Paris in July – Napoleon: Revolution to Empire


Once again I’ve been alerted to some more fun by Julie of Angler’s Rest. This time the theme is to turn Francophile for July and write about something/anything French.  Paris in July 2012 is hosted by Karen from BookBath and Tamara from Thyme for Tea.

While visiting Melbourne recently we took the opportunity to see the Napoleon exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). It was quite an amazing display of art and artefacts from the Napoleonic era but, I don’t know about anyone else, by the time I reach the end of any grand exhibition my brain is quite overwhelmed. I find myself wishing for the opportunity to revisit them a little while later to fully digest the variety and content.

As I walked away I said to Mr Cassmob: what makes a man decide “I know, I’ll make myself Emperor” and why does an entire national population fall into line with that concept?  Napoleon must truly have been charismatic and a master of self-promotion. Certainly he had been successful in military campaigns but that doesn’t turn every successful general into the head of a country or an Emperor. I confess it seems weird to me but perhaps the historical nuances have been lost on me.

Below the flags and Napoleonic symbol on this Paris building are the words: liberté, égalité, fraternité.

The exhibition started, as the title suggests, with the events of the French Revolution and included portraits of a number of revolutionaries. It was interesting to see how the French patriotic cockade of red, white and blue was then incorporated into the art and design of the time, along with liberté, égalité, fraternité.  As time passed Napoleon’s rise was manifest in the objects of the era and the design elements of the swan and bee recurred. I did love the exquisite clock which represented the attempt to change how time was measured. The most impressive portrait, and the one making the grandest statement, was the painting of Napoleon on his horse: showing his power and success. Not surprisingly this was the feature image for the exhibition.  However what struck me was the simplicity of the furniture that Napoleon chose for his own use: clean lines without too much decoration (other than those swans!)

I admit that royalty and this type of flamboyance doesn’t do it for me, despite the intrinsic beauty of the ornaments, china and jewellery. What I found most intriguing was the reinforcement of how easily Australia could have become a French colony if France hadn’t more pressing matters on its hands at the time.

When I was a child we were not taught Australian history per se and the focus was all on Britain (!!). However over the years with reading and travel, and a different slant on modern history, the role of the French has become so much more apparent. The French explorers charted much of Australia’s coastline and any Sydneysider knows that La Perouse was just pipped to the Botany Bay post in 1788 by Captain Phillip with his load of convicts in Australia’s First Fleet (what would have happened to all those people had La Pérouse overturned Cook’s discovery and laid claim to the land for France?) Fortunately La Pérouse forwarded his charts and documents back to France via a British ship as the two French ships foundered on the way home with the loss of all hands though this was not known for many years.  I was impressed that even in the difficult time of the Revolution, Louis XVI continued to ask after the fate of his missing explorers.

The Empress Josephine was a keen enthusiast for Australia’s native flora and fauna.

Far fewer Australians will have heard of Nicholas Baudin’s exploration of Australia’s west coast in 1800 and his documentation of botanical and zoological discoveries. Baudin’s terms of reference from Napoleon were as follows:

You will make up this collection of living animals of all kinds, insects, and especially of birds with beautiful plumage. As regards animals, I don’t need to tell you how to choose between those intended for the menageries and those for a collection of pure pleasure. You will appreciate that it must comprise flowers, shrubs, seeds, shells, precious stones, timber for fine works of marquetry, insects, butterflies, etc. –Napoleon Bonaparte.[i]

The French ships returned with over 100,000 specimens and over seventy living animals. Can you imagine the kangaroos and emu taken from their native habitat and sailed across the wild oceans to the Old World. Poor creatures!  The art from these explorations was magnificently detailed. Also impressive was the fact that their shipboard artists painted the indigenous people and their lives as they encountered them.

Meanwhile the British had sent Matthew Flinders to follow much the same route to map the coast and discover more about this southern land. Like La Perouse and Cook, Flinders and Baudin tagged each other on this exploration, but to the victor goes the spoils and it is Flinders’ name that lives on. Names of the French explorers like D’Entrecastaux  and Freycinet survive in place names around Australia, and it would be difficult to find a more beautiful location than the Freycinet Peninsula in Tasmania.

Napoleon’s crest and laurel wreaths remain immortalised throughout Paris today.

The Empress Josephine incorporated the Australian native animals and plants brought back by the explorers into her residence Malmaison.  While many of the animals succumbed to the different climate in France, the black swans thrived and one stoic kangaroo lived until 1814. According to the exhibition website Josephine pioneered the planting of acacia, melaleuca and eucalyptus throughout France and propagated many species of Australian plants[ii], explaining in part why these plants are now seen around France. Napoleon also took an acacia with him when exiled to Elba.

On such small differences in timing, an entire pnation’s fate was determined. How easily we might all have been a French colony, perhaps with no convict history, and a completely different sense of who we are and our national characteristics.

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5 thoughts on “Paris in July – Napoleon: Revolution to Empire

  1. It’s a fascinating thought, isn’t it? And there’s the fact that at least one of my convicts would have been hung… and probably none of my ancestors would have met.
    I’d only heard about La Persouse recently. Thanks for setting the record straight.

  2. Pingback: More about Maps | Family history across the seas

  3. Like you Pauleen, I grew up with the names of England’s Kings & Queens drilled into my head but nothing about our Australian History, apart from C & C (Cook and the Convicts). As an aside… I’d like to follow Dr Richard Reid re: his title for the history of the Irish in Australia as “Not Just Ned” (as much as I adore the “story(s)” of Ned) and declare that the History of European Settlement in Oz should be called “Not Just Convicts” :-)
    We have a delightful South Coast beachside town here in South Australia with the name of “Encounter Bay” which commemorates that day, 8 Apr 1802, when British Explorer, Matthew Flinders and his French counterpart, Nicolas Baudin had what has been described as a “peaceful meeting despite their countries being at war”.
    Never realised before how close we were to being a colony of France and the huge difference that would have made, in the ways you’ve described. Thanks Pauleen.

    • I never did care much about those Kings and Queens :-) I’m not even a fan of Ned Kelly -much ado about nothing! I’ll have to see Encounter Bay one day. Not French -c’est la vie.

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