Call it the French connection. Dr. Marc Gerstein received a request last fall to help behind the scenes with a dramatic thriller: an exhibition at the Château de Versailles.The professor emeritus of art history wrote two essays included in the catalog for “Napoleon’s Wars: Louis François Lejeune, General and Painter,” which is on display at the royal palace through May 13.
“It was quite an honor to be contacted by the curator of Versailles, who asked for help writing the exhibition catalog,” Gerstein said. “I was the only American working with French scholars on the project.”
The exhibit focuses on Lejeune, who in addition to fighting in military campaigns chronicled them on canvas during the Napoleonic era. He championed the self-proclaimed emperor and the glory of the First Empire.
“His paintings were extremely popular when they were shown at the various Salon exhibitions beginning around 1800; the public really found them quite fascinating,” Gerstein said. “And what he was given credit for was being an eyewitness; what he painted must have been accurate, people thought, because he was there as a witness to it.
“But it’s not really the work of an eyewitness because he drew on official accounts, other things that were published, other people’s images, and a lot of it is elaborated and invented in order to create an interesting perspective and an exciting painting that makes a battle into a spectacle where the enemy is always evil and the French army is always good, and it’s obvious why they’re going to win. So ultimately, it’s really propaganda.”For the exhibition catalog, the specialist on 19th century French art wrote about a painting and a drawing by Lejeune.
“Lejeune fought in the battle of Somo Sierra in late 1808 and did the painting in 1810,” he said. “It was a battle important for military reasons because it opened the way for Napoleon to take Madrid. It probably was the only battle that Napoleon himself was involved in during the Spanish invasion.”
Gerstein has been researching French representations of the war in Spain that took place from 1808 to 1813.
“Many people know the Spanish version of the war. Francisco Goya’s images are often seen in art history classes, for instance, ‘The Executions of the Third of May 1808.’ And Goya also did a well-known series of etchings that was titled ‘The Disasters of War,’” he said.
Napoleon, a master of controlling public opinion, used artwork as one way to give public prominence to his version of the war while leading military maneuvers to expand his empire into Western and Central Europe.
“Propaganda isn’t used to report on what’s done; it’s used to make exciting paintings but also to serve a purpose,” Gerstein explained. “I see Lejeune’s paintings not so much as the truthful eyewitness account, but as something fabricated to put over a series of points, a series of ideas about what the French were doing and why.”
He also penned an essay on Lejeune’s drawing of the Battle of Eylau. More than a decade ago, Gerstein studied a competition Napoleon held to see which painter would win the honor of immortalizing that victory on canvas. That research led to him working on an exhibition at the Musée du Louvre in Paris in 1999.
Gerstein, who retired in December after teaching art to UT students since 1980, attended the opening of “Napoleon’s Wars” at the Château de Versailles in February.
“The exhibition is really quite grand in these enormous, tall spaces, with incredibly long hallways very lavishly decorated,” he said. “It’s actually in several rooms that are often closed, where they put up temporary walls and paneling for the exhibition.”
Back in the States, Gerstein is continuing his research on the French representation of the war in Spain by focusing on other artists.