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One woman, two men. History in the Hermitage

Anonymous, France, after Gioacchino Giuseppe Serangeli, Napoleon and Alexander I Say Farewell in Tilsit in 1807, c. 1810. Oil on canvas
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

I had seen the posters of the Hermitage all over the city: Alexander, Napoleon & Josephine: a story of friendship, war and art. The website speaks of “Female power” and  the exhibition is at my favorite museum, the Hermitage. So I decided to visit and get inspired by these ‘three historical giants’.

Napoleon, Josephine, Alexander

The “three giants” and their characteristics

To start with the negatives; I hardly got any “female power” vibe. Yes, Joséphine collected her own art, and was popular with the people and the two men. So popular that even after divorcing her for not giving him children, she remained empress of France. (It was a riddle to me why he’d divorce her because of that – she did have two kids of an earlier marriage, so one could argue she should be able to deliver..?) There was no story of how they met, or what Joséphine brought him. Yes, mention was made of her beauty and intelligence, but the exhibition spoke of no real accomplishments in my opinion.

That Alexander and Napoleon liked each other became clear. Also because of the comical prints that were made by the British. This friendship however didn’t prevent Napoleon from trying to capture Russia. The Hermitage tells an impressive story about his Grande Armee. It was shocking to read that of an army of 600.000, only 30.000 returned. The stories of some Dutchmen who were part of this army – a love letter to ones mistress, a bullet that was captured from a mans neck and kept, a drawing made by a Dutch soldier – those things were impressive. Just like the uniforms and armory of the soldiers and generals. Worn by Alexander himself. Beautiful fine embroidered jackets, and magnificent golden swords. It also amazed me – the people back than were tiny! The only gown at the exhibition almost looked like a children’s dress…

What happened with the friendship between Alexander and Napoleon after his exile, is still unclear to me. But, Alexander did visit Joséphine and she gave him her precious Gonzaga cameo – part of the exhibition – , a present to him for letting her be. Hmmm… that was the second time she manages to keep her position. She must have been a clever woman… Alexander even asked her to move to St. Petersburg, but her early dead prevented her from doing so. By buying some of her art from her family, he provides for her children. Sounds like he had real warm feelings for her…

The collection has lovely pieces. The mosaic table with a ‘sea-theme’ is absolutely gorgeous. Napoleons death mask is utterly freaky. The locket with hair of Alexander is enchanting. Also, the entire setup is really stylish and well-done. So I would recommend it as a visit – but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed about the depth of the story.

The museum gift shop inspired me to check Storytel and download the biography of Joséphine by Kate Williams. So, you’ll know which book review will be next :) Luckily I managed to resist all the lovely Russian inspired jewelry there… *sigh*.

The exhibition is in The Hermitage till the 8th of November. I would recommend a visit, but don’t expect a very inspiring story.

Visit the Hermitage webpage of the exhibition

 

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1 Comment

  1. You insired me! I read the book about Napoleon ( by Bart van Loo). Shocking how many men were killed and wounded in all those wars.

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