Arts & Culture

This summer’s French invasion: an emperor, a queen, and a surrealist (and a dinosaur, but it’s not French)

Vive L’Empéreur

Napoleon Bonaporte knew a thing or two about capital cities. “A great capital is the homeland of a nation’s elite;” he once said, “it is the centre of opinion, the repository of everything.”

The multiple layers of politicians governing Ottawa should take note. Few, if any, of our politicians have ever described Ottawa the way Napoleon talked of Paris. Our politicians often sound apologetic that Ottawa is the capital and, from time to time, must be treated differently than Moose Jaw or Moncton.

In his reign, Napoleon did his best to make Paris “a great capital” of France. He also tried, through military might, to make Paris the capital of Europe. His success on that front was mixed but he did make Paris the envy of Europe. And he did make Paris his own, by abolishing the position of mayor and governing the city by a collection of administrators, engineers and police beholding only to Emperor Napoleon.

Napoleon’s life, especially his influence on life in Paris, is the subject of a sumptuous new exhibition at the Canadian Museum of History: Napolean and Paris. The show runs all summer, just as a Frenchwoman holds court across the Ottawa River at the National Gallery of Canada. There, one finds the exhibition Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun: The Portraitist to Marie Antoinette.

The ‘Sacred’ Queen

The gallery’s marketing campaign stresses Marie (“let them eat cake”) Antoinette, rather than the wily, talented artist who, unlike her royal boss, managed to keep her head and live happily ever after. Everybody has heard of Marie Antoinette, whereas Le Brun is a name largely known only by art historians.

In the exhibition, there are many portraits of female European royalty who are depicted as impossibly beautiful, creating a saccharine, bubble-gum feel to the exhibition.

But the portraits of Marie Antoinette are the most interesting paintings in the exhibition. Of those, the star is the massive Marie Antoinette and Her Children from 1787. We see the queen, her three children and an empty bassinette for a recently deceased infant daughter. The triangular composition of the painting references Renaissance paintings of the Holy Family. The attempt was to make the unpopular queen appear sacred, and yet she was still marched off to the guillotine.

Both exhibitions are worth seeing, although the Napoleon extravaganza will probably have much wider appeal to thousands of tourists who come to the capital area every summer. There are 250 Napoleon artifacts, mainly from the Musee Carnavalet in Paris. They include Napoleon’s golden throne, fold-up iron camp bed, articles of clothing, his death mask and a lock of his hair which normally is found in Halifax. (It’s a long story.) Plus there are drawings, paintings, documents and other paraphernalia concerning Napoleon’s plans to remake Paris — even renaming The Louvre as the Musee Napoleon and placing a huge bust of himself at the entrance. Thankfully, Stephen Harper did not do that when he renamed the Canadian Museum of Civilization the Canadian Museum of History.

Hull’s Favourite Son

For a Frenchman of a different kind, head to Galerie Montcalm in Gatineau, for a solo exhibition of paintings by Jean Dallaire, a favourite son of Hull and one of the most famous artists to emerge in the 20th century from the capital region. Dallaire is best known for his imaginative portraits and Dali-esque surrealist works. He spent much of his career in France. There, during the Second World War, he was incarcerated by the German invaders as an enemy alien. This year marks the 100th anniversary of his birth. Dallaire died in France in 1965.


For kids, the biggest blockbuster this summer in Ottawa is at the Canadian Museum of Nature. The exhibition Ultimate Dinosaurs introduces us to the huge, ancient beasts that lived in the southern hemisphere thousands of years ago, including the 12-metre-long Giganotosaurus — one of the largest carnivores that ever walked the Earth.