Several Chinese carpenters, who were tasked with making the constant repairs to the poor-constructed house, built the cage and stocked it with doves and pheasants.


Though initially Napoléon was pleased with it he eventually released all the birds.  As he did he is said to have remarked that St Helena didn’t need any more prisoners.

On this day in 1922: The first segment of the Imperial Wireless Chain providing wireless telegraphy between Leafield in Oxfordshire and Cairo comes into operation.

One Island for Another

A week or two ago I spent a few days in Montreal seeing old friends, wandering around town, eating well (mostly at friends’ homes – damn I know a lot of good cooks!), cashing in on a few sales, checking out the wineries in the Eastern Townships, attending a friend’s vernissage, and catching the latest blockbuster exhibition at the Musée des beaux-arts.

There was no way I could capture the textures and the play of colour and light from various angles in this painting by our friend Don Andrus.  When I win the lottery …..

A few observations:

  • So many of the places I knew from my time living at Peel and Sherbrooke are now gone – buildings and businesses.  But that is to be expected as it is well over twenty years since I left.
  • It seems that every highway into and out of town is being torn up and a few of the main streets downtown too. St-Catherine is a shambles and Place Ville Marie looks like a disaster site.
  • There is still a certain politesse that is observed particularly on the Metro – I saw people – particularly young people – getting up to offer seats to families with children and the elderly.  I put myself in the later category as at least once on every ride I was offered a seat – I prefer to stand so I politely declined.
  • Even in the last stages of winter the Eastern Townships are lovely for a day drive. I hadn’t realized there were vineyards and wineries in the region and tastings proved that they were of a more than acceptable quality.
  • I picked up two bottles of Le part des anges at Vignoble de l’Orpailleur: an exceptionally good wine that pairs well with scallops, strong charcuteriepart_des_angess, nut pastries, and blue cheeses (I love blue cheeses).  It will be tested at home very soon.  The grape must has gold brandy added to it and rather unusually is stored in glass Demijohns ranged along the outside cornices of the vineyard were it is exposed to “24 seasons” which I assume means six years.
  • La Brassiere in Dunham cooks a burger (local beef) to perfection – just a touch of pink not the dried up hockey pucks that often pass for burgers there days.  And they make a very nice blond ale too!
  • Simon’s is a great department store even if it has lost that family atmosphere of the original store in Quebec City. When I couldn’t find something the sales lady assured me that though they didn’t carry the item she was sure I would find it at the Bay. Shades of Thelma Ritter in Miracle on 34th Street.
  • St-ViateurSt Viateur still makes what I consider the best bagels in the world – though I’m sure there are those who would want to discuss that with me. Sadly I could only fit a half dozen in my carry-on.  They disappeared with great quantities of butter and cream cheese over three breakfasts back home.
    • Napoleon – Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace is a remarkable exhibition and the design staff at the Musée des beaux arts have not lost their sense of style and panache. However whoever made the choice to use a light gray type on a dark gray background for the labels should be shot – in the display lighting they were difficult to read. At first I thought it was me being a cranky old man but several people have confirmed that they found them a challenge.


  • And since I’m bitching I do wish they had timed entry for the exhibition. The crowds on a Friday afternoon made it almost impossible to spend any time examining the displays or in some cases getting close to them.


  • Our friend Don Andrus had a very successful vernissage at the intriguing Gallery VU in Verdun – an area that is on the verge of gentrification. I already own two of his works – lovely birthday gifts from Don and his wife – and if I had a spare bit of cash there was one that would have made its way from the gallery to our walls.

I had not been off the Island in over 18 months and I confess that the first day I was in the downtown area I was just a bit overwhelmed.  Hopefully I wasn’t wandering around sporting an open mouthed gawk at the tall buildings and crowds of people.  Though as my friends Linda and Yves remarked I had really only traded one island for another.

On this day in 1911:The Mona Lisa is stolen by Vincenzo Perugia, a Louvre employee. 

The Colours of Music

Marc Chagall – a master of turning music into colour.

chagallUnlike Edith Piaf I do have regrets – but much like Frank Sinatra’s they really are too few to mention.  However (you knew there would be a however didn’t you?) one of the few is not buying that lithograph by Marc Chagall (right) that sat in the window of the gallery downstairs from our office on Bloor St back in the late 1970s. It was a toss up between it and a sage-coloured Dodge Dart and someone, very wisely,  advised that it would be difficult to drive the Chagall to work.  Mind you as an investment the Dart was definitely on the short term.

My love affair with Chagall began when I read about the ceiling he was painting to replace the original Jules Lenepveu 19th century allegory of The Muses and the Hours of the Day and Night at the Palais Garnier.  The story goes that in 1960, while attending a gala performance of the ballet  Daphnis et Chloe designed by Chagall, a bored André Malraux looked up at Lenepveu’s academic work and hit upon the idea of having the riot of colour he saw on stage transferred to the Opéra ceiling.  De Gaulle’s minister of culture was use to getting what he wanted and despite the general outcry commissioned Chagall to design a replacement.

Rolling your mouse over the image will contrast the Lenepveu and the Chagall ceilings.

Even Chagall himself was leery of the commission and was subject to much criticism in the press and throughout the French art world.   A few compromises were made – rather than destroying Lenepveu’s canvas Chagall’s work was created on removable panels that were stretched below it.  Nevertheless passions ran high and French Nationalism and Antisemitism reared their very ugly heads.  In an interview the painter said:  They really had it in for me… It is amazing the way the French resent foreigners. You live here most of your life. You become a naturalized French citizen… work for nothing decorating their cathedrals, and still they despise you. You are not one of them.

“Who am I? I am neither Michelangelo, nor Mozart, nor Haydn, nor Goya, but just someone called Chagall from Vitebsk.” – Marc Chagall

Chagall was forced to produce the work at a secret workshop in the Gobelins neighbourhood and the canvases were assembled in Meudon under military protection.  When it was unveiled in September of 1964 it made the international news and it was then I read about it.  My fascination with all things Chagall and the desire to own a piece of his work had began.

Marc Chagall expresses his well-known love for Mozart and his intentions for the Met production.

In 1966 the Metropolitan Opera moved from it’s famous – or infamous depending on your point of view – home at the Yellow Brick Brewery to the glitteringly modern Lincoln Centre.  General Manager Rudolf Bing was an old friend of Chagall’s and asked him to design the two murals that can be seen through the enormous glass facade and a new production (one of a record nine that season) of Die Zauberflöte.  Chagall created over a 100 costume, masks and set designs for Mozart’s magic singspiel.  He was to paint many of the drops himself and in an article in Vogue magazine it has been suggested that Valentina (Vava) Brodsky, his wife, may have overseen the construction of the costumes.  Though the cast and direction were amongst the best in the operatic world at the time  – Lucia Popp, Pilar Lorengar, Nicolai Gedda, Herman Prey and Jerome Hines conducted by Josef Krips under the direction of Gunther Rennert – it was Chagall and Mozart’s night. More than one reviewer and many in the audience felt it was a very personal Zauberflöte that gloriously reflected the painter’s viewpoint on the opera and his often expressed love of Mozart.  And that didn’t sit well with everyone – some felt that it left no room for the audience to form their own personal feelings. And perhaps that is another one of my regrets – that I never had the chance to see the production, which was used until 1991 when it was replaced by painter David Hockney’s designs, and form my own opinion .

However it looks like I may get a chance to see at least a handful of the costumes and many of the set designs that Chagall created for one of my favourite operas. The Musée des beaux arts de Montréal has recently opened Chagall: Colour and Music. A major exhibition it examines the profound influence of music on Chagall’s work and his creations for the stage – theatre, ballet and opera.  It follows his work from the State Jewish Chamber Theatre (though in reproduction only as the originals from the Tretyakov Gallery were entangled in legal paperwork) through his stage work in Mexico, New York and Europe.  It ends with video close-up views of that now much loved ceiling of the Palais Garnier.  Several friends have assured me that it is more than “vaut le voyage“.

A left click will take you to the MBAM website and further details and photographs of the exhibition.

From the sounds (and looks) of it this I should not let this be added to my “few regrets”.

On this day in 1954:  The first mass inoculation of children against polio with the Salk vaccine begins in Pittsburgh.

Exhibition Hopping – Part II

Fabulous Fabergé, Jeweller to the Czars – Musee de Beaux-Arts de Montreal  

As I mentioned in a previous post this exhibition, which ends October 5, is a marvel on several levels.  The objects – most from the Lillian Thomas Pratt Collection in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts – are remarkable in both imagination, design and workmanship.  And Hubert Le Gall’s exhibition design is an ingenuous, imaginative and witty evocation of the bibelots and kickshaw of Imperial Russia that doesn’t ignore the darker side of history.

The first room reflects the strong Orthodox believes of Russia and her Imperial Family. Traditional Easter eggs are on display, But what Easter eggs: suspended or cupped miniatures made from or encrusted with gemstones from the semiprecious to diamonds. A golden iconostasis-like wall houses icons, precious both for their religious significance and the artistry in their creation.

This miniature Easter egg pendent is only one of a glorious series in the first room of the exhibition. It was created in the Fabergé workrooms around 1900 using enamel with gold accents.

The Iverskaya Mother of God was particularly venerated in Russia and many legends grew up around the healing powers of the icon. The Virgin has a scar on her cheek inflicted by a soldier sent to destroy the original icon. The Fabergé setting for this copy is mounted on silver gilt and accented withe silver, garnets, sapphires, topaz, zircon, diamonds and pearls.

Citrine, gold, silver, enamel and a circle of diamonds create this extraordinary egg pendant from the Fabergé workshop.

The shadows of the second room evokes the symbols and history of the Romanov dynasty. The cases hold personal items that were meant for everyday use but still intended to show the wealth and standing of the Imperial court. Designer Hubert Le Gall’s concept captured many of the contrasting aspects of Fabergé’s relationship with the Imperial Family and the beau monde of the period.

Today Fabergé is chiefly thought of as the maker of the elaborate Easter Eggs that were presented by the Csar to his wife each Easter from 1885 until 1917.  It was a tradition began by Alexander III who presented Maria Feodorovna with the Imperial Hen Egg in 1885.  After his father’s death Nicholas II  continued the custom and every Easter presented one to his wife Alexandra as well as to his mother the Dowager Empress.  Of the fifty-two Imperial Eggs created by the Fabergé workshop five are in the Lillian Thomas Pratt collection.  Each of the exhibition rooms features one of the five; the most elaborate being the Peter the Great that is displayed in the second room.

The Imperial Peter the Great Easter Egg was presented to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna by Czar Nicholas II in 1903. It was created to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the founding of Saint Petersburg. Workmaster Mikhail Perkhin used gold, platinum, silver gilt, diamonds, rubies, enamel, watercolour, ivory, rock crystal, gilt bronze and sapphires in its creation.

The Egg features watercolour portraits of Peter the Great and Tzar Nicolas II and of the first wooden structure built in Saint Petersburg and the Hermitage – all surrounded by elaborate (and perhaps subconscious) reminders that the city was built on a swamp. When opened a miniature of Falconet’s The Bronze Horseman raises out of the shell – the Thunder Stone is carved from an unfinished sapphire.

The story of how Lillian Thomas Pratt came to acquire this  treasure has become legend and as with many legends it’s a bit difficult to separate the truth from the elaboration.  The story was that she outbid many richer women and then proceeded to pay for it clandestinely out of her household money so her husband wouldn’t find out is colourful if apocryphal.  Mrs Pratt’s wealth was modest when compared with many of the other collectors but her husband John Lee Pratt  supported her passion for Fabergé and Russian objects.  She did indeed outbid several people for the Egg and paid À la Vieille Russie the $108,534.00 it cost in thirty-three monthly installments.  I’m not sure if – as another version has it – she paid for many of her purchases using her Lord and Taylor’s credit card but it is highly possible.

This attractive hare in silver and gold with garnet eyes is a pitcher created in the Fabergé Moscow workshop sometime before 1899.

These remarkable parasol handles were the work of two of Fabergé’s renowned workmasters: Mikhail Perkhin (left) and Erik Kollin (right).

Many households would display sets of demitasse spoons bearing the hallmark of Fabergé; this set in silver, silver gilt and enamel were made between 1908-1917.

I found the silver and gold Kovsh of the Worthy Knights even more remarkable than the Imperial Easter Eggs. The enormous drinking vessel honoured the bogatyri or mythical medieval warriors who founded the first empire of the Csars.

Though the Imperial Easter Eggs may be the most famous pieces it should not be forgotten that Fabergé created all manner of objects – practical and ornamental.  Many of the pieces that came out of his workshop on Bolshaia Morskaia were available to even people with modest incomes.  And the House was famous for its enamels and silverware as well as its work in precious and semi-precious stones.

Meant to reflect the Faberge workrooms the curved tables – modeled on the worktables at the studio – allowed a closer look at some of the trifles created to amuse and astound the Court and impress visitors. A few of the items are from other jewellers but reflect the influence of Carl Fabergé‘s workshop on the art of jewellry making throughout Europe.

What can I say – even if the Romanov’s sometimes when over the top with blinge they had good taste in dogs.  Many of the little knickknacks created for them and their family indicate that the dachshund was a favoured family animal.

This French bell pull was created in the Cartier studios around 1915; crafted in silver, gold, silver gilt, ivory, smoky quartz, enamel, rubies, garnets and pearls it shows the Fabergé influence at work in France.

Made of smokey agate with ruby eyes this little fellow is said to have graced a mantel in the apartments of the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in the Antichkov Palace.

Nose to the ground, tracking a prey this little dachshund is crafted in agate again the eyes being inset rubies. The exact provenance is unknown as the object is unmarked. Despite his questionable pedigree he’s still a very attractive little lad.


The fourth room is the darkest on many levels – it is crowded with memories of the Romanov family: framed portraits, the Red Cross Egg and personal items.  And lurking in the background is the unrest, the poverty, the vast inequalities of life in Csarist Russia.

The Imperial Red Cross Easter Egg was given to the Dowager Empress in 1915 in recognition of her work as president of the Russian Red Cross. It contained portraits of members of her family who served in the Red Cross tending the War wounded and dying in the hospital established by the Empress in the Alexander Palace.

Workmaster Mikhail Perkhin‘s created numerous frames for the Imperial photographs. This star frame in gold, silver, enamel and seed pearls holds a portrait of the second daughter, the Grand Duchess Tatiana. It was taken by the Csar and Empress to Yekaterinburg and is the only thing that is known to have survived the events of 1918.

It has a rather chilling effect after all the light and sparkle of the geegawgery of the previous displays.  However it puts a personal face on the people for who much of these extravagances were created.  It gives the impression of a family that for all their faults and foibles cared for each other.  And it leads to final Fabergé piece in the exhibition: the Star Frame.  This is the only object taken into exile by Nicolas and Alexandra that is known to have survived.

The room in the basement of the Ipatiev House where the Imperial Family was ruthlessly butchered on July 17, 1918. It had become a clandestine pilgrimage site so was demolished in 1977. In July 2003 the Church on the Blood was consecrated on the site.

As you leave the exhibition there is one final image: the room where the family was assassinated in Yekaterinburg. History records that the jewels hidden in the corsets of the Empress and Grand Duchesses acted as body armour with bullets ricocheting but not penetrating; in the end the death squad used bayonets and gun butts.  It is not known as fact but can be assumed that some of the jewellery that prolonged their death agonies came from the workshops of Carl Fabergé.

Many of the photographs I have used in this post come from the catalogue for Fabulous Fabergé, Jeweller to the Czars published by the MBAM and VMFA and from the MBAM members publications.  I suggest looking at their website for more objects and fascinating information on the exhibition.  I am only sorry I wasn’t able to get down for a second look – I know I missed things the first time around.

September 27 – 1777: Lancaster, Pennsylvania is the capital of the United States, for one day.

Lunedi Lunacy

With the Fabulous Fabergé, Jeweller to the Czars exhibition le Musée de Beaux-Arts de Montréal has another winner on it’s hands. Coming on the heels of the Chihuly last summer and the  Splendore a Venezia this past winter they’ve come up three for three for intriguing subjects and inspired display designs.

Designs by Hubert Le Gall for the Fabergé exhibition at le Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal. 
A subtle progression from Tzarist mysticism to mortality as traced in the work of Carl Fabergé.

The installation for the Fabergé is the work of French designer and sculptor Hubert Le Gall.  His design is a subtle progression from liturgical mystery to rooms reflecting the glint of Imperial jewels to an unsettling sense of the coming fall of the Romanov dynasty.  It’s a brilliant piece of work by a master artist.

Le Gall is known for his decor for a series of high profile exhibitions and for his unusual furniture designs.  And it seems only fitting that the Museum Shop include a few of his inspired – and dare I say marevelously lunatic – pieces amongst the fake Fabergé eggs that will be adorning the homes of many a Montreal matron in the coming months.

I’d be delighted to have these two rather antic rabbits pulled out of a hat at my dinner table.

And I’d be tempted to play Jonah to this whale of a chair.
With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
Give a dog a bone;

Or in Le Gall’s case a bass lamp?

And finally a little quiz.

Would anyone like to guess what this is?  Yes I knew it’s a doggie butt but I mean what useful purpose would it serve in your home decor!

Answer will appear later this week but meanwhile take a guess in the comments.

August 11 – 1942: Actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil receive a patent for a Frequency-hopping spread spectrum communication system that later became the basis for modern technologies in wireless telephones and Wi-Fi.