Visual Arts

A Slight Obsession with a Short Man's Hero

For years, David Markham has had a devotion to Napoleon that some of his friends think is a bit unnatural, and that would have driven to distraction a wife less understanding than Barbara.

He wears, for instance, a tie decorated with bees, the French emperor's symbol. He has traced Napoleon's footsteps through the Alps to Lodi, the site of a critical battle of Napoleon's Italian campaign. He has a library of 150 books about Napoleon and is a member of the Napoleonic Society of America, a group of similar oddballs who gather every year to discuss the man who fascinates them all. Once, Markham went to a costume party dressed as his hero. Barbara, needless to say, went as Josephine.

"I have a scholarly interest in him, but I've also become personally fond of him as a historic person," Markham says. "There's something in the human spirit that likes to be inspired. We like glory. We like to see people rise from nothing and become great."

Markham, who at 43 has the turned-up nose, round blue eyes and enthusiastic manner of an adolescent, says he became interested in the French emperor from hearing stories about him as a child and was attracted by the kinds of things that generally attract young boys--battles, fancy uniforms and the like. As he became older, however, he began to appreciate the complexity of the man who wanted to conquer the world in order to impose on it ideals that were considered liberal for their time. Five years ago, on a trip to Europe, Markham bought his first piece of Napoleonic memorabilia--a print of the great man in his study.

Markham's near-obsession led him ultimately to collect more than eighty pieces related to Napoleon. His peculiar interest has now been vindicated with a jewel of an exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum, "Napoleon the Great: Selections From the David Markham Collection." On display in the Decorative Arts Gallery until March 18, the show is made up almost exclusively of small objects--snuffboxes with flattering pictures of the emperor, medallions issued to commemorate his victories, prints showing him at various stages of his life. The museum has also used the opportunity to display something that has languished too long in its own vaults--an 1808 over- lifesize marble head of Napoleon, newly restored and on view for the first time since 1972.

While the objects are lovely in their own right, they are also instructive. The medals and snuffboxes that make up Markham's collection were intended for a wide circulation among a middle-class audience and provide evidence of the public ardor with which Napoleon was regarded--so different from how we look at our own public figures. And, the way he is depicted shows the careful manipulation with which Napoleon created the legend that is himself.

"He orchestrated the myth all through his life," says Markham, who assembled his collection with the eye of a historian, not a connoisseur of art. While other Napoleon buffs tend to concentrate on their hero's military tactics--"Even detractors consider him the greatest military genius of all time," Markham says--the Phoenix man is more interested in the politics of Napoleon's rise to power. This befits Markham's vocation as a teacher of sociology and political science in the Maricopa Community College District. He is able, as he says, to talk about Napoleon for hours, and at a recent gallery talk at the museum did just that. Napoleon's rise to power was based on a couple of things, Markham explains. One was the French Revolution, which created a vacuum at the head of the Army--most of the officers had been noblemen--and gave a young lieutenant with an eye for the main chance an opportunity to rise. Another was that military genius; his tactics are still studied today at West Point and Sandhurst. Another was a gift for rhetoric that won him the unswerving loyalty of the army. Markham quoted from the speech Napoleon made before the battle of Lodi, and it is indeed stirring: "I will lead you into the most fertile plains on earth. Rich provinces, wealthy cities, all will be at your disposal."

But the reason Napoleon passed from emperor to legend and took up residence in the realm of mythology next to Alexander the Great, was a genius for self-promotion--as well as an unbounded ego and an effective publicity machine. A print at the Phoenix Art Museum of the all-important battle of Lodi, for instance, puts Napoleon at the head of the charge across the bridge. A pretty picture, Markham says confidently, but sheer fabrication. It was after he became emperor, however, that Napoleon's ego came into full flower. Never shy about allying himself symbolically with the immortals, he liked to depict himself looking like various and sundry Roman emperors. On the 1810 medal commemorating Napoleon's marriage to Marie Louise, for example, Napoleon is shown wearing a toga. And, the Phoenix Art Museum's newly restored head of the emperor--its nose was broken some years ago--shows Napoleon in his Julius Caesar mode. The eyes are left blank, the way they were in imperial portraits of the early Caesars.

Rome also explains what must be one of the most astonishing series of political portraits done in modern times. They show Napoleon in the nude and refer specifically to nude statues of Roman emperors, and more to the point, Roman gods. One of Markham's medals shows a miniature nude Napoleon. Struck in 1809, it commemorates the Peace of Vienna.

"We don't give people that kind of devotion," Markham says, and indeed, the mind boggles at the thought of American military heroes who went on to become political leaders, like Grant and Eisenhower, being depicted this way.

Markham's Napoleonic collection was a natural outgrowth of his collection of American political memorabilia, which includes such things as silk ribbons, ferrotype campaign portraits and brass shell buttons with pictures of candidates. "I love to collect things, no doubt about it," Markham says. He once amassed a group of ancient English coins and is in the process of selling a large John F. Kennedy collection.

"I'm a firm believer that this stuff is not to be stuck into a closet," he says. "I try to have it on display as often as I can." His political memorabilia, for instance, is on display at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg. Most of Markham's political collection is from 1789 to 1892, when modern celluloid buttons replaced the earlier ribbons and ferrotypes. He expanded his horizons to include Napoleon when he realized that objects related to the great man were not only available in this country, but affordable. (One of the nicest prints in the collection, in fact, was given to Markham because its owners didn't want it.) "It never occurred to me that there was an opportunity to collect things here," he says simply.

Once he got started collecting, there was no stopping him. And there seems an almost unbounded amount of material. There are, for instance, 220,000 books about Napoleon. And not only is there memorabilia from Napoleon's own lifetime, there are objects made following his death, when the French people began to miss their former ruler.

The Napoleon on horseback, for example, the largest item in Markham's collection, was cast in bronze in the 1890s, when Napoleon's reign had long assumed its place as the high point in French history and had become the focus for two of the greatest novels ever written, Les Miserables and War and Peace. Markham managed to snap up the horseback figure when he went to an auction preview and happened to be there when the organizers decided to start the auction a day early. Luck and strategy help in collecting, just like in conquering worlds, he has realized.

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Anna Dooling