Almost Everything About the Little Corporal at Muzeo's 'Treasures of Napoleon'

Climb every mountain
Image © Pierre-Jean Chalençon

Where’s the Little Corporal?
Muzeo’s exhibit will help you sort out the truth from the tall tales about Napoleon

In the graveyard of pop culture, Napoleon Bonaparte is often more sniggering caricature than formidable world leader: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton double-talk philosophy as they attempt to assassinate him in Love and Death; his biggest defeat—Waterloo—was turned into chart-topping bubble gum by Abba; he’s portrayed as a water-sliding doofus in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure; he reminisces about his invasion of Russia in Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace; and he meets his match in the form of Bugs Bunny in Napoleon Bunny-Part.

Dwarfish, pouty-lipped, lock of thinning hair draped over his forehead like a depressed French emo, his right hand scratching at the ample belly hidden under his jacket, Napoleon has become a symbol of every vertically challenged man desperate to prove his manhood, the famous bicorn-hat visual shorthand for “Please put me in a straitjacket.”

The reality is altogether different. Napoleon wasn’t French; he was Corsican. He was not short—at 5-foot-6, he was average for Frenchmen of his time. A brilliant militarist who engaged in many wars and won more than he lost, his strategies are still studied the world over. A gifted politician, he supported the French Revolution’s democratic ideals, creating the Napoleonic Code and leveling the playing field by limiting political positions inherited by class. He was erroneously blamed for ordering his armies to use the Sphinx for target practice, instead doing a great deal to bring Egyptology to Western civilization.

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Bonaparte was also a despot. He guaranteed certain freedoms that were far from inalienable, used secret police to remove enemies and flouted the law whenever he wished. He engaged in major war crimes, ordering the mass butchering of POWs (including women and children), and the Napoleonic Wars he waged were responsible for millions of deaths. He helped depose Louis XVIII, but set himself up as emperor for life. A voracious reader and art patron, he also censored artists and wielded art as a propaganda tool.

While Bonaparte was clearly not a saint, the volume of artifacts in the touring exhibition at Muzeo, “Treasures of Napoleon,” is certainly a shrine to the man. Curated brilliantly by Napoleon authority Pierre-Jean Chalençon, the more than 300 relics on display include one of his signature hats (battered and solitary in its glass case), funerary cloth, his Legion of Honor medal, various letters, personal maps and books, articles of clothing, busts, nearly pristine silverware, and a spartan canopy bed. Seems like his reportedly severed penis is the sole missing item. If you don’t know much about him, no worries: Posted information is accessible and thoroughly detailed. You’ll walk out impressed at Muzeo’s coup and in awe that you were “that close” to so many significant historical pieces.

Cross the plaza between the Muzeo buildings, past the concrete and oxidized-bronze mural honoring Anaheim’s war veterans, and marvel (without irony) at a military career that killed so many people it earned its subject a reputation as the Antichrist in some religious corners.

Next door is “The Knohl Collection: Treasures From the 1st and 2nd Empire,” two rooms full of rare artwork. The Knohls’ exquisite taste in painting is impressive. I was riveted by Harold H. Piffard’s oil painting Saragossa: 10 February, 1809 (inexplicably labeled Death In Saragossa here), detailing a cathedral under siege, gunsmoke filling the interior like incense, as French soldiers trample Spanish monks on the floor, while other monks wrap hands around their attackers’ throats, are in a Capa death fall or dive into the carnage swinging cutlasses, rosaries flapping in the breeze. Equally exciting is the odd historical battle pictured in Cambyses at Pelusium by Paul-Marie Lenoir: an army of Persian warriors on horseback throws cats into the air at Egyptian archers defending their city, most of whom crouch in horror as the felines fall from the sky.

Returning to the Napoleon theme is the serene Napoleon Rendant Visite Aux Blessés (roughly, Napoleon Returns to Visit the Wounded) by Paul Emile Boutigny, tidy propaganda with the dictator down on one knee before a wounded soldier, a military surgeon wiping his hands uninterestedly on a relatively unsoiled apron. An appropriate close to the exhibit is Paul Delaroche’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1848-1850), a reproach to Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse’s overblown Bonaparte Crossing the Alps By the Great Saint Bernard Pass. In Delaroche’s painting, there’s no horse rearing on its hind legs, rider wrapped in the billowing wings of a red cloak, pointing to the heavens, his men valiantly behind him. Instead, the painter shows us the real face of war: a sour-faced Napoleon sitting on a donkey, surrounded by a blanket of snow, as his men walk in the whiteness, hiding their faces. Not one of them looks at his general with admiration.

‘Treasures of Napoleon’ at Muzeo, 241 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 956-8936; Open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Jan. 8, 2010. $9-$13; children 3 and under, free.

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