OKLAHOMA CITY— Napoleon. The name provokes associations with conquest, conceit, sullenness, catastrophic defeat.

You’ll find those Napoleonic elements at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, but you’ll also discover a different Napoleon — an energetic, scrupulous emperor dedicated to his country’s progress.

“The French still love him,” said Karen Nichols, the French teacher at Carl Albert High School in Midwest City.

Nichols took her class this month to view the traveling exhibit — “Napoleon: An Intimate Portrait” — at the museum. Oklahoma City is the first stop in the U.S. tour.

“He was imperialistic, but he didn’t rule like a dictator,” said Nichols, who grew up in France in the 1960s while her father was in the military. “The French view him as a benevolent emperor. But the English still haven’t forgiven him because of his imperialism.”

At the height of power, Napoleon boasted of ruling over more than 80 million Europeans.

One of his maps of Europe — still showing the pin pricks from markers during his campaigns — is in the exhibit that will be on display until April 22.

The map comprises one of 250 objects from the collection of Pierre-Jean Chalençon, who began collecting Napoleon and Napoleonic memorabilia when he was 14.

The collection is a montage of the objects one would expect in an exhibit of an emperor: paintings and busts of the emperor done in Greek and Roman styles; a signet ring with a stylish “N” topped with a crown and encircled by diamonds; a painting of the emperor on a noble steed, not the mule he actually rode in crossing the Alps.

There are things that set Napoleon apart from others: the painting of him in a red jacket not the blue of the French soldier; the winged hat that sat crossways on his head, again, to distinguish him from his officers; the honeybees, a symbol Napoleon favored, embroidered into his ermine robe.

And there are the things that depict Napoleon’s explosive and meticulous nature: the sleeve he ripped from his uniform in anger after a subordinate spilled food on it; a handwritten order to execute his enemies on departing the Egyptian campaign; an account book of his empire’s expenses with corrections made in his own hand.

And then there are the things that color him human: a field bed from Napoleonic campaigns; the emperor’s banner with the “J” removed after Napoleon had his marriage to Josephine annulled because she didn’t produce a male heir; a brooding portrait, depicting a misunderstood man, who grew up Italian and died in exile.

For Hailey Dowdy, 18, a Carl Albert French student, Napoleon’s handwritten notes and maps held the most appeal.

“It’s fascinating to see the documents because they’re so old and written by him,” said Dowdy, who plans on taking a trip this spring to Haiti, where Napoleon sent a force in 1802 to put down a revolution and lost. “I enjoyed the maps, too, because they had to take mapmakers along to make the maps for their military campaigns.”

Dowdy added that her high school class received an excellent lesson in French history from the tour, which illuminated the history she and her classmates have been getting from their teacher, Nichols.

Keonia Williams, a gallery attendant at the museum, said she didn’t get much French history in high school, and she’s found the exhibit fascinating: “I find myself, after a group goes through and no one’s in the gallery, reading the descriptions of the exhibit over and over.”



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