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).
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.