Seat of Empire: Napoleon's Armchair from Malmaison to Manhattan
Seat of Empire presents an in-depth, contextual examination of the colorful history and symbolic function of this armchair (fauteuil) using a rich variety of objects—furniture, paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, books, decorative objects, and documents—drawn from the Historical Society's vast collections as well as from major museums in the United States and France, including Versailles, Malmaison, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, historical societies in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well as the New York Public Library. With the aid of a "virtual restoration" created through digital technology and projected onto a screen in the gallery, visitors to the exhibition can glimpse this majestic fauteuil as it may have looked on the day it was delivered to the château in 1800, fresh from the prestigious workshop of Jacob Frères who had adapted its design from tastemakers Charles Percier and François-Léonard Fontaine.
The exhibition will trace the armchair's fascinating history, confirmed in 2001 by co-curators Margi Hofer and Roberta Olson in a 4,500 mile odyssey that brought them back to the chair's former home at Malmaison (where it can be definitely placed until 1829). Most likely the chair was later brought to America by Napoleon's elder brother, Joseph (1768—1844), known as the "gentle Bonaparte," who settled in Bordentown, New Jersey at an elegant estate on the Delaware River, known as Point Breeze and furnished with his magnificent art collections. Before his final departure for Europe in 1839, Joseph presented the fauteuil to his friend and business colleague Félix Lacoste, Consul General of France in New York, after whose death it was purchased by Louis Borg, the Vice-Consul of France in New York. In 1867 Borg donated the armchair to the New-York Historical Society, which has cared for it during the past 135 years.
The historical significance of the Historical Society's Napoleonic fauteuil is greatly enhanced by the integrity of its physical condition. The armchair's painted and gilded surface, underupholstery, showcover, and trim are all original, rendering it an exceptionally rare and important object for studying the arts of French Empire cabinetmaking and upholstery. Visitors to the exhibition can also examine the armchair's mysterious marks, thought to be evidence of Napoleon's notorious impatience as he sat charting the course of France's future.
In preparation for Seat of Empire, the Society adopted a two-part conservation approach aimed at preserving the chair's significant original materials while allowing visitors to appreciate its original brilliance. First, traditional conservation treatments stabilized its fragile surfaces; next, cutting-edge digital technology was employed to virtually "restore" the chair to its original condition. Visitors will view the actual Napoleon armchair after conservation adjacent to a projected image of a life-size, rotating virtual fauteuil, digitally renewed to its former splendor.
Seat of Empire demonstrates how Napoleon, a brilliant military strategist and political opportunist, appropriated an age-old emblem of rank and authority, an impressive armchair or throne, to legitimize his rise to power. As Napoleon's "star," which he claimed guided his every move, ascended in the political firmament, the chairs he commissioned for his residences, as well as those depicted in portraits of him, reflected the self-image he wished to promote. The chairs populating his residences and portraits chart his meteoric rush to empire. Examples of such propagandistic seats of power, including a drawing by Ingres of Napoleon as First Consul standing before a chair similar to the Historical Society example, a Gobelins tapestry depicting Napoleon before a throne, and a monumental portrait by Gérard, are featured in the exhibition.
Seat of Empire uses the Historical Society's Napoleon armchair as a springboard for exploring the transmission of the French Empire style to America, particularly New York City, its adaptation by cabinetmakers on this side of the Atlantic and its feverish popularity among fashion-conscious Americans. The Empire style was transmitted in several ways: through design books, such as Percier and Fontaine's Recueils de Décorations Intérieures of 1801 and Pierre de la Mésangère's periodical Meubles et Objets de Goût (1802-1835); through émigré craftsmen, like New York City's Charles-Honoré Lannuier, and through the importation of stylish French furniture, such as the Parisian armchair in the exhibition originally commissioned in 1817 by President James Monroe for the White House.
Seat of Empire is the second in a series of object-centered exhibitions focusing on a single artifact of cultural significance. Beginning with Fit for a King (2000), examining the chair made for Louis XVI's use at Versailles and brought to New York City by Gouverneur Morris, this series reveals the rich historical, art historical, and cultural information embedded in objects. In 2004 the Society plans to present an analysis of a suite of seating furniture commissioned by the Beekman family of New York in 1819.
An illustrated catalogue published by the New-York Historical Society, co-authored by Roberta J.M. Olson and Margaret K. Hofer with an introduction by Bernard Chevallier, Director and Chief Curator of Malmaison, accompanies the exhibition. It is available for $9.95 at the Historical Society's Museum Store.