Certain dictators exert a seemingly endless public fascination, especially when their deeds have been burnished by nostalgia and whitewashed by tales of military glory. Yet in the two centuries since Napoleon reached the summit of his destructive influence, the public – with some notable exceptions – has become markedly less prone to idolising individuals who gain power through violent conquest. Given this declining public taste for military adventurism, I expected the NGV’s Napoleon exhibition to offer a modern perspective on the man’s willingness to seize power by any means available. However, the reality is more complicated.

Strangely enough, the NGV exhibition begins with a red-herring focus on ‘the complex web of connections between Australia and France in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.’ With a colossal figure like Napoleon up your sleeve, kicking off proceedings with a nod to ‘local flavour’ seemed unduly parochial. While it was interesting to learn how close the French came to colonising Australia, an Australian-themed appetiser was hardly necessary. (I was glad to hear that the French dubbed Victoria ‘Napoleon Land’, though – a far more impressive title than the one we ended up with.)

After summarising pre-revolutionary France’s colonial ambitions, the exhibition provides an overview of the sybaritic decadence that permeated Louis XVI’s court in the monarchy’s dog days. Objects such as a Nipple Cup, Known as the Breast Bowl (1788) – rumoured to be modelled on Marie Antoinette’s own – were judiciously chosen to illustrate the yawning chasm between the depraved haves and the emaciated have-nots. The most potent symbol of royal inertia is Louis XVI himself, who cuts a sadly buffoonish figure even in his official portraits. Nowhere is the King’s terminally out-of-touch nature more obvious than in the later pieces depicting his execution. While Louis XVI Farewelling His Family (1791), for example, was presumably intended as a tear-jerking propaganda piece, the hapless (and soon-to-be-headless) ex-king looks disconcertingly like Charlie Brown, eternally frozen in a ‘Good grief!’ pose.

The monarchy’s final collapse is vividly represented, partly because of the media in which the events are expressed. The modest series of engravings documenting the regime’s downfall cannily illustrate the middle class’s rising power while offering a brilliantly succinct vision of the monarchy’s violent deposition. Together, these tiny, orderly windows onto chaos and terror constitute an intimate and affecting – though obviously biased – vision of the revolutionary process.

The optimistic post-revolutionary mood is beautifully evoked with a section on the earthy and elegant ‘Etruscan’ artistic movement, which flourished in the short interval between the 1789 upheaval and the terror preceding Napoleon’s rise. With its earthy tones and clean lines, the French interregnum pottery subtly evokes a democratic ideal of sincerity and simplicity that was soon to be brutally traduced.

As the revolution sours into violence, the stage is set for Napoleon’s steady rise to power. Even as a young general, Napoleon’s vision of himself as absolute ruler was shockingly assured. The exhibition’s turning point arrives with Napoleon at the Bridge of Arcole (Antoine-Jean Gros, 1796). With an unmistakeably proto–rock star aesthetic, it’s the archetypal ‘portrait of the revolutionary as a young man’. Flag swirling behind him, sword perpendicular, Napoleon turns his head from the artist with an ice-cold backward glance at the unfortunate Austrian army he’s just finished wasting. Bonaparte looks impossibly cool – it’s easy to see why people flung themselves at his impeccably buckled feet.

As Napoleon gobbles up sufficient territory to satisfy his ravenous appetite, rock star morphs into Roman Emperor. Napoleon’s physical prime is epitomised by Canova’s Bust of Napoleon I (1804–15), an exercise in persuasion which makes the young, laurel-wreathed Napoleon look positively Brandoesque. The peak of Bonaparte’s military and political career is vividly depicted in the exhibition’s flagship painting, Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800), which is absolutely top-shelf propaganda. The cloaked Napoleon, staring straight at the artist and seated with impossible serenity on a rearing horse, points heavenward. It’s an image of awesome authority. As the blurb states, the scene portrays the ‘triumph of military genius and courage over physical adversity.’ This iconic image looks comically overblown on the brochure, but it’s brilliantly effective in the flesh.

All this youthful magic doesn’t last, of course. As Napoleon reaches the zenith of his power at his absurdly grandiose coronation, his personal magnetism seems to instantly wear off. After the searing power displayed in the masterful early set-piece paintings turns sour, all that remains is a brutal dictator playing dress-ups before a supine audience of slavish courtiers. By the time Napoleon is finally exiled, he resembles a spent film actor whose greatest film roles are decades past.

Overall, the NGV exhibition takes a surprisingly traditional approach to Napoleon as conqueror, adventurer, and all-round ‘great man’. This is history as written by the victor, as the cliché goes, with native populations merely serving as colourful and exotic backdrops to the real action. While the general’s famous campaigns were essentially a spree of murder, plunder and despoliation concealed under genteel terminology, you wouldn’t really know it from the context provided here. In other words, this is an exhibition that would be unlikely to offend die-hard Napoleon fanboys. But despite all this cynicism, I must admit that the young Napoleon cuts one hell of a dashing figure.

Napoleon: Revolution to Empire is at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Timothy Roberts is a Killings columnist and a freelance writer living in Melbourne.