Book Review: The Second Empire 1852-1870: Art in France under Napoléon III

The Second Empire 1852-1870 Art in France under Napoléon IIISaturday, 7 July 2012

Book Review: The Second Empire 1852-1870: Art in France under Napoléon III

It was a pleasure to revisit the erudite catalogue of The Second Empire 1852-1870: Art in France under Napoléon III (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art; Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts; Paris: Grand Palais, 1978-1979), which I had studied earlier during the nascent stages of my Winterhalter research. It was a ground-breaking exhibition inasmuch as anything that focused on aspects of nineteenth-century art other than David, Ingres, Delacroix, and Impressionism prior to the 1990s was ground-breaking. This volume remains an invaluable source of for any researcher working in the field of Second Empire or nineteenth-century art in general, or indeed Franz Xaver Winterhalter in particular.

For example, excellent overarching essays by Jean-Marie Moulin (‘Art and Society’, 11-16); Kathryn B. Hiesinger and Joseph Rishel (‘Art and Its Critics’, 29-34); Geneviève Lacambre and Donald Rosenthal (‘Painting’, 243-7), provide invaluable contextualisation for the study and appreciation of Winterhalter’s works in particular and portraiture in general during the era.

The inclusion of interior studies by Jean-Baptiste-Fortuné de Fournier and Jean Sorieul provide valuable provenance information about Winterhalter’s portraits. A study of jewellery by Gabriel Lemonnier give a valuable historical information on the Imperial Crowns of Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie which can be seen in the portraits by Franz Xaver Winterhalter of 1853 (oil on canvas, destroyed); or the official jewelled insignia of the Imperial ladies-in-waiting, also by Lemonnier, for one can find between the lines an explanation as to why it is not worn by the Empress’s ladies in Winterhalter’s monumental group portrait of 1855 (oil on canvas, Compiègne).

The inclusion in the exhibition of portraits of Napoleon III by Alexandre Cabanel (1865, oil on canvas, Walters Art Gallery) and Hippolyte-Jean Flandrin (c.1860, oil on canvas, Versailles) furnish a valuable comparison of the Emperor’s depiction by Winterhalter; while the examination of Thomas Couture’s unfinished The Baptism of the Prince Imperial (1856-62, oil on canvas, Compiègne) allows for a deeper understanding of the circumstances under which Winterhalter’s portrait of the Empress with the Prince Imperial of 1857 was created (oil on canvas, Private Collection). Another curious inclusion is Paul Baudry’s Portrait of the Son of the Comtesse Swiekowska as the Young Saint John (1860, oil on canvas, Private Collection), inasmuch as, according to my research, the same sitter commissioned portraits of herself and her son from Winterhalter during the 1860s. (Incidentally, Baudry’s portrait was recently sold by Christie’s Paris for €115,000).

494 1854 Eugenie Winterhalter The exhibition included two paintings by Winterhalter, the 1854 portrait of the Empress Eugénie in eighteenth-century dress (oil on canvas, Metropolitan) and the above-mentioned group portrait of the Empress with her ladies-in-waiting. A short biographical article was furnished by Odile Sebastiani, though her three-hundred word entry is rife with inaccuracies. Granted, the exhibition catalogue predates the ground-breaking research on the artist by Dr Armin Panter, Hubert Mayer and the Winterhalter exhibition team, so factual mistakes within such a relatively early publication are almost forgivable.

For example, Sebastiani states “his early life remains a mystery”, “the biographers are not in agreement on the date of his birth”, or that “the chronology of his youth is uncertain” (357). All these inconsistencies were to be righted more than a decade later, in an utmost detail, by Panter and Mayer. Her statement that “portraits of the ducal family of Baden are generally ascribed to the period after his return from Italy” is clearly erroneous and not as readily forgivable, as even the most cursory research would have shown that Winterhalter began his work for the Badenese Grand Ducal family as early as 1828. She further writes that, after leaving France at the time of the 1848 revolution, he did not return until 1853, which is once again highly erroneous, as there is definite evidence that he resumed his portraits practice in Paris late in 1849.

The idea that he was “immediately commissioned to paint the portraits of the Emperor and the Empress” is also erroneous, as there were at least half-a-dozen other artists who were commissioned to paint Napoleon III and Eugénie prior to Winterhalter. But, I fully agree with Sebastiani’s final statement that “today, Winterhalter’s works have acquired the charm of all that conjures up a past period; one cannot deny the extraordinary virtuosity of this artist.”

Odile Sebastiani’s catalogue entry on the 1855 portrait of the Empress with her ladies is quite accurate, and her overarching observation is most apt:  “This work has had a surprising destiny that of being loved at the same time by crowned heads and the masses but rejected by the critics of art” (359). On the other hand, the catalogue entry on the 1854 portrait of the Empress Eugénie in eighteenth-century dress, contributed by Joseph Rishel, suffers from a number of factual mistakes, which I would likewise attribute to the early period of Winterhalter scholarship. Rishel’s statement that “the early history of this charming painting is not known” is erroneous, as the provenance of the portrait is clearly documented; and contrary to his assertion, the portrait was painted prior to the Empress’s appearance in an eighteenth-century dress at a court ball.

Last but not least, the exhibition catalogue has to be commended for the inclusion of the most detailed provenance and bibliographic information with every catalogue entry that would furnish any burgeoning or seasoned researcher with a wealth of primary and early twentieth-century publications on art and its patronage during the Second Empire.

© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2012.

Do you have any comments, suggestions, or additions to the online Franz Xaver and Hermann Winterhalter Catalogue and these blog entries? Have you heard more news about the works by these artists at auctions and exhibitions? Then do not delay and get in touch!

Book Review: Desmond Seward, Eugénie: The Empress and her Empire (Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 2004).

Seward Eugenie BookThursday, 5 July 2012

Book Review: Desmond Seward, Eugénie: The Empress and her Empire (Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 2004).

One of the quirks of writing a doctoral thesis is the requirement to show your knowledge and awareness of recent publications within your area of study. This stipulation can be rather ironic, especially when older, primary sources are by far more detailed, knowledgeable and accurate compared to the subsequently produced works. This is also applicable to a number of biographies I read in conjunction with my thesis. For example, I am currently working on a chapter that examines a selection of portraits by Franz Xaver Winterhalter of Eugénie, Empress of the French, which has certainly necessitated a detailed study of the Empress’s biographies. Most of the illuminating accounts that provide invaluable insights to the understanding of the Empress’s portraits by Winterhalter come from Eugénie’s contemporaries. More recent accounts tend to rehash the stories from the primary sources, and, in my opinion, apart from an excellent account by Patrick Turnbull, a more insightful and analytical examination of Eugénie’s biography is yet to be found.

However, in order to avoid annoying remarks from the future examiners about the exclusion of more recent publications, I recently turned to the Empress’s biography by Desmond Seward. Published in 2004, it is perhaps among the most recent – and creditable – accounts of Eugénie’s life. The biographical account is rather broad and cursory, lasting for no more than 300 pages. The writer confesses in the prologue to the paucity of any new information on the Empress, and even states that as far as the Empress’s biography is concerned, “nothing significant remains to be found.” Although most of the materials utilised within his pages have been published and quoted elsewhere, I commend the author for organising the wealth of information on the Empress in thematic sub-chapters. It allows for a closer and deeper examination of multifarious aspects of Eugénie’s life, such as her interest in politics; passion for fashion; intense religiosity; interest in Marie-Antoinette, etc.

On the other hand, and it is perhaps the fault of the editorial board rather than the writer, the endnotes are presented at the back of the book in a rather jumbled way rather than in a proper, scholarly manner. As the result, many of the statements and quotes remain unreferenced and unsubstantiated, including a supposed response by Napoleon III to Winterhalter’s monumental portrait of the Empress with the ladies of her court of 1855: “Not a man in it.”

Speaking of whom, Winterhalter features prominently in the book – the striking portrait of 1864 adorns the jacket cover; black and white illustrations include the copy after the 1853 official portrait, the group portrait of 1855, and Napoleon III’s portrait of 1857. The artist is mentioned throughout the book, without major inaccuracies. I would only take umbrage to a passage on page 53, where in a broad statement Seward declares that ‘contemporaries say he never did justice to her beauty’. Such statement is clearly erroneous, for it counters testimonials by Auguste Filon and Amelie Carette among others (who are referenced elsewhere in the book and listed in the bibliography). He supports this statement by a quote from Lillie Moulton; but surely, to remain objective and relevant, one ought to consider a cross-section of opinions rather than a single point of view.

© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2012

Franz Xaver Winterhalter – Empress Eugénie of 1854 (no. 495)

54 Winterhalter Eugenie Houston TX1Sunday, 5 February 2012

Franz Xaver Winterhalter – Empress Eugénie of 1854 (no. 495)

I have recently received a charming email from a curator of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, USA, correcting one of my entries by informing me that no 495, portrait of Empress Eugénie of 1854, is now in the Museum’s collection.

The portrait measures 125 x 95 cm, and it is signed, dated, and inscribed lower centre as painted in Paris in 1854. It is believed to have been commissioned personally by the Empress and paid from her own funds: this fact that was recognised by the French Government in 1881 when it returned the portrait to the Empress in exile together with other paintings and works of art as her private property. The portrait was placed at Eugénie’s home at Farnborough Hill and remained there at least until 1884, when it was gifted to Mme Eugène Rouher (née Marie Cornélie Léontine Conchon (1822-1890)), widow of a prominent Second Empire politician and statesman, and remained in her possession in Paris until her death in 1890. The painting then passed through a number of private collections, and was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, with funds provided by the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund, in 2010.

54 Winterhalter Eugenie Houston TX2In spite of its importance, the portrait was exhibited publicly only four times. It was lent by the Empress to the Exposition Universelle of 1855, and to the Vienna Kunstverein in 1856. More than 130 year would pass before the portrait reappeared again, this time at the Winterhalter exhibition in London’s National Gallery and the Petit Palais in Paris in 1987-88. In 2009 it was lent to “Napoleon and Eugenie” exhibition at the Nassau County Museum of Art by its then owner, Christopher Forbes.

The portrait remained well-known through lithographs by Léon Noël (an edition of which was also shown at the Parisian Exposition Universelle of 1855), as well as through a number of copies and miniatures in porcelain and enamel (examples of these abound in public and private collections worldwide). Most recently, of course, it has been popularised as a poster available from countless online retailers.

54 Winterhalter Eugenie Houston TX3I am sincerely overjoyed that this work of the utmost historical importance, which is also among the key paintings of Winterhalter’s oeuvre, has finally entered a public collection, where it rightfully belongs.

© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg, 2012