Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sunday Salon: Bastille Day in Napoleon Land

Yesterday, it was Bastille Day! Without even consciously realising it, I had arranged to have morning tea with Lisa from ANZLitlovers at the National Gallery of Victoria. She wanted to look for some specific types of paintings, and I had intentions of going to see the Napoleon exhibition that is currently on there.  We always seem to find lots to talk about, and today was no exception!

Below are some photos from my day, including just some general Melbourne ones, and then I will talk more about the Napoleon exhibition in a bit more detail.

First up, here are some photos, all taken on my phone:

After saying farewell to Lisa, I headed into the Napoleon: From Revolution to Empire that is being shown at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) until October.

This exhibition is very much about Napoleon the conquering general, the hero. It follows events mostly chronologically so we do see a little something about his life on St Helena after he was exiled, but even then it is put in the context of an Australian connection. The battles where he didn't do quite so well barely rate a mention. The most famous battle, or at least the one that I know the most about, Waterloo was mentioned only once.  However, once you know and accept those limitations, the exhibition was completely fascinating.

The exhibition is peppered with Australian connections (which I will get back to later in the post) but covers the end of the reign of Louis XIV, trying to show excesses of that time that led to the French Revolution and then to the rise of Napoleon, initially as First Consul and then when he was invested as Emperor. The irony of the fact that many of those excesses that the revolution was against soon came back into play once Napoleon became emperor is not lost, especially in the displays of gift boxes, jewellery and more that was lavished on guests and family and friends, and the appointment of his children, siblings and loyal friends to the kingships of the conquered countries of Europe.

Throughout the exhibition, we see various displays elaborating on the symbolism that Napoleon and the leading artists of the day employed as propaganda - Roman and Egyptian abounds, as well as the decor of the State rooms and at Malmaison, uniforms of the day and the only dress that is known to have been worn by a lady at the coronation of Napoleon and Josephine as emperor and empress.

Of the art, the star of the show is undoubtedly the huge painting of Napoleon Crossing the Alps that dominates. Whilst there is no doubt that the crossing of the Alps was a formidable achievement, this painting definitely has elements of propaganda about it, no matter how impressive it is!

There was a lot of focus on Malmaison, the retreat that Napoleon shared with Josephine, and in particular on the fascination that Josephine especially had with the flora and fauna, and animals, that the various expeditions to Australia were bringing back to France. I knew, for example, that Josephine had a fascination with roses, but I didn't know (or at least I didn't remember) that there were emus, kangaroos and black swans that wandered the extensive gardens at Malmaison.

Here are some of the photos that I took that relate to the staging of the exhibition.

There were no photos inside the exhibition, or at least there wasn't meant to be, so here is a link to the trailer, and embedded below is a video which shows some of the beautiful objects that were featured in the exhibition.

And now, I come to the Australian connection, and the possibly puzzling post title today. Do you sometimes what you have known previously but now have forgotten, and then when you learn it again it is a surprise?

I knew that despite the fact that the British claimed Australia as their territory, there had been other European explorers who had spent time here. I knew that the Dutch and Portuguese had been here, and yes, I knew that the French had explored the Australian coastline. For example, when Matthew Flinders was mapping the South Australian coastline, he met up with French explorer Nicolas Baudin and the place where they met is now known as Encounter Bay.

What I don't remember knowing is that the French actually claimed a great deal of the South Eastern Coast of Australia, and had named it Terre Napoleon (or Napoleon Land). For example, on the coast of South Australia there are two big gulfs that are now known as Spencer Gulf and Gulf St. Vincent, but if we had of been a French colony, those two stretches of water would have been known as Golfe Bonaparte and Golfe Josephine (his was obviously the bigger of the two!).

To bring this back to books, I was left pondering how someone like Napoleon would be presented in French historical fiction? Are there books that are published in France about the adventures of men like La Perouse who disappeared on his way back from exploring the Australian coastline, Baudin who met up with Matthew Flinders, or Freycinet whose map is shown above? It would be fascinating to be able to read about important world events from a different perspective!

Currently Reading

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness (a lot of the section I read today was set in France), Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan (not set in France at all), Fables 3 by Bill Willingham and The Proposal by Mary Balogh (featuring survivors of the Napoleonic wars)

Next Up

The Thread by Victoria Hislop (set in Greece, just for something different!)


  1. Your trip to the museum sounds fascinating! I wish I was there so I could go.

    1. I really enjoyed my day Hillary. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Marg, I don't know about French historical fiction, but there is a terrific novel by Nicholas Jose called Napoleon's Double which is based on the idea that since most people didn't know what Napoleon looked like, he ccould have 'doubles' (7 of them, from memory) racing about on different battlefields to inspire the troops and no one would be the wiser.
    PS I *love* the photos - they make our city look amazing - and you took them with a mobile phone, not a fancy camera! Well done:)

    1. Thanks Lisa! I really enjoyed our time at the Art Gallery yesterday, and I had fun taking the photos.

      That is an interesting premise for a book too.

  3. Thanks for such a great review. You are the second person that I know that has gone to the exhibition and you both mention the La Perouse connection.

    For some strange reason I always remember this bit from the Billy Connolly's tour of Australia

    The scene where Billy is sitting on a rocky area singing Waltzing Matilda in French!

    I am hoping the exhibition closes at the end of October as I may just get a visit in during my trip.

    1. Unfortunately, I think this particular exhibition closes on 7 October.

      I remember that scene with Billy Connelly.

  4. What an interesting and informative post... and what a timely and wonderful exhibition. The historical facts you post here are fascinating. I've read that when Josephine first met Napoleon she was only 16. Good to know about French's colonial ties with Australia too. Thanks for a well-researched Paris in July post!

    1. Thanks Arti! It was a very interesting exhibition, partially because of the way that they made the local connection

  5. So jealous that this exhibition is only in Melbourne. Glad it was food for thought, and thanks for the report! Thoraiya.

    P.S. On Wikipedia under "Alternate History": "One of the earliest works of alternate history published in large quantities for the reception of a popular audience may be the French Louis Geoffroy's Histoire de la Monarchie universelle: Napoléon et la conquête du monde (1812–1832) (History of the Universal Monarchy: Napoleon And The Conquest Of The World) (1836), which imagines Napoleon's First French Empire victorious in the French invasion of Russia in 1811 and in an invasion of England in 1814, later unifying the world under Bonaparte's rule."

    You could probably find more on Uchronia (they do the Sidewise award at Worldcon?)

    1. Thanks for stopping by Thoraiya Dyer! Some alternate histories can be quite interesting so thanks for the tip!

    2. No idea why I just did your full name! Very formal! lol

  6. How wonderful to meet up with Lisa at the NGV, I've had that very experience, and it's always delightlful! This sounds such a wonderful exhibition. I'm hoping to get to see it before it closes too. It sounds fascinating.

  7. I'd love to see an exhibition on Napoleon! I love that era of history.

    Speaking of early explorers, years ago I read (and plan to re-read some day) The Navigators by Klaus Toft, which is about the "great race" between Matthew Flinders and Nicolas Baudin, it's an excellent story though ends sadly for Baudin, who did technically win. It's a great read if you can find a copy. :)

    I had never really thought, though, about how Freycinet got such a French name. I mean, it's public record and all, but in general we're not so good at actually understanding and learning our history are we? Especially in Tassie. :( I'm guilty of that too.



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