Published: April 15, 2003
The Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial in New Orleans
By Karla Klein Albertson
Embedded in the heart of a city that still bears the strong stamp of French culture, the New Orleans Museum of Art has organized “,” a major exhibition of nearly 300 paintings, documents and artifacts along with important furniture and decorative arts. Due to the delicate nature of many of the exhibits from both sides of the Atlantic, New Orleans will be the show’s unique venue for a long run through August 31, but the event will be accompanied by a scholarly catalog with numerous essays that will remain an important reference for historians and collectors.
The curator for the exhibition is Dr Gail Feigenbaum, formerly curator of painting at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) and now associate director of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. One of her first assignments in Louisiana had been to put together a Degas exhibition to commemorate 300 years of French culture in the state. “Almost as soon as I was done with that, I recognized that the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial was coming up, and that this was an opportunity we shouldn’t pass up since it was a tremendously important event for the United States,” she recalls. “What I wasn’t bargaining for when I began planning was that we would be asking the French to ship their loans on the day we were busy declaring war on Iraq.”
Feigenbaum’s co-curator is Bernard Chevallier, the well-known director of the Musee National du Chateau de Malmaison, the residence of Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte outside of Paris, and the curator-on-site in New Orleans is Victoria Cooke, the current curator of painting at NOMA.
Within the exhibition, the Louisiana Purchase and its historical context are brought to life through the actual documents of the transaction, through biography and portraiture of the principal personalities — Jefferson, Napoleon and his wife Josephine — and through their personal possessions that illustrate the Empire or Classical style of the period. Although art historians and collectors may be more interested in the latter two categories, the show’s centerpiece is the joint display of three documents that consummated the transfer of land, on display together for the first time, including the exchange copy of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty with US Senate authorization signed by Thomas Jefferson and the convention for payment of sums due signed by Napoleon.
Much is made in the press of the average Joe’s ignorance of American history, so a brief refresher course may be in order, taken from Feigenbaum’s keynote essay in the catalog: “…with just a few strokes of a pen, the Louisiana Purchase more than doubled the size of the United States…. While the exact borders of the Louisiana Territory have never been entirely certain, approximately 827,987 square miles changed hands when France sold the land to the United States for the sum of fifteen million dollars. It worked out to about four cents an acre, which seems a bargain price in today’s dollars, but put quite a strain on the young country’s small treasury. The money to finance the Purchase had to be borrowed from banks in London and Amsterdam.” In an interview, the curator noted in more direct language that, at the time, “It wasn’t a slam dunk that it would be ‘sea to shining sea.'” America’s “manifest destiny” of a country stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific was not yet apparent.
In the long years of research and organization, Feigenbaum’s strongest motivation was her fascination with the relationship of France and the United States as they existed at the turn of the Nineteenth Century. “The exhibits tell the extraordinary story of two different nations at the same time, between which there were many intensive conversations and relations and interconnected stories,” she points out. “These sister republics had evolved after revolutions within only a few years of one another and very much in relation to one another and were joined by the idea of liberty that had been propounded by the French philosophes. These concepts were very important to Jefferson and the architects of the American Revolution and Declaration of Independence. And, in turn, the French drew inspiration from the American Revolution and helped our patriots win it.”
Shared ideals, however, stand side-by-side with diverging paths in history.
She continues, “In France after Revolution and its unfortunate aftermath, the Reign of Terror, there emerged a dictator and emperor who was a usurper of power, while the American political model, which was very precarious at the time, nevertheless resulted in Jefferson coming legitimately to power in spite of a very difficult and disputed election. While we have Napoleon crowning himself Emperor in 1804, we have Jefferson being duly elected in a peaceful, democratic election to a second term.”
To illustrate her point about these two personalities, Feigenbaum has chosen a group of revealing portraits of Napoleon and Jefferson and their contemporaries: “The iconography of rulership was so striking — these portraits of Jefferson showing him as a man of intellect and a man of philosophy, a ruler plain of the people. Although he was an American aristocrat and a slaveholder to boot, he had no pretensions to monarchy or dictatorship. Jefferson’s portrait placed next to that of Napoleon, dressed in ermine robes with the regalia of Charlemagne, is an absolutely fascinating comparison.”
The sharp contrast is underlined by the juxtaposition of furniture and decorative arts once owned by the two men — for example, Napoleon’s gilded throne from the Legislative Assembly and Jefferson’s simple barrel back chair armchair. The complex story of the two countries and their period styles are far more complex, however, than just fancy France versus plain America. Members of the Bonaparte family were very fond of the younger country. Napoleon’s elder brother Joseph had a home in New Jersey and younger brother Jerome was married to a Baltimore girl, Elizabeth Patterson, until the Emperor insisted on a more dynastic marriage in Europe. In turn, Thomas Jefferson — like many other Americans at the time — was an ardent Francophile who had lived in Paris as a diplomat during the turbulent years of 1784 to 1789.
The figure most responsible for making France’s Empire style fashionable through the western world was not Napoleon himself but his charming wife Josephine. Born of poor but aristocratic parents in Martinique, the future empress had crossed the Atlantic to marry Vicomte Alexandre de Beauharnais in 1779 at the age of 16. Bonaparte met her as a young widow circulating within the inner circles of Parisian society. While Napoleon was enamored with the archaeological trappings of ancient Egypt and Rome that he encountered during his military campaigns, Josephine was able after their marriage in 1796 to turn classical modes in design and dress into a truly international style that was adopted from St Louis to St Petersburg.
Feigenbaum comments, “This nation which has rejected the pomp and circumstance of monarchy with Jefferson in the lead, nevertheless takes up with incredible enthusiasm the Empire style in their furniture. They wanted to sit on chairs like the ones in France and wanted to wear the kind of dresses the Empress Josephine was wearing. Yet, we retained an American kind of modesty. The American ideal of women expressed Republican virtue; they were self-reliant wives and mothers, well-equipped to build a new nation. Women who could manage a household and deal with things while their husbands were off building a country. And this ideal was quite different from the charming French seductress.”
American portraits and letters of the period illustrate quite clearly how quickly French fashions made the trip from Paris salons to American dining rooms. Josephine in the elaborate gown she wore at her Coronation in December 1804 quickly became a widely circulated image, which was translated into high-waisted costumes for American women such as the sheer muslin gown in the exhibition on loan from the Museum of the City of New York. The Bonapartes also disseminated the style of their new Empire through the luxurious personal objects they commissioned from noted French craftsmen for their residences.
Among the American museums and historical societies listed as lenders, Monticello was the source of many Jefferson exhibits, and the installation offers a “virtual environment” version of the famous house thar brings Jefferson’s architectural design into the exhibition. On the French side, Bonaparte’s residence at Chateau de Malmaison is the best-known lender, but important exhibits have also been sent by museum of Franco-American Cooperation (Musee de la Cooperation Franco-Americaine) at the Chateau de Blerancourt, outside of Paris and by the Fondation Napoleon.
Exhibits on display in New Orleans range from a fantasy chair of Roman shape with swan arms made for Josephine’s bedroom suite to Napoleon’s traveling toilet kit that he traveled with while on campaign.
Victoria Cooke, NOMA’s curator of painting explains, “The Fondation Napoleon primarily does research, and they have an amazing collection which is very rarely seen. The objects that they have lent are very personal — things that belonged to Napoleon, belonged to Josephine — so they’re extraordinarily precious in that regard — Josephine’s jewelry, the tea set, the necessaire that Napoleon took with him to the battle of Austerlitz and then to St Helena.” Also from France have come artifacts, collected by early explorers, for the exhibition’s section on Native American cultures in the Louisiana Territory, such as the Painted Robe from the Illinois/Quapaw tribe on loan from the Musee des Beaux-Arts et d’Archeologie at Besancon.
At a remove of 200 years, it seems incredible that France so easily let go the vast tract of land that has become the heart of the United States. Napoleon’s interest in the New World, however, had quickly waned when he lost control over the important sugar island of Saint Domingue (Haiti) in the Caribbean, which then was the big moneymaker for which mainland America was only a support facility. His political ambitions were ultimately focused on conquest in the older worlds of Europe and the Mediterranean.
With First Lady Laura Bush serving as honorary chair for “,” the exhibition will attract visitors from around the world. In addition to the large catalog and a smaller commemorative publication, the museum is offering a video and teacher’s guide for schools on “The Louisiana Purchase Story.”
Information on tickets and publications can be found at www.noma.org and by calling 504-488-2631 or 888-820-1803.
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