St. Louis, Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis World's Fair), 1904
Like its predecessors, the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904 showcased advancements in science and the arts. This specific fair also honored the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson's acquisition of 828,800 square miles of land from Napoleon I. Celebrating this spirit of enterprise, elaborate pavilions displayed inventions that promised to make life better, from the x-ray machine, personal automobile and the electric typewriter to the ice cream cone, hot dog, and iced tea. A special double-issue of The World's Work Advertiser, a visitor's guide to the Fair, was filled with exuberantly written articles boasting of America's innovative exhibitions and the exotic allure of foreign countries' installations. As one writer suggested, "looking over the many interesting exhibits from the standpoint of historical suggestion or significance, nothing will be found between the Government Building and the Philippines' Reservation more appropriate to the historical meaning of the Fair than the exhibit of the Parfumerie, Ed. Pinaud, of Paris." Located at the corner of the French Section of the Liberal Arts building, the exhibit was decorated in a gold and white scheme "strictly in the 'first empire style'" complete with fountains misting the perfumery's award-winning floral scents, and glass cabinets filled with items from the company's cache of original and reproduction Napoleonic artifacts, including "toilet articles" and "Napoleon's own razor with mother-of-pearl handles and the Imperial crest laid in Gold." The reporter's favorite item on display was "the gem" of the company's art collection, found "near-by on an easel...the painting by Vibert, showing Napoleon and his consort having the mimic array of figures passed before them in rehearsal for the coronation. The picture with the dainty wax model of the original figures, lends a special historical interest to this exhibit."
The composition visible in a photograph accompanying the article, is the present work, Vibert's masterful representation of the planning of Napoleon's coronation held at Notre Dame on December 2, 1804. The event's elaborate planning began soon after Napoleon's proclamation of empire in May, and Paris was quickly transformed with streets and bridges expanded to accommodate the expected crowds, new honorary monuments commissioned, and once-empty shopkeepers' windows filled with the sumptuous cloth, sparkling jewels, and fine foods demanded by the new court and their many guests. By October, Josephine, who was responsible for reviewing designs for the forthcoming event, had approved the Imperial throne, coronation carriages, a number of court costumes, and renovation of Notre Dame, which opened up the Revolution-damaged interior to accommodate white silk hangings, special carpeting, and room for the hundreds involved in the ceremony. Josephine's friend, the artist Jean-Baptiste Isabey, was enlisted to make a series of drawings to plan for each stage of the pageantry, and to design the costumes which needed to reflect the Empire's immense wealth, fine taste and influence. Having only eight days to complete his work, Isabey soon realized that his drawings would serve as an insufficient and inefficient model for Napoleon and his guests. As such, Isabey made the inspired choice to use dolls in his planning. He rushed to Paris' toy shops for every miniature figure he could find, dressed them in costume mock-ups, and placed them upon a chalked paper plan of the cathedral so that he could determine the elaborate choreography for each participant in the hours-long ceremony (Sabine Baring-Gould, The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, London, 1908, pp 279-80; Eleanor P. DeLorme, Josephine: Napoleon's Incomparable Empress, New York, 2002, pp. 94-5). While Isabey's presentation of the plan is well accounted in historical record (with reproductions of the dolls occasionally on display at Les Invalides), the precise details of the event are largely left to Vibert's imagination. In the present work, Pope Pius VII is flanked by the soon-to-be crowned Emperor and Empress, as Isabey kneels on the floor atop the unfurled cathedral plan, bundles of unused dolls lie near his feet, while the representations of Napoleon, Josephine and their attendants stand in regal procession. In Vibert's work the dolls' arrangement generally follows the figural arrangement of Jacques Louis David's Coronation of Napoleon (1808, Musée du Louvre)—a painting which itself was a dramatic interpretation of actual events in which David used a series of dolls to plan out the complex composition. These intricate visual clues to the narrative are signatures of Vibert's work made more obvious by the visual delight of Napoleon battling exterenous cardinals away from the plan, the Pope's apprehensive expression, and Josephine's bemused glance at her husband and future Emperor (while Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, claims he seized the crown out of the hands of the Pope during the ceremony—to avoid deferring his authority to the pontiff—are apocryphal), and the woman peering over Josephine's shoulder is perhaps one of Napoleon's jealous sisters. Vibert's brilliant use of rich detail and color and his subtle, trademark humor, allow for an ingenious visualization of a historical subject based in the wealth and pomp of the era.
While best known today for his satirical subjects of red-robed cardinals, Vibert had a significant interest in the First Empire, stating in his autobiography that he "loved only Napoleon and Roses" (translated from Jehan-Georges Vibert, La comédie en peinture, Paris, 1896-96, p. 79). For his Napoleonic subject, the artist chose private or ceremonial scenes rather than the military subjects chosen by Meissionier or Detaille. In the late 1890s, the artist painted a small number of Napoleonic subjects, including The Eagle and the Fox, a scene of Napoleon playing chess with Cardinal Fesch (Haggin Museum, Stockton, California), and at least two compositions of Napoleon with his young son, who was given the title the "King of Rome" (Eric Zafran, Cavaliers and Cardinals, Nineteenth Century French Anecdotal Paintings, exh. cat., Cincinnati, 1992, p. 138). The present Napoleon Planning his Coronation is a reduction of the composition (measuring 39 by 55 ½ in.) owned by J.P. Morgan in the late nineteenth century before passing through subsequent private collections until its sale in New York at Parke Bernet in 1953 and now in the Museo Napoleónco, Havana). Interestingly Vibert's The Coronation of the King of Rome of circa 1900 was also executed in both large and small versions, with the larger now in the Josyln Art Museum, Omaha and the smaller coincidentally owned by the renowned St. Louis art collector John Fowler in 1911, and now in that city's art museum (Zafran, p. 138). Like the majority of Vibert's reductions, the present panel, though smaller, is otherwise identical to the larger version. It has been suggested that Vibert may have employed a photographic-mechanical method in order to create the many "replicas of different dimensions;" the Goncourts observed that this was typical of the artist's commercial acumen (Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Journal..., 1956 ed., Monaco, vol. XI, p. 9). Such reductions and replicas were eagerly sought both by Vibert's contemporary patrons and have been rediscovered by today's collectors (with the replica of Gulliver and the Lilliputians setting a remarkable sale record of $1,497,000 for the artist in these rooms on April 18, 2008)
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