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.

Quote … Unquote

While paging through the Guardian today – I guess that’s what you call it when you read a newspaper on the Internet – I came across an interactive article (see link below) on a painting that is being sold in England by its present owner, Lord St ­Oswald. The National Trust and the Art Fund are trying to raise the needed £2.7m to keep The Procession to Calvary by Pieter Bruegel the younger in the country. In the article there was a quote by W. H. Auden which sent me scrambling to Google for the poem in its entirety.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus – long thought to be by Pieter Bruegel the elder is now considered a copy of a work rather than the original. It is in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels where Auden saw it in 1938.
Musée des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden – 1938

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Copyright © 1976 by Edward Mendelson, William Meredith and Monroe K. Spears,
Executors of the Estate of W. H. Auden.

Auden’s words brought to mind the presepi which will be appearing in churches and homes next month: tableaux of the Nativity surrounded by people going about their normal business. Though some may be aware of the event being celebrated others are oblivious to the occasion. And I’ve often observed it in miniatures and early paintings in museums and churches that while the mundane activities of the town or country continue unaffected miracles are wrought, martyrdom inflected and achieved and the gods thunder, roar and laugh.

Post Script: Auden was not the only poet inspired by Bruegel’s painting, William Carlos Williams also wrote a short poem entitled Landscape with the Fall of Icarus