Arthur Chevallier: “Napoleon is not just linked to political history; he can also be a role-model”

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Arthur Chevallier, a thirty-year-old on the go, already the author of several notable works on Napoleonic history, including, very recently, Napoleon and Bonapartism in the prestigious French book series “Que sais-je?” (a sort of super-charged version of “X for Dummies”), is one of the main curators of the exhibition concisely entitled “Napoleon“, organised by the French national museums directorate, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais (RMPN-GP) and the Grande Halle de La Villette exhibition space. It is to open on 14 April and to run until 19 September 2021. This exhibition is designed to be a great matching bookend to the great 1969 exhibition (bicentenary of Napoleon’s birth) held at the Grand Palais, and it was particularly difficult to design and set up, notwithstanding the collaboration of some of the greatest museums (…and the Fondation Napoléon). Of course, times have changed a little in 51 years, and while the proposed “biopic” exhibition leaves nothing to be desired in terms of grandeur and glory, political and personal, achievements and victories, it has also been necessary to make room for “contemporary sensibilities” with the aim of explaining and putting them into context, but without giving them an inordinate amount of space. Though constantly on the move, Arthur Chevallier very kindly accepted to give up a few minutes of his time to answer our questions.

(January 2021)


Arthur Chevallier: “Napoleon is not just linked to political history; he can also be a role-model”
© D. R. You are, along with Bernard Chevallier, to whom, it should be pointed out, you are not related in any way, one of the principal curators of the “Napoleon” exhibition produced by the RMN-GP and La Grande Halle de La Villette, which will be inaugurated in April of this year. What criteria did you use to define a life that was, putting it mildly, rich in events?

Arthur Chevallier: The exhibition is aimed at all audiences, including those with no former knowledge of Napoleon’s life. With the teams of the RMN-GP and the curating team we adopted the simplest approach, namely, to proceed in chronological order, from Napoleon’s arrival at the school in Brienne in 1779 to his departure for St Helena in 1815. Via this simple layout we intended that the narrative of an exceptional life would provide a picture of an era in which our modernity was founded. Or to put it another way: in this exhibition Napoleon is the main character and French history is the backdrop. It was also an opportunity to shed fresh light on subjects in which scholarly research has made considerable progress over the last thirty years. Some will say that this sort of thing is a matter for specialists; I would reply that this essential dissemination of knowledge has always been the purview of exhibitions. The history of France does not belong to historians; this is an opportunity to demonstrate this.

A number of prestigious museums are partners of this exhibition. What are the highlights on show?

Arthur Chevallier: We are fortunate to be associated with the Palace of Versailles, the Chateâu de Fontainebleau, Malmaison, the Mobilier National (French National Furniture Depository), the Louvre and so we will have some exceptional works to show the visiting public. As you know, the Fondation Napoléon is lending no less than 26 works from its collection. There’s no room to mention them all, but I’d just like to point out Baron Gros’ Bonaparte at Arcole, David’s Napoleon crossing the Great Saint Bernard Pass, Gérard’s Napoleon in his coronation robes, and Vela’s Napoleon’s last moments. As for historical memorabilia, the list is long and impressive: the so-called “coronation sword”; Napoleon’s throne from the Senate; a court coat belonging to Josephine; the King of Rome’s cradle; one of Napoleon’s carriages, a furnished campaign tent; and, of course, a hat. Added to those, the famous charge of the Battle of Eylau as depicted in the film Le Colonel Chabert, projected on a giant screen is sure to be really spectacular.

You speak of a period in which modernity was founded, others will tell you that there were mistakes, sometimes serious, made by Napoleon as well. How do you deal with these sensitive subjects?

Arthur Chevallier: No-one has anything to gain by avoiding what could be called Napoleon’s “mistakes”. The re-establishment of slavery is certainly not to his credit, nor is the codification of the inferior place of women in the family as a matter of law. These decisions are evoked in this exhibition openly and with intellectual rigour, in other words, the context is specified, as are the causes and consequences. Parts of the exhibition will explain these issues, with the help of specialists.

It is not a question of putting Napoleon on trial, but rather of refusing to omit a subject because it might displease. Explaining the conditions in which slavery was re-established does not mean condoning the re-establishment of slavery. The history of Napoleon, like the history of France, like any history of any country, and even of any individual, is not virtuous by nature. It is imperfect, sometimes unpleasant, of course, but it is ours, whether we like it or not. That is why we should not be afraid to confront it. It is a reason for courage and integrity. While still bearing in mind that the politicisation of knowledge, whether by those on the right or the left, is by its very nature contrary to its function.

In the official ceremonies concerning Napoleon, it is extremely rare to see any government representative. Similarly, Napoleon is not one of the “great men” in French history to whom politicians refer. In your opinion, is this occasion and indeed this bicentenary an opportunity to reconcile the French Republic and Napoleon?

Arthur Chevallier: We can’t say there has been a shortage of opportunities for this reconciliation until now. The authoritarian aspect of the First Empire embarrasses politicians. They forget that Napoleon was also the promoter of the egalitarianism brought about by the French Revolution; it’s obvious, but there you go. Whilst the First Empire was not a model of liberalism, Napoleon himself was a model of freedom. He may have loved France less than he loved life, in the fullest sense of that word. His life is a masterful demonstration in favour of disobedience, recklessness and even creativity. In spite of his warlike attitude, he showed something of an irreverence towards those who thought themselves superior to him. As showed by his reaction to the contempt of the monarchies of Europe for the French Revolution, of which he was the representative and the inheritor. For him, there was no question of France being taken for the village idiot of Europe. So, he handed out punishments: Austerlitz, Jena, Eylau, Friedland, etc. Napoleon is not only linked to political history, he could even be considered to be a model, one according to which saying “no” to whomever orders you to say “yes” is a virtue, one according to which courage is not simply an option in life, but the only proof of a person’s vitality. Moreover, and this is no coincidence, Napoleon’s famous detractors were often sycophants, courtiers, petty cultivators of grand mediocrity, incapable of perceiving the beauty of the demiurge so hobbled were they by mimicry and moderation. Yes, Napoleon is the wild horse of the republican ideal, of this famous and very French pretention, where excess and insolence try to out-do each other. And all in the name of an “idea” whose very charm comes from the fact that it is self-sufficient, namely: France.

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