In 2015, as the Battle of Waterloo is commemorated throughout Europe, the Hermitage Amsterdam will turn the clock back to the decisive years that preceded Waterloo, the days of Napoleon Bonaparte and two exceptional and very different contemporaries: Tsar Alexander I, his friend and enemy, and Joséphine, the love of his life.
More than two hundred magnificent paintings, sculptures, personal possessions, gowns and uniforms, objets d’art and impressive weapons will tell the story of two mighty rulers and a woman with great personality. The central themes are friendship, war and politics, as well as Joséphine’s great art collection, which included Dutch and Italian masters such as Potter, Van der Werff, Luini and Canova. The two men come even physically close, in Napoleon’s death mask and in a medallion with a lock of Alexander’s hair. A significant part of Joséphine’s collection eventually came into the possession of the Hermitage, and many of the highlights will be on display in Holland for the first time.
The exhibition story begins in 1807. Napoleon and Joséphine were seeing very little of each other, because of the many wars that Napoleon was waging across the European continent. Joséphine was on her own in their love nest, Château de Malmaison, just outside Paris. That year, Napoleon and the tsar concluded the Treaty of Tilsit, establishing a coalition for peace intended to change the political constellation in Europe and Asia. In the process, they formed a friendship that seemed genuine and enduring. After fifteen days, they said farewell, and in the years that followed they exchanged many diplomatic gifts.
The treaties were intended as an eternal seal on their peace and their friendship. But they proved impossible to enforce, and a new war broke out. The disastrous turning point was Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812. Few events in history have made such a strong impression as the French retreat from Moscow in that year. The most catastrophic episode for Napoleon's army, however, was probably the crossing of the ice-cold Berezina River. In just a few days’ tens of thousands of soldiers died in battle, froze to death, drowned or starved. Many of them came from Holland, a fact that is still well-known today, thanks to an illustration by Jan Hoynck van Papendrecht used in Dutch schools for many years and included in the exhibition. The drama of the campaign surges to life in works such as four large battle paintings by Peter Hess. The Russian campaign put an end to many years of success for Napoleon and his Grande Armée. The French army was massacred: out of 600,000 soldiers, less than 100,000 survived.
The Tsar also suffered heavy losses, but he held a victory parade in Paris. Napoleon was utterly defeated and sent into exile. In Paris, the Tsar contacted the former empress, Joséphine, who received him at Malmaison. Just as the Tsar and Napoleon had once developed a warm friendship, the Tsar and Joséphine did the same. There are various, often contradictory stories about the motivations of the two. In any case, she gave Alexander one of the greatest gifts a tsar could ask for: the ancient Gonzaga Cameo, from the 3rd century BC. Alexander invited her to come and live in St Petersburg, but she never had the chance to take the invitation into consideration because of her early death. Shortly after a stroll with the Tsar, the former empress died of pneumonia. The rest is history.
The Tsar was not only the victor, along with his allies, but also the buyer of Josephine’s famous art collection. By the time of her death, it comprised more than four hundred works, by masters such as Potter, Metsu, Van der Werff, Rembrandt, Claude Lorrain, Luini, Schidone, David Teniers the Younger, Terborch and Canova. She had purchased many of these works herself, and many others were gifts from Napoleon, war trophies from conquered territories. Alexander bought a large number of paintings and sculptures in 1815 for the then-astronomical sum of 940,000 French francs. Joséphine’s daughter Hortense and son Eugène came under Alexander’s protection, and a generation later Joséphine’s grandson married a Romanov princess, creating a tie of blood between the two families. Partly for this reason, many of the works in her collection ultimately found their way to the Hermitage. Her descendants married into the royal families of Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden.