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Jefferson's America
& Napoleon's France

By John R. Kemp

In New Orleans, a landmark exhibit celebrates the Bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase.

"There is on the Globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market.... The day France takes possession of New Orleans... we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation."
    So wrote an alarmed Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to the American minister in France upon learning that Spain had secretly ceded Louisiana back to France. To avoid war, Jefferson—an unwavering Francophile—and his ministers in France began tedious negotiations that resulted in the United States buying from France not only New Orleans but the entire Louisiana territory, which stretched from the mouth of the Mississippi River north to Canada and west to the Rocky Mountains. It was the biggest and most peaceful land deal in world history.
    This year, Louisiana and at least 13 other states carved from the vast Louisiana territory are celebrating the 200th anniversary of this great epic story. Though celebrations are being held throughout the region, New Orleans, once the capital of French Louisiana, is hosting an especially large array of events, museum exhibitions, seminars, speeches and—the coup de théâtre—a possible re-enactment of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty. State officials have invited the presidents of the United States and France and the king of Spain to visit the city and participate in the historic moment.
    The premier event, however, is the New Orleans Museum of Art's "Jefferson's America & Napoleon's France," a major international exhibition that runs through August 31. First Lady Laura Bush is adding a special cachet to the show by presiding as honorary chair of what is no less than NOMA's most ambitious and largest exhibition to date.
    "Jefferson's America & Napoleon's France" is the story of these two famous men and their visions of government, the world, empire and democracy. It contrasts the visual glories of Napoleon's France with the simplicity and uncertainties of Jefferson's America. Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, president of the United States, an architect, amateur scientist, planter, slave owner, bibliophile and the founder of the University of Virginia. Napoleon was a superb general, brilliant emperor, a visionary reformer in education and government, and the force behind the Napoleonic Code, much of which is still used in Louisiana law today. In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase brought these two unlikely worlds together.
    To Napoleon, New Orleans and the entire Louisiana colony were liabilities, yet they were a means to expand France’s glory in Europe. To Jefferson, the uncharted area beyond the Mississippi would ensure the future greatness of a young republic still shaping its destiny and searching for its place among nations.
    “Never before has an exhibition sought to capture the spirit of these complex men and commemorate this remarkable moment in history so vividly and thoroughly,” says NOMA director John Bullard. “Jefferson and Napoleon are certainly the two great personalities of that era. Both came from modest backgrounds. Rural Virginia and Corsica are about as far away from the centers of power as you could be.”
    The exhibition begins with Jefferson’s lifelong love of French art and the influence it had on American culture and architecture. This section looks at the United States and the Louisiana territory through the eyes of the French, who were passionately curious about the New World. From there, curators explore the rise of Napoleon from a general in the French Revolution to his coronation as emperor and the resulting flowering of the decorative arts and governmental reforms. Not to be forgotten is the “incomparable” Josephine, her passions and contributions to style and tastes throughout Europe and America. Another section is dedicated to the visual arts of France and America. Not only do we see paintings by the leading artists in both countries at the time, we also learn how French and American artists influenced each other. Finally, the exhibition defines the political events resulting in the purchase of New Orleans and the Louisiana territory and gives visitors an idea of what life was like in New Orleans in 1803.
    “Jefferson’s America & Napoleon’s France,” says Bullard, demonstrates important cultural ties between the two nations. “France came to the aid of the Americans during the American Revolution. The American Revolution in turn inspired the French Revolution. Certainly the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights were models for the French. In return, French culture inspired Americans. Although England was an important cultural model for the American colonies, given that we were originally English, the French were nevertheless a huge influence in the areas of art, decor and fashion. Jefferson had a lot to do with that.” Moreover, it has been said that Jefferson’s political philosophies were drawn as much from the writings of French philosophers Voltaire and Montesquieu as from British radicals Locke and Burke and the classics of Greece and Rome.
    These and less obvious themes thread their way through more than 260 historical documents and objets d’art borrowed from major institutions in the United States, France and numerous other countries. Here visitors will see not only historical records, such as original copies of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty signed by Napoleon and Jefferson, but glorious paintings and decorative trappings that accented Jefferson’s presidency and embellished Napoleon’s imperial reign. Military medals, jewelry, lavish furnishings, a gilded throne and court portraits by France’s then famous artists trace Napoleon’s rise from general to emperor and his love affair with the Empress Josephine. Other objects, such as a simple chair made for Jefferson by his slave, John Hemings, tell less glorious stories of human frailties and contradictions. We see both Jefferson’s and Napoleon’s visions of immortality in Antonio Canova’s superb sculpted head of Napoleon and Jean-Antoine Houdon’s painted terra-cotta bust of Jefferson. And then there is the exquisite—and titillating—bedroom suite made for Madame Juliette Récamier, the beautiful seductress of Napoleon’s France. France’s fascination with 17th- and 18th-century North America is seen in the writings of Chateaubriand and rare Native American artifacts gleaned from collections in France and the United States.
    Unquestionably, the most impressive and telling objects in the show are Jacques-Louis David’s small but magnificent portrait of Napoleon and Rembrandt Peale’s painting of Thomas Jefferson. These famous images reveal much about the two nations and their leaders at the time of the Louisiana Purchase. In David’s grand portrait, the gilded throne and other opulent trappings give evidence that the French Revolution was indeed over and that an imperial monarchy had returned to France. By contrast, Peale’s portrait of Jefferson speaks more about democracy and the Enlightenment.
    “The exhibition says a lot about how these two rulers wanted to project themselves,” says Gail Feigenbaum, the show’s curator and now associate director at the Getty Research Institute in California. “I think that’s embodied in the [David portrait]. It’s an image of Napoleon crowned with a gold laurel wreath—that Charlemagne image. [In the Peale portrait] you see Jefferson in what has become an image of democracy. He looks the way presidents are supposed to look. They are supposed to look like the rest of us, only better.”
    Jefferson, says Feigenbaum, “believed very deeply in the idea of democracy” with a strong faith in the ability of people to govern themselves. “Napoleon,” she says, “decided the only way to succeed was to become a dictator, but I also think he saw himself as retrieving France from the ruins of anarchy and chaos in the aftermath of the Revolution and Terror.”
    Victoria Cooke, an assistant curator at NOMA and the exhibition’s curator-in-residence, says the two portraits, along with Jefferson’s simple red-leather easy chair and Napoleon’s throne, “physically and philosophically” represent an underlying theme in the exhibition: the new Republic “trying to establish what is appropriate for a democracy in terms of showing power in imagery” and Napoleon who “masters the use of art as propaganda.”
    Unfortunately, NOMA was unable to borrow David’s larger, more famous portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps. It was too fragile to make the trip from France to New Orleans, so the museum borrowed an excellent 19th-century copy from the nearby Louisiana State Museum. In David’s great bit of propaganda, Napoleon rides a dashing white charger across the Saint Bernard Pass. He points onward and upward. Chiseled in stone beneath the horse’s hooves are the names of Bonaparte, Hannibal and Charlemagne. This was the Napoleon of legend. In reality, Napoleon, led by a Swiss guide, rode a sure-footed mule across the pass.
    On the political side, curators also looked at the purchase from an international perspective. In addition to the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, visitors will see documents signed in France by Robert Livingston, James Monroe and French minister François Barbé-Marbois. The show also includes the Treaty of San Ildefonso, which transferred Louisiana from Spain to France. But most important, curators remind viewers that Napoleon’s decision to sell Louisiana began with a successful slave revolt in the French colony of St. Domingue under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture. A series of engravings show Louverture first as a victorious general much like David’s equestrian portrait of Napoleon and then defeated, dying in a French prison.
    “The minute Napoleon lost control of the island of St. Domingue,” says Feigenbaum, “I think he decided that the entire enterprise of colonialism in the west was pointless. He never looked in this direction again. He turned his gaze back to the east and the territories that European conquerors traditionally had eyed since the time of Alexander the Great. He was really looking backward into history, whereas Jefferson was looking west and into the future.”
    Louisiana was the least of Napoleon’s concerns, especially since war with Great Britain was imminent. Fearing he could not hold the territory in the event of a British or American attack, Napoleon decided to sell the entire colony to the United States rather than see it fall into the hands of his ancient rival. After lengthy negotiations, Jefferson agreed to pay $15 million.
    At the time, Louisianians had no idea what the purchase would mean to them. Equally important, Jefferson and other American officials were unsure of Louisiana’s actual boundaries. When Robert Livingston asked, a French minister simply replied: “I can give you no direction; you have made a noble bargain for yourselves, and I suppose you will make the most of it.”
    “Jefferson’s America & Napoleon’s France” ends with a look at life and politics in New Orleans in 1803. Featured in this section amid documents and paintings are portraits by local Spanish artist Jose Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza and a superb panoramic view of the New Orleans riverfront by another local artist, John L. Boqueta de Woiseri.
    The exhibition also explores the importance of the Catholic Church and the Ursuline nuns to the city’s life and culture. Among the historical artifacts is a small but remarkable letter sent by Jefferson on May 15, 1804, to the nuns at the Ursuline Convent in New Orleans. It was his response to the mother superior’s earlier letter, expressing concern about what the Louisiana Purchase might mean to the order’s religious practices. Jefferson assured the sisters that “the principles of the Constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules without interference from the civil authority....”
    To help Louisiana tell this amazing story, more than a hundred major public and private museums, archives and libraries in the United States, France and other European countries opened their collections to NOMA curators. “The French institutions were very generous,” says Feigenbaum. “There were a number of things that we really would have liked to have gotten but couldn’t, but we were also able to borrow many things we hadn’t thought of or didn’t know about. Take this colossal Canova [marble sculpture of Napoleon], for instance. I didn’t know it existed. We also have Napoleon’s throne from the Legislative Assembly, and Monticello and Malmaison also cooperated very generously with us. The Fondation Napoléon lent an amazing group of little-known objects, and the Louvre lent Napoleon’s washbasin. It’s such a beautiful thing.”
    Yet, says Feigenbaum, some items, such as the regalia from Napoleon’s coronation, part of which goes back to Charlemagne, and Napoleon’s rock crystal sword engraved with the names of the emperors going back centuries, were clearly out of bounds. “These,” she says, “seem to be regarded more as precious souvenirs of French history than as works of art.”
    But even without these objects, the splendors, glories and richness of “Jefferson’s America & Napoleon’s France” prove that the United States did indeed make “a noble bargain,” and that for two centuries, Americans have made the most of it.s

“Jefferson’s America & Napoleon’s France” runs from April 12 through August 31, 2003, at the New Orleans Museum of Art, 1 Collins Diboll Circle, City Park, New Orleans, Louisiana 70124. Tel. 504/488-2631; Fax 504/484-6662.


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