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A Story of Friendship, War and Art

New exhibition at the Hermitage Amsterdam illustrates the intense relationship between two emperors

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AMSTERDAM — To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Waterloo battle, the museum complex Hermitage- Amsterdam has just opened an exhibition bearing the intriguing title ‘Alexander, Napoleon, Josephine’.

The beginning of the 19th century was like a major earthquake for Europe. Whole kingdoms disintegrated, frontiers moved, rulers lost their thrones and their places were taken by new personalities, the main one being Napoleon and his extended family.

After many successful years, good fortune betrayed Napoleon when the Russian Emperor Alexander I became his main opponent, and eventual conqueror. However, there was a moment when a friendly relationship existed between the two rivals. That moment was in place when the two emperors arrived in Tilsit in June 1807 to sign a peace. The historic meeting was captured on a monumental 3.5 by 5 meter canvas by Gioacchino Giuseppe Serangeli. The original painting is in the Versailles palace but a smaller anonymous copy has been brought to the exhibition from the Hermitage.

At the pre-opening tour for journalists on 27 March another meeting of historic proportions took place in front of this painting. The direct descendants of Napoleon Bonaparte, Count Alexandre Colonna- Walewski and Prince Dimitri, head of House of Romanov, arrived by boat to the quayside of the Hermitage Amsterdam, got out and posed for photographers. Standing by the River Amstel, they recreated the mood of the painting.

Though both live in Europe, the two VIP guests met for the first time at the museum. In his remarks to the press, Alexandre Colonna Walewski defended his forebear’s deeds, saying, ‘Napoleon tried to unite Europe and make it whole. It is only now that we are hoping to achieve what he had been thinking about doing 200 years before.’

Prince Dimitri Romanov smiled diplomatically and chose his words carefully: ‘I was born in Paris. You also. Now we both live in Europe.’

Escorted by guards of honor, they went into the museum to open the exhibition and after their visit unveiled a commemorative plaque.

In the spring of 1807 the two emperors spent 15 days together in Tilsit and afterwards they exchanged gifts and letters for years. However, this would-be friendship ended in 1812 with war, the defeat of Napoleon’s Army and the parade of the Russian troops in Paris. After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, a period of European history saturated with wars came to an end and for one hundred years Europe lived in peace.

The four ‘chapters’ of the exhibition present works of art and curiosities which help the visitor feel the emotional atmosphere of the period. Out of the 200 works brought especially from the Hermitage for the show, many have never been seen before in St Petersburg itself, being kept in the museum’s vast reserves.

The exhibited items illustrate the intense relationship between the two emperors.

In 1815, when he escaped from his exile Elba and landed in France, Napoleon reportedly said, ‘If I were not Napoleon, I would like to be Alexander.’ Alas, destiny divided them. Their rivalry and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia cost more than 1 million soldiers their lives.

It is not surprising that military events take the greater part of the show. The high drama of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia is shown in four monumental battle-paintings commissioned by Nicholas I and executed by Peter von Hess. From the Hermitage Arsenal were brought Russian cavalry pistols, swords, sabers, including one belonging to Napoleon, as well as portraits of General Fieldmarshal Kutuzov and Alexander I, taken down from the Hermitage’s Military Gallery of 1812.

In the showcases one can see the uniform of Marshal Michel Ney who managed to cross the Berezina safely during the famous retreat of the Grande Armee, as well as uniforms of Russian and French soldiers. The walls are decorated with French banners seized by the Russians in battles. Above them we see the Russian colors.

The ‘Berezina’ hall commemorates the role of Dutch soldiers in Napoleon’s campaign of 1812. All together in the Napoleonic Grande Armee there were some 30,000 Dutch soldiers. Their drawings and diaries are exhibited for the first time. Thanks to the Dutch field engineers, who made bridges across the Berezina, thousands of lives were saved, but the pontoon bridge makers all died.

In this show we are treated to one more personality- the first wife of Napoleon, Empress Josephine. She is omnipresent in the exhibition. Firstly, the majority of things at the exhibition come from her estate in the Malmaison chateau where she spent many years and where she died. Here she received Alexander I in the spring of 1814. Similar to the friendship which began between Napoleon and Alexander at Tilsit, these two also formed friendly ties. The Gonzaga Cameo is a true token of this friendship: the precious cameo dating from the third century B.C. from Alexandria was given to Alexander by Josephine when he visited her in Malmaison. It was taken by a Napoleonic soldier from the Vatican when it was occupied by the French. Among its former owners were Pope Pius VI.

Through this gift, Josephine hoped to get Alexander’s support for the future of her children, but the Emperor was generous even without that gift. Both her daughter Hortense and son Prince Eugene Beauharnais received large sums of money. Alexander also ensured that Paris was not plundered by his troops, and works of art were not removed from Louvre. When he later heard about that, Napoleon was stunned. He said, ’The British would have destroyed the city, the Austrians would have burn it’.

In the rooms where samples of Josephine’s private art collection are shown, visitors find paintings, sculptures, precious bric-a-brac like cameos, snuff boxes, jewelry, porcelain service, ball gowns and furniture. As the director of the Hermitage Amsterdam, Cathelijne Broers say, ‘These items are the evidence of soft, womanly power’.

Josephine’s collection counted 400 items, among them paintings by Rembrandt, Metsu, David Teniers, Claude Lorrain, as well as sculptures by Canova. Many she bought, while others were presents from Napoleon. At the moment of her death which came just a few weeks after her meeting with Alexander I from pneumonia, Josephine’s debts came to 2 million francs. In 1815, to settle part of her debt Alexander bought 35 paintings and four Canova sculptures for the astronomical sum of 940,000 francs. One year later he bought another 15 paintings from the same collection. They all are now in the Hermitage and one can say that the Empress Josephine in her own way ‘contributed’ to the Hermitage collection.

Sometimes life takes a strange turn. Alongside the many things connected with Josephine and her family, we find at the exhibition the authentic death mask of Napoleon. This was made shortly after his death on the island of St Helena on 5 May 1821. It was produced by the Scottish army physician Archibald Arnott, who performed the autopsy after the emperor’s death.

It is kept in its original wooden case and produces a strong impression. It came to the Hermitage in St Petersburg from the estate of her grandson Duke Maximilian de Beauharnais who was married to the daughter of Nicholas I in 1839 and settled in St. Petersburg.

The exhibition concludes with the genealogical tree of Josephine’s descendants. Her legacy is extraordinary, with descendants married into the royal families of Belgium, Denmark, Luxemburg, Norway and Sweden.

The show runs at the Hermitage Amsterdam to 8 November.


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