MILITARY LEADER Napoleon Bonaparte, who swept through Europe two centuries ago, arrived last month in downtown Washington. And he won't be staying long. Kids can catch a glimpse of the famous French general at "Napoleon: An Intimate Portrait," a traveling exhibit premiering at the National Geographic Museum.
The exhibit abounds with likenesses of the self-proclaimed French emperor, including the first known portrait at age 28 and a sketch finished 14 hours after his death. All 250 items are from the private collection of Pierre-Jean Chalencon (pronounced Shal-len-sawn), whose curiosity was kindled at age 7 by a cartoon about Napoleon. Chalencon, now in his mid-thirties, received his first piece of Napoleona at age 14 from his mother and sold his motor scooter at 17 to buy more.
A bisque porcelain bust of Napoleon crowned with gilded laurel (a la the Roman emperors) greets visitors at the exhibit entrance, and stirring music enlivens the air. In fact, Napoleon, a savvy self-promoter, commissioned much of this artwork and music himself. The man in the pictures is imposing indeed -- a strong-willed warrior, an ambitious ruler in ermine-trimmed cloak.
But a close look at the personal items on display yields a more nuanced portrait. Like us all, Napoleon's life was filled with stuff: pins, toothpaste, games, books and, of course, underwear. Nothing humanizes an emperor like a peek at his skivvies.
"Kids can get a real sense of Napoleon as a person from the exhibit," says Susan Norton, museum director. "He has great name recognition, but most Americans know only a handful of things about him, and many of these are untrue. We think Napoleon was short; he was actually 5-6, an average height for the time. We think of him as a forceful, almost mean, ruler, but he loved his family." Napoleon showered his seven siblings with royal titles and gifts. On display is the magnificent canopied bed of his youngest brother, Jerome, whom Napoleon named the King of Westphalia.
Born on the island of Corsica in 1769, Napolione di Buonaparte (he later used the French spelling) was sent to a French military school at age 9. Teased for his thick accent, the lonely boy immersed himself in his studies, including the math text and atlas on display. It's interesting to contrast the rounded letters of a missive written at age 14 to the spiky flourishes of the will he penned at 51.
Napoleon's rise to power was meteoric. From his commission as 2nd lieutenant in the French artillery at age 16, Napoleon went on to distinguish himself in battle after battle. Returning from Egypt, he seized power in 1799 from the French government and helped restore political and economic stability to a nation in chaos after the revolution. With the blessing of Pope Pius VII, he crowned himself emperor of France at age 35 in 1804. A copy of the well-known oil painting by Jacques-Louis David commemorates the moment when Napoleon made his beloved wife, Josephine, his empress ("Consecration of Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on 2 Dec. 1804"). Exhibit text points out a bit of artistic license. The painting depicts Napoleon's mother smiling over the lavish ceremony when in actuality, jealous of Josephine, she had refused to attend.
Yearning in middle age for an heir, Napoleon divorced Josephine to marry Marie-Louise, an Austrian archduchess 22 years his junior. The proud papa proclaimed their baby the King of Rome. A bust captures the pudgy cheeks and wispy hair of the little royal, Napoleon II, whom Napoleon I, in exile, never saw past the age of 3.
Napoleon's later years were marked by yet more battles. Engravings of starving French soldiers recognize the ill-fated campaign in Russia. Following defeat and abdication in 1814, Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba off the coast of Italy. He then escaped to reign again during a period known as "The Hundred Days" but met a crushing defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
His final exile on St. Helena, a remote island in the south Atlantic Ocean, reveals him at his most poignant. The silver service on view is quite rare as Napoleon had to hammer down much of it to buy food. A scrap of paper from his English lessons reveals his struggle to learn the language of his captors. Death came in 1821. The great general was buried on St. Helena in a wooden coffin, a fragment of which is displayed. (His remains were later moved to Paris, in accordance with his wishes.)
Napoleon may be front and center at the exhibit, but another portrait shimmers below the surface: that of curator Chalencon, who organized the exhibit from his 500-piece collection with the Russell Etling Co. in Miami. Chalencon has parlayed his childhood passion into a career as a noted scholar, lecturer and author on his fellow Frenchman. According to museum director Norton, Chalencon honors the dynamic spirit of the emperor by actually using the things he has amassed. He keeps the pieces in his Parisian apartment and will even bring out Napoleon's silver service for dinner guests. Chalencon believes his collection should not be tucked into a museum storehouse but appreciated by the living, Norton says.
Ending the exhibit with Napoleon's trademark cocked hat honors both the subject of and the impulse behind the collection. "There's a story behind Pierre's acquisition of the hat," Norton says. Apparently, a well-known private collector gave the young man the hat -- with one string attached. When the time comes, Chalencon must pass it on to another young collector.
NAPOLEON: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT -- Through Jan. 2 at the National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall, 1145 17th St. NW (Metro: Farragut North). 202-857-7588. www.nationalgeographic.com/museum. Open Monday through Saturday 9 to 5; Sundays 10 to 5. Closed Dec. 25. Free. The exhibit is appropriate for ages 8 and older. A Web site designed for the exhibit (www.napoleonexhibit.com) provides more detail on items.
On Nov. 11 at 7, the museum will show the film "Monsieur N." in the Grosvenor Auditorium at 1600 M St. NW. The film explores Napoleon's final years in exile on St. Helena. A special viewing of the exhibition will take place before the screening from 5 to 6:45. To order tickets ($6 for members, $8 for nonmembers), call 202-857-7700 or visit Nationalgeographic.com/nglive or the ticket office at 1600 M St. NW weekdays from 9 to 5. The box office opens 45 minutes before the film.