Napoleonic Architecture Exhibit @ AIC May Only Spark Interest of Select Few

Now through April 9, the Art Institute of Chicago will display highlights from their Percier and Fontaine Collection, the personal library of Pierre François Léonard Fontaine, one of the architectes du gouvernement under Napoleon. The exhibition, entitled Architect of Empires: Highlights from the Library of Pierre Fontaine, is displayed in the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries.

Charles Percier and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine. Plate 19: Bed made for Mme. M in Paris from Recueil de décorations intérieures… Paris: Chez les Auteurs, 1812. (Image Courtesy of the Art Institue of Chicago)

The exhibition consists of about a dozen highlights of the collection arranged chronologically within a display case. We begin with Fontaine’s architecture training in Paris and Rome where he meets Charles Percier, his close collaborator, so close in fact that they are often considered one and the same. The exhibition then faithfully guides us through Fontaine’s life using his personal collection; there is his own copy of Leon Batista Alberti, his original drawing for the Chateau d’Eu and his interior drawings. There is something haunting about exploring someone’s private library, especially one like this. It is simultaneously telling a global and deeply personal history.

Despite the rich history and visual culture this exhibition surveys, it may only be interesting to architectural history scholars. It’s a retrospective dedicated to the architects of the Arc de Triomphe and the chief designers of the Empire style–a design mode that managed to seamlessly combine the pomp of the Rococo, the authoritarianism of the Egyptians and the classical sensibilities of the Greeks. (Granted, this review comes from a visual learner who has fallen asleep through It and Gladiator multiple times.)

For all those scholars analyzing the nuances of space within the Empire, a worthwhile topic indeed, this library is priceless. To those looking for more shock and awe at the Art Institute of Chicago, however, this may be one stop of many at the museum. After dutifully reading the four or five well-written placards in Architect of Empires, venture up the grand staircase to see “The Medieval World at Our Fingertips: Manuscript Illuminations from the Collection of Sandra Hindman,” a colorful and fascinating look at medieval history.

The Art Institute of Chicago is open daily from 10:30- 5pm and Thursday’s until 8pm. “Architect of Empires: Highlights from the Library of Pierre Fontaine” is up through April 9 and “The Medieval World at Our Fingertips: Manuscript Illuminations from the Collection of Sandra Hindman,” is up through May 9.

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