Alexander I and Napoleon I in the Works of Art

Emperor Alexander I and Napoleon Bonaparte

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The spirits of two great emperors – Alexander I and Napoleon I – were linked by historic events of war and peace. The bloody battle at Austerlitz and Borodino, a heart-warming meeting at Tilzit, the seizure of Moscow by the French army, the seizure of Paris by Russian troops – all these events were widely reflected in the European art.

The “Two Emperors” exhibition dedicated to the 200-year anniversary of the Patriotic War of 1812 is opening on February 15 in the Russian Museum of Applied Art in Moscow.

«The exhibition which opens a chain of jubilee events of 2012, the year proclaimed the Year of Russian History, contains objects of applied art as well as paintings from an expansive personal collection of Alexander Vikhrov with additions of rare pieces from the museum's own collection», says the exhibition's curator Andrey Gilodo in his interview to the Voice of Russia.

Exhibited are the works of French, Italian, German and Russian art created from the end of XVIII century up until our days. Paintings and drawings, medals and coins, miniature statues made of ebony, bronze, unglazed and traditional porcelain, decorative plates depicting the brightest moments of the two emperors’ lives are among the exhibits. There are snuffboxes and cigarette cases decorated by miniature portraits, porcelain and glass pieces as well as rare books.

Paintings are a major part of the exhibition. Back in those times graphic works were the key means to transfer visual information – the official, glorifying information that you would now call propaganda or, to the contrary, information diminishing its object (caricatures became widely spread in Europe particularly in early XIX century).

Napoleon was among the pioneers to start using applied art as an instrument of propaganda – in his time what was later called propaganda porcelain started being produced. In the current exposition there are some notable pieces from the Sevres porcelain factory (Manufacture nationale de Sevres). One must admit that Russian royal family took over that style in a hurry, which is confirmed by numerous works of Russian craftsmen and artists.

«At the heart of the exposition is the story of personal acquaintance between the two emperors, of their friendship and animosity», says the curator Andrey Gilodo. «It is a story of opportunities wasted, perhaps even of an alternative future of Europe».

The objects related to the Tilzit meeting reflect this trend the best way: the first meeting of the two emperors in June 1807 first in the marquee on a raft floating in the middle of the Neman river, then the move to Tilzit and the 15 days of close interaction that followed, and then the conclusion of what appeared to the two rulers to be the «permanent» peace treaty. Right after the Tilzit meeting there was a piece of art created that now serves as a symbol for this exhibition. It is a unique bronze medallion with an enamel portrait of the two rulers hugging each other with a firm grip. On the reverse side of the medallion there is a picture of that very Neman marquee where the first meeting of the two emperors took place.

The events of the war of 1812 are presented in a special way at the exhibition. It is interesting to compare how those events were reflected in the Russian and West European art. The era of the Napoleon wars is considered to be the turning point in the European decorative applied art. The empire style born of a French-Russian cross influence is most prominently demonstrated specifically in the works of decorative applied art. The traces of it in the form of war themes appeared in the French and Russian works of art even 100 years after those events. Here is a kettle from the Gardner porcelain factory – in the side medallions on one side there is a scene of the handshake between Napoleon and Alexander at the conclusion of the Tilzit peace treaty, on the other side as a confirmation of the treachery of the French there is a copy of Vasily Vereschagin’s picture “Moscow on Fire. The Return from the Petrovsky Palace”. Another gem of Alexander Vikhrov’s collection is a vase produced by the Emperor’s Porcelain Factory in early XX century. It reproduces the painting of the same author Vereschagin titled “Napoleon on Borodino battlefield”.

The organizers of the «Two Emperors» exhibition are convinced that this introduction to the Jubilee of the Patriotic War of 1812 and to the Year of the Russian History as much as the story of the relationship between the two great rulers is worth a special attention.

Source & Copyright: The Voice of Russia
12 February, 2012