Donation of a Napoleonic collection to Montreal

16/10/09 – Acquisitions – Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts – Born in 1924, the Canadian businessman Ben Weider who made his fortune in the body-building industry (he was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mentor !) was also a passionate student of the Napoleonic legend putting together a collection of art works and souvenirs related to the Emperor’s life.

He donated some of these objects in 2008 to the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montréal, thus justifying the reinstallation of several rooms for their presentation, accompanied by works already belonging to the museum (notably the few Neo-Classical paintings in its holdings) as well as long-term loans from private or public collections. Unfortunately, this generous donor was never able to view these rooms as he passed away just a few days before their inauguration, in October 2008. Since that date, as he had wished, his widow, Huguette Weider, has continued to donate works. Two paintings and a miniature have thus recently joined the museum [1].

We will not linger here on the relics (for example a boot, a hat, a shirt worn by Napoleon), the engravings or the miniatures focusing instead on the paintings, sculptures and a particularly important piece of furniture.

1. Workshop of François Gérard (1770-1837)
Bust portrait of Napoleon I in coronation costume, c. 1805
Oil on canvas - 142,2 x 96,5 cm
Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

-  Workshop of François Gérard, Bust portrait of Napoleon I (ill. 1). In 1805, Gérard painted a full-length portrait of the emperor standing in his coronation costume which became quite popular. Many replicas were produced by his workshop, of the whole work [2] or simply of the bust. These portraits were used notably for diplomatic gifts. This one, of very good quality, was probably given to an important figure as reflected by the imposing frame of sculpted wood.

2. Workshop of Berthel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844)
The Apotheosis of Napoleon I, c. 1830
Marble - 95 x 70 x 46 cm
Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

-  Workshop of Berthel Thorvaldsen, The Apotheosis of Napoleon I (ill. 2). Just like Gérard’s portrait, this bust of Napoleon by Thorvaldsen was often reproduced. There are in fact five known workshop replicas produced after the original held in the museum devoted to this sculptor in Copenhaguen [3].

3. Attributed to Jacob Frères
Napoleon Ier and Josephine’s Filing cabinet
from La Malmaison’s library, after 1796
Mahogany, amaranth, oak, leather, cardboard, marble,
copper, gilt bronze - 151 x 102 x 41 cm
Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

-  Attributed to Jacob Frères, Filing cabinet (ill. 3). This important piece of furniture comes from La Malmaison. It was probably commissioned by Napoleon from the Jacob brothers, in 1800, with the rest of the furniture for the château.

4. Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)
Bonapart Entering Cairo, c. 1897
Bronze - 41 x 36.5 x 15 cm
Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts
Photo : MBAM

-  Jean-Léon Gérôme, Bonapart Entering Cairo (ill. 4). This is an edition bronze, founded by Siot-Deauville. The figure of Bonaparte greeting the crowds at the end of the Egyptian campaign, recalls, probably intentionally, Jesus entering Jerusalem. The representations of the campaign in Egypt (see notably the Plague Victims of Jaffa by Gros) often assimilated the future emperor to the Christ figure.

5. Vincenzo Vela (1820-1891)
Napoleon’s Last Days, after 1867
Bronze - 43 x 30 x 39.5 cm
Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts
Photo : MBAM

-  Vincenzo Vela, Napoleon’s Last Days (ill. 5). A far cry from the victorious emperor represented by Gérôme, here the emperor is seen a defeated, though dignified, man close to the end. This is a reduction by Barbedienne of a large marble exhibited by the Italian sculptor at the Universal Exhibition of 1867 where it was acquired by Napoleon III. Today it has been placed on deposit by the Musée d’Orsay at the château de La Malmaison.

6. Ernest Crofts (1847-1911)
The Last Assault, Waterloo, 1895
Oil on canvas
Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts
Photo : MBAM

-  Ernest Crofts, The Last Assault, Waterloo (ill. 6). A painter specialized in battle scenes, Crofts was a bit the equivalent of Meissonnier in England. Fascinated especially by the battle of Waterloo, he described all of its different stages in twelve paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1875, of which this is one.

7. Laslett John Pott (1837-1898)
Arriving in front of Moscow, 1892
Oil on canvas
Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

-  Laslett John Pott, Arriving in front of Moscow (ill. 7). A painter of British history, Pott specialized notably in Napoleonic subjects. This painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1897.

Didier Rykner, vendredi 16 octobre 2009


[1] The two canvases which were just donated are the Crofts (ill. 6) and the Pott (ill. 7).

[2] Château de Versailles, Château de Fontainebleau, Louvre, Château de Malmaison, Ajaccio city hall (Corsica),…

[3] This bust was recently shown in Paris in the exhibition Portraits publics, portrait privés (see article in French).

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