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Art Review

Hail, Napoleon

At the MFA, the lavish lifestyle of one of the world's major empire-builders makes a stunning display

Some say Napoleon Bonaparte was at heart a military man whose personal tastes ran to the simple and practical. But the brilliant general knew the power of appearances. His infantry wore bearskin hats intended to make them appear taller and drummed and hollered war cries to intimidate enemies. As a ruler, Napoleon trumpeted his authority by adopting the historic trappings of royalty and commissioning artists to celebrate his glories.

"Symbols of Power: Napoleon and the Art of the Empire Style, 1800-1815," which opens Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts, surveys the opulent Empire style that spread across Europe as Napoleon toppled old monarchies and built an empire that at its height in 1812 stretched from Spain and Italy to the Netherlands and the edge of Russia. This magnificent exhibition, organized by Les Arts Decoratifs in Paris and the American Federation of Arts in New York, presents some 190 works, many of which have never been seen outside France.

Napoleon's rise within France's military coincided with the French Revolution, which inspired designers to reject the lavish baroque and rococo ornament of the ousted French royalty and adopt a sober, minimal style. Political liberation also meant women were freed from binding corsets and elaborate hoop skirts. The popular fashion became simple, loose, high-waisted "Grecian"-style dresses in thin cotton, several of which are on view here.

Exhibition organizers also present an example of the full-length mirrors that they say began to appear in women's boudoirs for the first time after the Revolution, inspiring a frank new way of seeing and thinking about the human body. Which may or may not explain the presence here of a bronze and silver cup cast from a mold of Napoleon's younger sister's breast. (Copies can be ordered from the museum shop for $1,995.)

References to classical Greece and Rome were not just superficial, but show how the revolutionaries saw Greek democracy and the Roman republic as models. These ideals soon curdled in the Reign of Terror, with its busy bloody guillotine, followed by economic troubles and food shortages. Napoleon offered order and stability when he became first consul in a 1799 coup, then promoted himself to consul for life in 1802 and emperor in 1804 at age 34.

"Symbols of Power" presents a handful of portable military furniture, including the frame of a folding campaign bed, a design Napoleon so liked that he sometimes slept on one at the Fontainebleau palace. But the exhibit's focus can be seen in room after room of ravishing formal chairs, desks, Empire-waist dresses, china, tapestries, and wallpaper, much of it decorated with Napoleon's imperial symbols: bees, lions, eagles, and "N"s surrounded by laurel wreaths.

Bees symbolized his claim on the legacy of the fifth-century king Childeric I, said to be the earliest ruler of the French. Lions symbolized ties to Charlemagne, the ninth-century French ruler of what became known as the Holy Roman Empire. Eagles referenced Jupiter, ruler of the Roman gods. Laurel wreaths referenced Roman conquerors. "N"s, of course, stood for Napoleon.

The emperor stares soberly from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's astonishing 1806 painting "Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne." He's dressed in a lavish ermine and velvet robe embroidered with gold bees and holds a replica of Charlemagne's scepter. Ingres achieved a startling verisimilitude: The larger-than-life Napoleon looks as if he could step out of the 8-foot-tall canvas. But the portrait was rejected by the regime and critics: Napoleon had since abandoned references to Charlemagne to appear more modern, the monumental frontal pose was too old-school gothic, and it didn't look enough like Napoleon.

But this masterpiece radiates from the heart of this exhibition. Napoleon could be carved from stone, but curiously he seems to levitate off the floor, as if he is magic. The effect has something to do with how daintily his foot perches on the pillow footrest and how his body and throne disappear in his flowing robes.

Nearby in the gallery sits Napoleon's golden carved wood throne, featuring winged lions as the arms and front legs and velvet cushions embroidered with eagles, scales of justice, and scepters. One of four of Napoleon's thrones that survive in France, it features a simple, stout design that projects an aura of ancient power. It contrasts with an elegant red velvet upholstered gondola chair from the boudoir of Napoleon's wife, Josephine. Its arms are finely carved white wooden swans. Napoleon's royal "purple robe" (it actually appears deep red) is a silk, satin, and velvet cloak with shiny silver and gold embroidery of "N"s, bees, and foliage. Empress Josephine's gilded silver nef is a fabulous golden spice container in the shape of a ship.

An 1823 copy of Antoine-Jean Gros's painting "General Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken at Jaffa" depicts Napoleon visiting his sick French and Arab troops at a hospital in present-day Tel Aviv. Napoleon's aide covers his face while the general removes his glove and touches an ill man as if, like Christ, he could heal him. The painting is a triumph of propaganda, putting a heroic spin on Napoleon's disastrous campaigns in Egypt and the Holy Lands in 1798 and 1799, including his massacre of more than 2,500 prisoners.

Is the exhibit's wonderful cocoon of luxury one more propaganda coup for Napoleon? There's little here about France's wars, conquest, and looting that helped make possible all these pretty things. French artists and artisans weren't the only folks inspired by Napoleon; Francisco Goya was secretly etching "The Disasters of War" (not here), a nightmare of massacres, torture, rape, and famine in Spain under French occupation.

The empire collapsed after Napoleon's disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia, a brief comeback, and his final defeat by the British and their allies at Waterloo in 1814. When the empire fell, the French economy sank with it. French cabinetmakers had to use cheaper native light European woods like burr ash rather than rich mahogany imported from French colonies in Africa. Women's fashion returned to binding corsets and hoop skirts.

Napoleon himself was banished to the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena. There he died in 1821 at age 51, lying upon one of his beloved campaign beds.

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Symbols of Power: Napoleon and the Art of the Empire Style, 1800-1815

At: Museum of Fine Arts, Sunday through Jan. 27. 617-267-9300,