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Napoleon I, Emperor of the French

French, 1769 - 1821


Revered by his countrymen and reviled by his enemies, Napoleon I enjoyed a nearly undefeated military career before joining in a coup d'etat that dismantled the current seat of French government. At age 30, he was appointed First Consul of France, the effective ruler of the country. Three years later, he was crowned Emperor, and it was in this role that he would wage the Napoleonic Wars, until, at age 45, he was finally defeated and expelled to St. Helena's Island, where he died.

During his years as ruler, he was a notable patron of the arts. From his earliest years as a soldier in Egypt, he attempted to protect and preserve the ancient monuments. As emperor, he cultivated his patronage with some of the most renowned artists of the day, including Jacques-Louis David and Antonio Canova. Without adhering to any particular aesthetic, Napoleon sought to revive the kingly tradition of grand commissions in an effort to establish Paris as the artistic center of the world. He moved the Académie des Beaux-Arts and the École des Beaux-Arts to new quarters. He worked to provide the new provincial museums with quality objects, and established the Musée Napoleon, which would prove highly influential to a generation of French artists. To this site were sent all of the finest objects of plunder seized from his areas of conquest, including Italy, Austria, the Netherlands and the German states.

But while simultaneously appropriating the works of these nations, he did not neglect the artistic development of his newly acquired lands. They too were recipients of the systems of educational reform, state competitions, commissions and awards that were implemented. Academies were created in Italy and elsewhere, while galleries were established in Amsterdam, Venice, Madrid and Milan. Students of the newly conquered lands were admitted to the Collège des Quatre-Nations in Paris.

Despite a drive for modernization, Napoleon respected the traditional aesthetics of older structures. All plans for renovations or alterations had to respect the original design of the building, including redecoration plans for the interior of the Tuileries, Trianons, the châteaux at Saint-Cloud, and Fontainebleau, as well as sites in the conquered lands, which likewise felt his influence.

Although not blessed with a particularly discerning eye (and also suffering from poor eyesight), Napoleon appreciated art, and its propaganda value. He commissioned several portraits, but refused to sit for the artist, more concerned that the object convey a sense of sovereignty over bearing an exact likeness to him. He preferred naturalism in art, and his dislike for the mythological themes and elements commonly seen in history painting spurred the development of the romantic style.

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