“Symbols of Power: Napoléon and the Art of the Empire Style, 1800–1815”

October 21, 2007–January 27, 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In 1804 members of Napoléon’s state council convened to prepare for his coronation and to select a symbol that would represent the new French regime. The cock, the elephant and the lion were considered but discarded in favor of two classic emblems: the eagle, symbol of both Jupiter and Charlemagne, and the bee, used by Merovingian King Childeric I. Napoléon also appropriated Greco-Roman and Egyptian motifs to signify his military and political power. These symbols would adorn not only weapons and robes of state, but also many personal items.

The impressive new exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts showcases nearly 200 pieces from the Napoleonic era, including furniture, artwork, clothing, jewelry, tapestries and household objects. The grandeur of the regime is embodied in items like Napoléon’s ceremonial cuirass (below), a gift from the armorers of Paris in 1805, bearing a depiction of the Roman god Mars preparing for battle. The emperor’s sword is decorated from pommel to tip with eagles, bees, stars, inscriptions, thunderbolts, laurel crowns and other imperial insignia. Similar iconography also appears on a chain for the Legion of Honor medal and on a presentation set of firearms Napoléon reputedly gave to the Spanish Duke of Gravina.

The opulence of these ceremonial pieces stands in sharp contrast to the strictly functional furniture used by Napoléon on his military campaigns. Included in the exhibit are a steel bed frame, a wooden chair, and a three-legged table, all of which could be easily folded and stowed for transport. Designed to be durable and portable, these simple but elegant pieces provide a striking counterpoint to Napoléon’s elaborate imperial throne.


Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here