It's a big deal. You know it as soon as you see the outdoor ticket booths, roped-off concourses and metal detectors -- not your normal NOMA trappings. Of course, there are good reasons for this, since so many rare and valuable objects have been loaned from institutions all over France and America. The Louisiana Purchase was a big part of American history, so it is fitting that this show is an official Big Deal. All that pomp and circumstance is unusual for an art show, but this is really a history show that involves notions of national destiny more than the sense of intimacy that ordinarily attends the process of relating to art.
A show like this can also be difficult in the sense that the paintings, sculptures, documents and historic artifacts seen here are evidence of certain times, persons and places, yet the events they refer to can only be inferred, recollected from the history books or, more likely, from an eight-minute movie that is shown upon entering the museum. And the Louisiana Purchase was pretty slippery stuff, a result of French panic and American opportunism, and might not have even been legal. Even so, it is possible to contemplate the more interesting of these objects and come away with a better sense of Jefferson's world, Napoleon's world and the life of Louisiana at the start of the 19th century.
Close scrutiny reveals that neither Jefferson nor Napoleon was entirely like our cliched perceptions of them. Both were geniuses, but of a very different sort. That much is obvious in their chairs. Jefferson has in recent years become a symbol of complexity, a well-born Virginia gentleman planter who tempered his fondness for fine things with an egalitarian outer facade. His chair is a federal-style Easy Chair made somewhat uneasy by its tall, rigidly straight back. Napoleon's Throne From the Legislative Assembly is a gold gilt frou-frou encrusted relic with arms shaped like winged lions.
Although Napoleon grew up middle class in Corsica, his political genius effectively nudged France from republic to empire. But he first gained fame as a military genius and was romanticized as such in numerous portraits, for instance in images in which he is seen in a flowing cape and on a rearing stallion as he crosses the Alps. (In fact, he crossed the Alps on a mule). By contrast, Gilbert Stuart's Portrait of Thomas Jefferson shows him simply as a man of letters, appropriate to the inquisitive inventor, architect, writer and statesman that he was. Other portraits by Charles Willson Peal and Rembrandt Peale are even simpler views of Jefferson as a proper citizen, perhaps an unlikely candidate for the revolutionary who penned the Declaration of Independence and indirectly inspired the French Revolution.
Ironically, both men died in reduced circumstances, Napoleon in exile, and Jefferson in bankruptcy. So much for history and destiny. As for intimacy, there are some items that, while of little consequence to destiny, are distinctly humanizing touches. For instance, Napoleon's Necessaire, the travelling kit he took with him to the Battle of Austerlitz, is a finely crafted wooden box containing essential toiletries, a mirror, writing pen, pocket knife and, of course, a folding corkscrew. And of all the paintings in the show, Robert Lafevre's Portrait of Pauline Bonaparte is one of the most intriguing, a likeness of Napoleon's stylishly saucy sister. With her closely cropped hair and low-cut, see-through Empire style gown, she might upstage Madonna were she around today.
Really big deals can be almost oppressive, but unexpected and personal touches can make history come alive. And it is these unexpected insights -- including John de Woiseri's View of New Orleans From the Plantation of Marigny, 1803, where the city looks rather like a Caribbean pirate town -- that enliven this show as well. Even so, I found few references to the famous local plot to spirit Napoleon from exile and bring him to reside in the French Quarter at the Girod House (now better known as the Napoleon House). In true local fashion, the conspirators schemed and argued for so long that Napoleon finally died before anything could be done about it. Or so most locals believe. Others remain firm in their conviction that his final resting place is under an ancient oak, somewhere along the bayous.