An emperor’s timeless clothesNapoleon loved Josephine. But her mind was always somewhere else. She loved luxury adornments, too; exotic fabrics, gracious rubies and furry shoes decorated with golden ribbons.
Napoleon knew this. In a letter to Josephine, he wrote, “You are a wretch, truly perverse, truly stupid, a real Cinderella. You never write to me at all, you do not love your husband; you know the pleasure that your letters give him, yet you cannot even manage to write him half a dozen lines, dashed off so casually.”
Josephine kept calm when Napoleon demanded her attention. Perhaps that was what made the young consul with lofty ambitions so desperate to act. On display at “Napoleon and Josephine” ― the country’s first exhibition of the trappings of the French emperor and his lover, at the Seoul History Museum ― are precious gifts engraved with words like “destiny” and “love” from Napoleon, meant to please Josephine, a widowed woman six years his senior and with two children, Eugene and Hortense, from a previous union.
Evident from the show is that Josephine liked to live indulgently, at least when it came to personal belongings. The objects from Josephine’s palatial life include jewelry, porcelain, paintings, court garments and exquisite champagne glasses engraved with the couple’s initials in golden text. Visitors learn that she had a special interest in exotic fabrics, all the way back to the time she spent mingling at Paris’s famous salon gatherings, the very same social realm that introduced her to Napoleon. Even when Napoleon declared a ban on all imports to France, Josephine managed to secretly smuggle foreign shears through England in order to tailor-make her shawls, plaited with gold. Those shawls are on display at the museum.
Not because of her indulgences, but because of Josephine’s infertility, Napoleon ended his 13-year marriage to marry Marie Louise of Austria in 1809, signaling the end of an era.
Aside from objects which speak of marital bliss ― or a lack thereof ― the exhibition also treads less intimate ground. On display are several of Napoleon’s belongings from the time he took command of the interior army in 1795 until he was crushed at the Battle of Waterloo and exiled to St. Helena, where he is presumed to have died of stomach cancer in 1821. His silver drinking flask, carried during his campaigns is here; so are his famous toothbrush made with pig hairs and his portable bed. The display tells us of the ordinary craftsman who sold his gold toothbrush on credit to a young Napoleon, later becoming the craftsman behind most of his bathroom accessories and palatial decors when Napoleon became a French emperor.
Paintings depicting grandiose battle scenes from major campaigns reflect Napoleon’s expert manipulation of the media. Napoleon had his court painters accompany him during battles, some say, and made them depict him, of course, as a hero.
For “Napoleon Visiting the Plague-stricken at Jaffa,” for example, a painting by Antoine-Jean Gros illustrating Napoleon’s tour of a camp for plague-infected civilians during the Egyptian campaign, Napoleon himself commissioned Gros. In the work, Napoleon comes across as a great healer, as the only one to reach across the divide between the living and the dying to offer solace. In fact, for almost every portrait or battle-scene painting, Napoleon reportedly insisted that the artist present him with several preliminary sketches so that he himself could choose the final version. His desire to propagandize himself in public also led Jacques-Louis David, a French painter, to produce three separate versions of “Crossing the Alps by the Great Saint Bernard Pass,” one of which is on display at the exhibition, to please his majesty.
The tragic years of Napoleon’s exile at St. Helena are described only in a series of rough sketches. Visitors can only guess at the inner turmoil of a fallen legend; the sketches show Napoleon’s frame as substantially bloated compared to his depiction in “Crossing the Alps” across the room.
But it is the personal objects that speak loudest across time. It is a particular experience to be gazing at a toothbrush and rusted silver cutlery that were used by a legendary French emperor, 200 years ago, halfway around the world. But perhaps that is the beauty of history. Rusted but not beyond recognition, not unlike these objects, Napoleon’s and Josephine’s legacy is passed down through history.
by Park Soo-mee
The exhibition “Napoleon and Josephine” runs through September 21st. To get to the Seoul History Museum at Gwanghwamun, get off at Seodaemun station, line No. 5 and take exit No. 4. For more information, call 02-334-9948.