Hill, Laban Carrick. A brush with Napoleon; an encounter with Jacques-Louis David.
Except for the most avid student of art history, this will be a hard sell. But it does have a good story around the art history. The main character is Jean, a poor soldier in Napoleon's army, an orphan. The story begins in a military campaign, with Jean injured in a battle in Austria and then taken back to Paris to recover. Attending him is the lovely, kind-hearted daughter of a physician; after he gets better, he stays in the military hospital as an orderly, working alongside Michelle. So, we have a lot of action, blood, gore, and even romance before the art history aspect of the story begins.
Jean is a gifted artist who had a chance to work on engravings for the military in the Egyptian campaign, winning the attention of an influential baron. In Paris, at the hospital, Jean meets Napoleon himself when the First Consul visits the wounded to award medals. With Napoleon is the famous painter Jacques-Louis David, who has the responsibility of "selling" Napoleon to the people as a visionary leader, a conqueror. Jean becomes a part of David's workshop at the Louvre as a team of artists work on the painting of Napoleon riding a rearing horse, leading his troops across the Alps. The painting is Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Saint Bernard, one of the most important representations of the Neoclassical Period. (The painting is reproduced on the cover of this book.)
Themes of the book are class divisions, poverty, the horrors of war, and the role of propaganda in building empire. (It is Napoleon who said, "Truth is not half so important as what people think to be true.") Parallels can easily be drawn to modern governments and their PR machines that sell a personality, a war, or a fiscal policy. Also of interest are the details of painting itself: e.g., the blue for oils was from lapis lazuli mines in Afghanistan. Through Jean's eyes, we see Napoleon, with his facial tics, sitting restlessly at a desk in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles; we see Napoleon planning the great boulevards of Paris; we go into the stables to witness the training of horses to ride into war. A preface informs the reader about the importance of David and Neoclassicism; additional information is offered at the end of the story, as is a helpful time line. Hill has taken this task seriously, creating a good coming-of-age story in an exciting historical era, with careful attention to the creation of art and the role of art in society. Claire Rosser, KLIATT
J--Recommended for junior high school students. The contents are of particular interest to young adolescents and their teachers.
S--Recommended for senior high school students.