In 1853, when Carpeaux was still a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he sought the patronage of Napoleon III. To this end, he produced a model of The Emperor receiving Abd el-Kader at the Palace of Saint Cloud, and was commissioned to produce it in marble. This initial relationship with the imperial family subsequently enabled him to attend many sumptuous receptions held at the Tuileries Palace. Always equipped with paper and pencils, Carpeaux took advantage of this to make quick sketches: "those vivid, expressive and truthful figures of Napoleon III, standing, sitting, bowing, listening" (P. Jamot, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, May 1908). This painting recalls one of these receptions held in Paris at the time of the 1867 Universal Exhibition.
The festive atmosphere is rendered with great economy of means. Figures and décor are merely sketched in. An innovative treatment of light and colour contrasts with the overall classical composition. Several characters, among whom Napoleon III can be easily recognised, rapidly painted using wide brushstrokes, mingle in a gilded, exuberant atmosphere.
For a long time it was thought that the woman on the emperor's arm was the Countess of Castiglione, one of the sovereign's most famous mistresses. However, by 1867 their affair had been over for several years, which leads us to believe that the female character depicted beside Napoleon III is none other than the Empress Eugenie.