Napoleon Exhibition: Family Visit Guide

Napoleon Exhibition: Family Visit Guide

This guide offers families some helpful tips for visiting the Napoleon: Power and Splendor exhibition.

Grade Level:
Adult, College, Early Childhood, Grades 3-5, Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12, Grades K-2
European Art
Subject Area:
Fine Arts, History and Social Science, Visual Arts
Activity Type:
Special Exhibition

What to expect for your visit

The Napoleon: Power and Splendor exhibition contains over 200 works of art, many of which have never been seen in the United States before. If you follow the activities in this guide, expect to spend at least 45 minutes in the exhibition. Let’s learn a little bit more about Napoleon before you enter the exhibition.

To download and print this guide, use the PDF version: Napoleon Exhibition: Family Visit Guide (PDF)

Who was Napoleon and why is he important?

Portrait of Napoleon, Emperor of the French, in Ceremonial Robes (detail), 1805, François‐Pascal‐Simon Gérard (1770–1837), oil on canvas. Château de Fontainebleau‐Musée Napoléon I

Fast Facts
  • Napoleon Bonaparte was born on August 15, 1769 on the island of Corsica, off the coast of Italy. As a child he loved math and history. He went to military school where he did very well.


  • In 1796 he was made commander in chief of the French army in Italy.


  • In 1799, Napoleon helped to overthrow the French government and became First Consul, essentially the head of the French government. In 1802, he was made First Consul for Life.


  • In 1803, Napoleon sold  land to the United States in what is known as the Louisiana Purchase. This purchase doubled the size of the United States!


  • In 1804, Napoleon became the first Emperor of France.


  • At the height of his power, Napoleon controlled most of Europe.


  • Ultimately, Napoleon was exiled, or forced to live away from France twice, first in 1814 to the island of Elba. After a brief return to the throne, he was exiled again in 1815 to the island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821.
Napoleon's Image

Once Napoleon became emperor, he needed to represent himself in a way that proclaimed his power and authority. Napoleon and his staff used artwork to show off and to expand his power; this exhibit explores art created for this reason.

To create and maintain this new image, the Imperial Household was established. With a staff of over 3,500 individuals, the Household was directed by six Grand Officers: the Grand Equerry, the Grand Master of the Hunt, the Grand Chaplain, the Grand Marshal of the Palace, the Grand Master of Ceremonies, and the Grand Chamberlain.

Napoleon: Power and Splendor is broken into eleven different rooms, including sections related to each of the six Grand Officers. As you visit the exhibition, you will meet these officers and see many works of art that helped shape Napoleon’s image.

Napoleon in His Study Wearing the Uniform of a Grenadier of the Guard (detail), ca. 1813–30, Imperial School of Mosaics of Francesco Belloni, pietra dura mosaic, cut glass. Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau, Rueil-Malmaison, France. © Photo Hervé Lewandowski

Tips for Visiting

Explore the art. When you visit the exhibition, take time to look carefully at a few works of art rather than walking quickly through each room.

Look together. Explore artworks in the galleries as a family and discuss what you see, think, and wonder.

Try an activity. Try some of the activities that follow to enjoy a more meaningful experience of the works of art. Activity prompt cards are also available in the stART Orientation Space in the WestRock Art Education Center.


Additional activities are also available on the VMFA Learn site.

Symbols of Power

Bust-Length Portrait of Napoleon in Ceremonial Robes, ca. 1805–14, Workshop of Baron François‐Pascal‐Simon Gérard, oil on canvas. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Ben Weider Collection. Photo MMFA, Christine Guest

Throughout the exhibition you will notice honey bees and eagles in paintings, on frames, and in various other places. Napoleon chose the bee as one of his symbols because they are considered powerful, hardworking, obedient, and were associated with immortality, or living forever.

Eagles were chosen because of their association with the Roman Empire where they were a symbol of Jupiter, king of the gods, as well as military victory. Napoleon wanted to associate himself with the powerful Roman Empire.

As you move throughout the exhibition, look for bees and eagles of various sizes in each room. How many can you find?

If you could choose a symbol for yourself, what would it be? Why? Would you have more than one?

What Room Am I In?

Don’t read the wall panels or text  just yet. Instead, use the clues around you to help determine what aspect of Napoleon’s household it represents (for example, one room features a dining table).

Look at the works of art in the room. Does it help you to decide what area of the Imperial Household you might be in? Once you have a guess, read the large wall text to see if you were right!

While it may be very tempting to sit on Napoleon’s throne, please be careful not to get too close to the art objects. If you hear a beeping sound, it means you’ve gotten too close. There will be a throne after you exit the exhibition that we encourage you to try out!

Engagement Activities

Before and After

Sometimes artists create multiple works of art to tell a whole story.  Sometimes they only show us part of a story, leaving the rest up to us and our imaginations.

Choose an artwork that seems to have a story. Examine the scene and then tell, or even sketch (pencils only) what you imagine might have occurred just before or after the moment the artist chose to represent.

Strike a Pose

Artists have reasons for posing the people in their artwork. Sometimes just by mimicking the poses, you can  understand more about the art even before getting any additional information.

Do the following with a chosen work of figural art (a work of art that has a person in it):

Without looking at the label, study the gestures and body language of a figure you see. Carefully move your body and adjust your facial expression to match that of the figure. What does doing this tell you about what the figure may be thinking or feeling?

Now look at the label, and compare your ideas to what is there.

What makes sense? What is surprising?

What ideas of your own would you add if you could?

Rename It!

Find a work of art in the galleries you are drawn to and…

Look at the label and read the title of the work.

Imagine you had the power to give it a new title.

What would it be? Why?

Now take a closer look at the artwork.  Can you rename it one more time?

When you are done visiting the exhibition…

Take a break. Sit in the museum’s sculpture garden or café to share a snack and think about the art you have seen today. Take time to reflect on what you noticed, felt, or thought and share your reflections with someone you came with or write down your own thoughts.

Search for more objects of power and splendor in the permanent galleries with the What Does Power Look Like? gallery hunt. Download it or pick up a printed copy at the exit of the exhibition.

Visit the Teaching Gallery and Explore Archaeology in the interactive exhibit Dig It! (on view through September 16, 2018)

Explore the rest of VMFA’s galleries using some of the activities you learned!