My visit to the National Gallery of Victoria’s Napoleon: Revolution to Empire exhibition was enjoyable. Spectacular artwork – often propagandist* – beautiful women, heroic fighters, jewellery, French clocks, furniture, clothing – a great experience. It provides an artistic account of life in post-revolutionary France. The excesses in the early Republic gave Napoleon the basis for making himself emperor and for establishing an empire. A brilliant, flawed man whose last days on St Helena seemed almost tragic given his ambitions.
The account given in the exhibition of Napoleon and his wife Josephine’s interest in Australia is fascinating. Napoleon as a young man read the accounts of James Cook’s voyages to Australia and they remained an interest all his life. Josephine collected Australia flora and fauna. The French explorers in the period 1780-1820 mapped most of the Australian coastline and recorded their encounters with aborigines. The art work at the exhibition records these interactions.
The exhibition is beautifully presented and the gallery guides were knowledgeable. They made my visit a pleasure. I am currently reading Georges Lefebvre’s Napoleon and the exhibition’s Napoleon: Revolution to Empire. The exhibition has stimulated a new interest for me.
BTW: Does anyone know the origin of the Napoleon-linked place names in the north of Melbourne? Briar Hill? St Helena? There is even a Napoleon St, Eltham! I’d be interested to know the French connection in my own backyard.
* Look at Napoleon here. Conquering all and pointing to the future with Napoleon himself (of course!) at the centre.
Update: The question posed is answered in the comments below. A fascinating incident in the book prepared for this exhibition is a discussion between the mathematician Laplace and Napoleon himself on the characteristics of the Australian platypus. It was an astonishing creature to Europeans and it astonished Napoleon.