Back in April, I had the great privilege of visiting the Louvre for the first time. The many works in that historic museum exceeded all my expectations and kept me enthralled for the all too short three hours I spent inside. As closing time approached, museum staff got on the intercom and requested that visitors start making their way out. At this, I went off to find the two friends I came in with, but as I was searching the pomp of the Louvre’s many exhibits, I was stopped dead in my tracks by one piece in particular.
Towering nearly the entire height of the wall, and stretching as wide as two and a half sedans was an elaborate painting of Napoleon Bonaparte, surrounded by the French nobility, crowning his wife Josephine Empress. I was (and still am) enamored with this painting; its scope is incredible, the power it radiates even moreso. The heavy details from the many members of the French nobility to the magnificence of the throne itself had me wondering how a human being could ever produce something so intricate, and on such a scale.
The piece in question is Le Sacre de Napoléon (The Coronation of Napoleon) by Jacques-Louis David. The more I thought about it, the more it reminded me of another famous work (also in the Louvre and also massive in scale) depicting the once powerful emperor. The painting, Bonaparte visitant les pestiférés de Jaffa (Bonaparte Visits the Plague Stricken in Jaffa) by Antoine-Jean Gros, was painted just a few years prior to David’s magnificent work. In it we see Napoleon, fresh from his siege of Jaffa, boldly approaching haggard victims of the Bubonic plague with a bold and gentle composure while his men recoil in disgust. What’s especially noteworthy as well are the parallels between Napoleon and Jesus Christ. Napoleon is depicted in a fashion that recalls the Son of God’s ministry towards the lepers of Ancient Israel, both in his physical posturing and the symbolic posturing of his sympathetic act (it helps to note that Jaffa wasn’t too far from where Christ carried out His ministry as well).
It might be lost on us in the 21st-century, but back in the 19th the message was clear: Napoleon, the great hero of France, goes forth in the same character as God Himself. Perceptive observers will even notice the French flag in a victorious wave hovering in the background over the radiant Napoleon. God is with France, her champion, and her endeavors. David’s painting communicates a similar message, albeit less biblically inspired: Emperor Napoleon is powerful, magnificent, and the central figure of France herself – validated by church and state alike. This, though, is unnecessary as Napoleon is the one doing the crowning here.
Today, many of us would rightly identify such works as propaganda; illustrious paintings made to elicit a specific response in the French people. Napoleon was a masterful propagandist and knew exactly how to galvanize his people – soldier and civilian alike. But, more than just a political message, these paintings, and the many more like them, have a deeply national ethos to them. It’s a message about France, the land of culture, art, and, at that time, military supremacy. Today these pieces don’t sway people towards unadulterated devotion to Napoleon, but they do generate an admiration for French culture and the beauty it has produced. They find success, also, in reminding us just how much of a domineering force France was under Napoleon.
In this, the intersection of art and country is clear, and many wise men and women, such as the self coronating emperor, are aware of the power in that intersection and use it to their advantage. Art and country rhyme in many ways, and this rhythm has persisted through millennia, ultimately becoming a fixture of human expression as we know it. Art not only frames how individuals view their country, but also directs the flow of national consciousness itself; where this flow goes, so does the country.
There are many ways for an individual to express their feelings towards their country; national anthems at sporting events, flags outside homes, the checked box of a ballot, clothing worn, events attended, and, infamously, statements made on social media. While each holds standing power and influence of its own, most pail in comparison to the place art has historically held. From images of ancient pharaohs as gods to South Park’s latest take on current events, art continues to hold an important place in the trajectory of countries and those who inhabit them. The same picture fits into a similar frame, and one that’s not far from home- the Robert E Lee Monument.
Erected in 1890, one has to wonder why such a beautiful work of art would be made honoring a general who not only experienced crushing defeat, but sought to rebel from the very Union said art was to be displayed in. Understanding the politics of the time helps as the post-war South quickly clung to the Lost Cause myth, the belief that the Confederacy fought for a noble end, one not mingled in the depravity of slavery. This didn’t make the Confederate army a group of racially motivated insurgents, but instead a conglomeration of patriots fighting for the future of an autonomous nation which was then being encroached upon by an all too corrupt national government. Part of this tone deaf initiative could be seen in how the existence of the monument (and others like it) added to the already stark racial divides of post-war Virginia in both subtle, and not so subtle ways.
Lee was a man who garnered much respect from his constituents and was widely celebrated amongst Confederate citizens. As the general of their army, he became synonymous with the Confederate States of America – a symbol of what they wanted to be and of what could’ve been had they won the war. The defeat the South suffered was debilitating: their lands were completely wrecked, and their economy tanked after their slaves were emancipated. However, they refused to be defeated symbolically. Their pride would endure and crystallize in the form of a bronze Lee riding a resolute and shining steed.
The Robert E Lee Monument inspired the people of the South and encouraged them that, though they had lost, they lost fighting for a good cause. They were led astray by their devotion to the Confederacy. This only got stronger as Lee’s monument and that of other Confederate figures were erected on Monument Avenue with each existing to express just how highly the Confederacy was still regarded amongst those in the south.
Flashforward to the final days of Lee’s monument and you’ll find a very different social climate. 2020 was a tumultuous year (to put it lightly); social tensions were already rising, but hit a boiling point after the murder of George Floyd by officer Derek Chauvin on May 25th. This provoked outrage across the country with criticism of America’s systemic racism obtaining a much deserved and needed limelight. It was during this time that attention was turned back to the monuments of Lee and his fellow Confederates. Many African Americans understandably felt insulted by the fact that these monuments, honoring men who fought to keep their ancestors as property, were revered landmarks in the country.
So, in response to the national disillusionment of the time, the pedestal holding up General Lee was bathed in a protest of spray paint. I remember marveling at this display during the summer of 2020. The extent of the graffiti and the message behind it were loud and clear: many Americans felt let down, rejected, and mistreated by their nation even to the point of death. While many expressed what was happening in their country through gatherings and social media, the people of Richmond expressed it through their art.
On two sides of that coin we see both the Confederates and the opponents of Lee’s monument. On one end, believers in a deceased country, taking the symbolic form of one of their revered figures: a beacon that supported the beliefs of the then white, American south. On the other hand, the straw that broke the camel’s back. The outrage against normalized and overlooked systemic racism in the United States expressed through the medium of art on top of art – a shell of anger and hurt, a cry and demand for change.
These works were anything but empty, and both had a lasting impact on the country. The Lee Monument kept the Confederate spirit alive for many years, serving as a reminder to the southern Virginians of what was lost but what they wanted to take pride in nonetheless. While the graffiti that covered the pedestal years later spoke loudly against the injustice that the Confederate spirit supported. Speaking so loudly to result in the removal of that once staple Richmond feature. A fixture of over a century, toppled by the power of art and country.
Bob Dylan sang of changing times, masters of war, and Hattie Carroll’s lonesome death, each inextricably linked to 1960s America and powerfully influential over the direction of said decade.
Pablo Picasso found fame in Guernica in the wake of mass destruction caused by Spain’s restless turmoil. This image of horror captured the cry of both a generation and a country.
The prophet Isaiah of ancient Israel took to poetry to express frustration with the corruption of the kingdom – words which came to be considered sacred not only by the vast majority of his countrymen but the world as well.
Art has shaped the history of countries long passed and those that are unfolding before our very eyes. Good art reaches into you whether you like it or not. When I saw The Coronation of Napoleon, I was stunned. Even though the museum was closing, I didn’t want to move. I wanted to, felt like I had to, stand in the presence of that seminal work for as long as I could. And, as heinous as the origins of Lee’s monument are, I think few would say it lacks aesthetic brilliance.
Art invades, leaves an impression, and, when the context and setting are right, imprints a powerful and often self-changing message upon the observer. This has made art an all too important vehicle for understanding the national context we find ourselves in.
The city of Richmond is no stranger to artistic expression. Here, that expression is welcomed with open arms, from local bands at your favorite bar to the murals decorating the canal walk. These testaments to art’s influence are inescapable, especially in such a city as this. This appreciation for the arts held by many Richmonders can be a valuable gift and asset in the midst of our national moment.
Ideologies are boiling and finding any avenue possible to replicate and win more followers so that the “opponent” may be overcome. We can get a satisfactory pulse on this by paying heed to what the art of our day looks like and how it relates to where our country (and city) is. When we’re aware of this power and just how influential it is, we can find shelter from its negative manipulation, and even find ways to utilize such power for good in our country.
Much of art gets its strength from beauty and experience. Qualities broad enough to appeal to a wide, neverending spectrum of men and women. There’s some sort of restorative power in that; in sharing beauty and in understanding the experiences of one another, no matter how different. Not in manipulating someone into supporting a specific person or idea, not in prolonging an ideal well past its time, not even in exacting vengeance – though justified it might seem. But, to engage with and perpetuate art in such a way that peace and understanding are forged in the midst of a polarized and hurting country.
Perhaps there’s something there?___________________________________________________________________________________________
Top Photo: Detroit Publishing Co, P. Robert E. Lee monument, Richmond, Va. Richmond United States Virginia, None. [Between 1900 and 1915] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2016796908/.