Edmund Burke warned the republican revolution in France would end in the vicious and cruel terror and then, a dictatorship. It also ended in almost two decades of terrible wars across Europe stretching across the world with a republican self-help coronation along the way.
The Napoleonic adventure had arisen out of the French Revolution, which Edmund Burke had correctly predicted would end in a dictatorship.( ( “Napoleonic adventures at the National Gallery of Victoria” by Christopher Allen in The Australian 7 July, 2012 reporting on “Napoleon: Revolution to Empire”. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, to 7 October 2012)
Burke had supported the American revolutionaries on the grounds that they were simply Englishmen demanding rights that had been unjustly denied them, but understood that the French Revolution was a very different affair, a collapse of social order that could lead only to violence and eventually the domination of a man powerful enough to impose himself.
The horror of the revolution is evoked in the first section of the exhibition, with images of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette both in happier times and in prison. Perhaps the most moving images in this section are the miniature portraits of an aristocratic couple, pale and drawn, in their prison cells with barred windows in the background.
Such portraits were commissioned by those who knew they were going to die, in order to leave some memento to family and friends. Nearby is another miniature, of the queen's friend and confidante the Princesse de Lamballe, who was murdered in 1792, her body defiled and her head paraded on a pike outside Marie-Antoinette's prison.
The French Revolution and the ensuing Reign of Terror became the prototypes of an evil that was to be mythologised over the next two centuries by zealots who set their political millenarianism above civilisation and humanity.
The revolutions of the 20th century inevitably led to systematic murder in the name of ideology, and the unbridling of the rage of the basest members of society.
…mean and stupid revolutionary…
You get some idea in the mean and stupid features of an anonymous revolutionary whose portrait hangs in this section: the sort of man who would denounce his neighbours or his business rivals for his own advantage while mouthing the official slogans. Nearby is a small portrait of one of the butchers of the Terror: Jean-Paul Marat, whose graceless features make such an instructive contrast with the heroic icon of his martyrdom fabricated by Jacques-Louis David.
…the republican coronation…
David was again called upon to immortalise the coronation of the new emperor, which Napoleon, ever sensitive to historical symbolism and wanting to recall the papal anointing of Charlemagne in the year 800, had performed by the unfortunate Pope Pius VII. He had restored the Catholic faith, theoretically abolished by the Revolution, in 1801, and now forced the pope to come to Paris for a ceremony at Notre Dame.
This is one of the most interesting parts of the exhibition, because it includes not only a portrait study and a compositional drawing by David, but a series of watercolours by Fontaine of the setting for the ceremony, like a stage designer's sketches for a theatrical production.
These watercolours help one to understand more clearly the interior represented in David's enormous finished painting.Most significantly, one of Fontaine's drawings shows Napoleon kneeling before the pope, who is anointing him – exactly as the ceremony was intended to take place. What in fact happened was a spectacular and completely unexpected coup de theatre.
As the pontiff was placing the crown on Napoleon's head, the emperor took hold of it, stood up and placed it upon his own head, thus simultaneously securing the papal mandate and blessing, yet demonstrating publicly that the real power was literally in his own hands.
This is what is represented in the complete compositional drawing by David: the emperor has turned his back on Pius VII, who lifts his hands in surprise, and faces the audience as he raises the crown above his own head.
But no doubt either Napoleon himself or his advisers felt this action was better repeated as a legend than pictured as an image; it could appear brash or even vulgar.
Instead, the final painting immortalises the more dignified sequel, in which Napoleon himself crowns the kneeling Josephine, while the pope looks on.
( “Napoleonic adventures at the National Gallery of Victoria” by Christopher Allen in The Australian 7 July, 2012 reporting on “Napoleon: Revolution to Empire”. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, to 7 October 2012)