Letter home: From Napoleon to American Gothic, a journey in art

Detail: François-Pascal-Simon Gérard (1770-1837), Portrait of Napoleon, Emperor of the French, in Ceremonial Robes, 1805, oil on canvas. Château de Fontainebleau-Musée Napoléon Ier. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY / Gérard Blot.

Typically, I write about art in Ottawa, but a person has to hit the road once in a while, which I did recently, and rode the railway to Montreal, New York and Philadelphia. Here are three special exhibitions to consider for your spring/early-summer travels.

Napoleon: Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace, to May 10 at the Musée des beaux arts, Montreal: Napoleon knew the symbolic and political power of pageantry and the unbridled luxury of court. This exhibition considers it all, from field life with the Grande Armée into the private boudoirs of the emperor and those who were closest to him.
There are more than 400 objects from 50 lenders, including the Chateau de Fontainbleu, the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, each of them once a part of the “imperial household.”
The first impression is the boldest — Gérard’s defining portrait of the emperor in ceremonial robes, trimmed in fur and adorned with gold, emulating the very royals he had deposed. Nearby is Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau, by Gros, who never let propaganda get in the way of a great painting. In this version, painted to win the commission for the larger, final version that hangs in the Louvre, the emperor seems to bless the wounded and freezing soldiers, his arm extended over all as if in consecration, like the hand of Michelangelo’s God.

Antoine-Jean Gros, French, 1771-1835; Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau; 1807;oil on canvas;H: 41 1/4 in. (104.9 cm); W: 57 1/8 in. (145.1 cm)


Even the emperor’s horses — Distinguished, Triumphant and Sheik — sat (stood) for portraits, as seen in the section on the imperial stables, which were essential for travel between the 50-plus châteaux and residences that comprised the imperial household.
There are hunting carbines with exquisitely carved stocks, and a gilded dinner setting for a dozen or so that is richer than even French food could be.
There are garments, furniture, and a giant bird cage that Napoleon commissioned to alleviate the boredom of exile on St. Helena. Items can be as intimate as they are fantastic, such as Napoleon’s “dental-surgery kit,” wrought in gold, ebony and mother of pearl.
Nothing is so intimate, though, as the final painting in the exhibition, of Napoleon on his deathbed, initially sketched by a British officer on May 6, 1821, the day after the former emperor’s death, and 197 years almost to the day this exhibition closes.
Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables, to June 10 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City: Grant Wood likely is, for the great majority of viewers, a one-hit wonder, the maker of American Gothic, that most iconic of American paintings.
This “most comprehensive Wood retrospective ever mounted” upends that misapprehension by bringing together other masterful works, in a demonstration of narrative paintings that are sometimes surreal, sometimes comic, and that always testify to his love for the people and the land they work.

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930. Oil on composition board, 30 3⁄4 x 25 3⁄4 in. (78 x 65.3 cm). Art Institute of Chicago; Friends of American Art Collection 1930.934. © Figge Art Museum, successors to the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photograph courtesy Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY


American Gothic is the crowd pleaser, and a tremendous painting it is. Wood’s sister and his dentist posed as straight and upright as the pitchfork in the dentist’s hand, or the titular window on the house behind them. It is one of those American paintings that is so familiar from posters and homages — like Hopper’s Nighthawks or Wyeth’s Christina’s World — that to see the real thing should be anti-climactic. Yet there it is, of modest dimensions — only 62 by 74 centimetres, or 25 by 29 inches — and stern and humourless, but oh so potent. There can be no doubt of the artist’s reverence for the community and self-reliance these people represent.
It is such a contrast to the other best works in the exhibition, including a half-dozen or so paintings that Wood completed in the 12 years after American Gothic made him a star in 1930, each of them built upon what co-curator Barbara Haskell calls his “mesmerizing psychological ambiguity” and “archetypal Midwestern imagery.”
The paintings have an “unsettling solitude and chilling sense of make believe,” Haskell notes, which Wood used to address “the unresolved tensions of the American experience” — his reverence for those hard-working people, against the hard times that America faced in the 1930s.
Ornamental Decoration, also painted in 1930, shows a fine, new home surrounded by lush greenery with horse and rider passing by, as if Henri Rousseau had redone a Currier and Ives print, adding in 50 shades of green and groves of ball-shaped trees. It’s a beautiful scene, with an undeniable, yet undefinable, tension.
The Golfer, from 1940, is a portrait of a man with swung club raised, his necktie at a jaunty tip. He looks to the distance for his receding ball, but seems to search for the future of the nation in uncertain times. (“It looks like Mike Pence,” a gallery-goer said, and it most certainly did.)

Grant Wood (1891-1942); Parson Weems’ Fable; 1939; oil on canvas; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas; 1970.43

Most effective after the dour American Gothic — and almost comic by comparison — is Parson Weem’s Fable, with future president George Washington, still a boy but with the adult Washington’s head, not lying about having chopped down the proverbial cherry tree. Wood was wary of mythology unbound, and in the background two black slaves are working. Conflicting and, indeed, mesmerizing.

Design in Revolution: A 1960s Odyssey, to Sept. 9 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From afar, the world of the 1960s seems like an LSD-induced burst of innovative — or insane, depending on your tastes — style. Those paper dresses, the transparent chairs, the rock concert promo posters with their indecipherably stylized letters, each one emblematic of the decade’s struggle between form and function.
So much of the decade’s style strove to be something else — the comfy (one presumes) chair that looks like Joe Dimaggio’s baseball glove, the TV that looks like an Apollo astronaut’s helmet. Here was an age trying to figure itself out, to be something else and, ideally, better.

Designed by Victor Moscosco, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Horns of Plenty, Mount Rushmore, Quicksilver Messenger Service, 1967. Offset lithograph.


Yet there was darkness, and nobody brought pop art and tragedy together more prominently than Andy Warhol. Lithographs include the doomed Marilyn Monroe, and the widowed Jackie Kennedy. Next to them, shedding a tear, is Roy Lichenstein’s Crying Girl, itself a tug-of-war between harsh reality and comic-book fantasy.
There are photographs of the Birmingham riots, and the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr, all near two assembled rooms that best encapsulate the decade; each room is filled with “space-age” furniture, and dominated by a screen wall of video footage of moon landings, of race riots.
It was the decade of “the living room war,” when television beamed the outside world into homes, even as everything inside the homes seemed to be changing, including the television.
Share Post
Written by

Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.