Pierre-Jean Chalencon was 13 when his father gave him a book about French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
“And I thought the first time it was a cartoon,” he says. “My father says no, it’s not like Superman, Napoleon exists, I’m going to show you his house, his country house!”
After that visit to Chateau Malmaison, itself now a museum dedicated to Napoleonic art and artifacts, the young Chalencon found himself bitten by the collecting bug. Thirty years later, he’s amassed an impressive private collection of art, military history artifacts and personal effects of the emperor, from his rise to power and coronation through his death in exile.
A portion of Chalencon’s collection is on display at the Frazier History Museum through February 9.
“The Eye of Napoleon” includes of more than 200 pieces, including a small studio model of the iconic Jacques-Louis David painting “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” and an array of artwork from Napoleon’s own collection, plus jewelry, china, snuff boxes, coronation artifacts and an opulent bed that belonged to his brother.
The focal point for many will be the item most identified with Napoleon: one of his bicorne hats. This particular hat (Napoleon had many) is a lightweight summer model that he presented to one of his generals after the 1809 Battle of Essling. Chalencon says it’s one of only two or three still in private hands.
“It’s a big focus. It’s an image. It’s an iconic piece. It’s not maybe my favorite piece, but for a lot of people, that’s their image of the guy,” he says.
Chalencon’s favorite piece is a small bronze statue of Napoleon, deep in thought. He says the emperor kept it in his private office, first in Tuileries Palace and later in Élysées Palace. It’s fascinating to see which depictions of himself the man identified with the most, especially within an exhibit that ranges from the historic (Napoleon’s map of the French Empire in 1812, china he used at the Battle of Waterloo) to the intimately trivial (Empress Josephine’s daughter’s silver-handled toothbrush).
And in this way, Chalencon says the exhibit reflects the man behind the office – Napoleon wasn’t just an emperor, he was a husband, a father, a man.
“It’s not just a big statue, not just a grave at Les Invalides. This man was like you and me, he was a human guy,” he says.
On the other hand, Napoleon’s achievements as a self-made man paved the way for others in Europe and beyond. Not descended from the French aristocracy, the native of Corsica began his military career during the tumult of the French Revolution and rose to fame when he quelled a Paris royalist rebellion against the new republic in 1795. He would seize control of France four years later. In 1804, Pope Pius VII crowed him emperor of France.
“Napoleon was a very modern guy. He was maybe the first American guy, the first American way of life, before Rockefeller, before Getty, before Bill Gates,” says Chalencon. “And we have his [Napoleonic] Civil Code, which we use everywhere in the world, in America, in France, in Europe. Napoleon was a man of the future.”
Napoleon died in exile on the British island of St. Helena, off the west coast of Africa, in 1821. The exhibit’s final chamber contains personal effects from that time, including fine china, a crystal glass and a silver tea box, as well as a rare set of letters Napoleon wrote himself in 1817.
“He was maybe in exile, but he was eating from silver dishes,” says Chalencon with a laugh. “Just before he died in St. Helena he used to say, in 200 years I’m sure people will know me much better than now, and I think it was true.”