The Spectacular Second Empire
The ostentation of the “fête impériale” and France’s humiliating defeat by Prussia in 1870 have long been considered a blot on the reputation of Napoleon III and the Second Empire (1852-1870), which was derided as nothing more an era of pleasure that had been corrupted by wealth, and was lambasted by Victor Hugo in exile, and later chronicled by Émile Zola in the narrative panorama of the Rougon-Macquart novels.
Franz-Xaver Winterhalter (after)Napoleon III, Emperor of the French© Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christophe Fouin
The years 1850-1860, characterised by a buoyant economy and a stable imperial regime, were a period of unprecedented prosperity in the 19th century, a time of abundance which played host to a multitude of political, economic, religious and artistic celebrations.
The Emperor dazzled Europe by reviving the pomp of Versailles and consolidated popular support for his regime with a host of festivities.
The burgeoning middle class flaunted ever more external trappings of wealth, and its image-consciousness fuelled a booming portrait industry.
Parisian life took its cue from the Salons, grand balls organised by the court, and the many shows staged in theatres.
The French Empire, which had reasserted itself on the international stage with an aggressive foreign policy, rejoiced at Universal Exhibitions in 1855 and 1867, as did the French luxury goods industry and eclectic designers.
To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the Musée d’Orsay is offering a fresh perspective on the Second Empire’s wealth of innovations and on the fête impériale, the forerunner of our consumer society and entertainment culture.
La comédie du pouvoir
Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (1808-1873), nephew of Napoleon I, was elected the first President of the French Republic in December 1848, after a life spent in exile and characterised by abortive political exploits.
Franz-Xaver Winterhalter (after)Eugenie, Empress of the French© RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot
On 2 December 1851, the joint anniversary of the Battle of Austerlitz and his uncle’s coronation, a coup d’état transformed the republic headed by a “prince-president” into a hereditary empire. Louis-Napoleon quashed resistance, imprisoned his opponents, and muzzled the press, but reinstated universal (male) suffrage.
The Empire was restored on 2 December 1852, backed by a landslide vote from the French people.
The brand of Bonapartism advocated by Napoleon III, which drew its legitimacy from the popular vote, “consisted of rebuilding French society torn apart by fifty years of revolutions, and reconciling order and freedom” (Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, Les Idées napoléoniennes (1839). In order to ensure he was a popular figure among the people, the Emperor used images in the form of paintings, photographs and engravings to commemorate and publicise the highlights of his “imperial epic”, which was modern yet traditional.
Imperial propaganda was also generated around the young Empress Eugenie (1826-1920). In January 1853, Napoleon III announced his wedding publicly with an official declaration, which represented a departure from ancestral custom.
This romantic wedding boosted the Emperor’s popularity, and the Empress, who was committed to charitable causes, swiftly became an asset to the regime.
Lavish Dynastic Events
The Emperor’s wedding in 1853, followed by the birth of the Prince Imperial in 1856, fulfilled dynastic expectations. To mark these major political and religious events, the Grand Master of Ceremonies, the Duc de Cambacérès, resurrected the protocols of the First Empire to organise sumptuous celebrations funded from the budget of the Ministry of the Emperor’s Household.
Jean-Léon GérômeReception for the Siamese Ambassadors given by the Emperor at the Palace of Fontainebleau© RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Droits réservés
The baptism of the Prince Imperial, who boasted the Pope as his godfather, was lavish (costing 150,000 francs). In honour of the occasion, the eighthorse Berlin carriage used for the coronation of Charles X was brought out of storage and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was decorated throughout by Viollet-le-Duc.
The Emperor is said to have commented: “This baptism is worthy of a coronation!”
Reviving the ancient tradition according to which the City of Paris presented the future sovereign with a cradle, as it had done in 1811 for the King of Rome, the city council decided in 1855 to task its architect Baltard with the design.
With its inventiveness and consummate workmanship this cradle, one of the most valuable of the century, is also among the finest pieces of furniture produced under the Second Empire. It was crafted by some of the greatest artists of the era.
The deaths of King Jerome in 1860 and the Emperor’s half-brother the Duc de Morny in 1865 were marked by dynastic ceremonies and ostentatious funerals at Les Invalides and the church of La Madeleine respectively.
Celebrations and Bespoke Decorative Schemes
Even before re-establishing the Empire Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte declared his desire to involve Parisians and the French people in the major celebrations marking the foundation of the new regime.
Maison Belloir and VazelleDesign of a Marquee for a Fête Impériale© Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
The Emperor set the ostentatious tone for the regime by staging popular spectacles. The feast of “St Napoleon” on 15 August was reinstated as a national holiday, as it had been under the First Empire, and lavish decorations were erected in the capital to mark the event in traditional style.
Major military victories were also an opportunity for triumphant processions, such as on 14 August 1859 when the soldiers of the Italian Army entered Paris along a route punctuated by triumphal arches, porticos and flags. Some 100,000 men marched from the Place de la Bastille to the Place Vendôme, where people rented balconies to watch the procession of wounded but victorious zouaves.
Every new railway station built or boulevard opened up as part of the urban redevelopment scheme was celebrated with a similar wonderland of painted wood and canvas constructions.
These great occasions for national rejoicing – truly festive demonstrations of approval – reinforced the French people’s support for the regime.
In similarly lavish style, the Empress inaugurated the Suez Canal, a major project beyond French shores, amidst great pomp on 16 November 1869.
Several days after the coup d’état, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte left the Élysée presidential palace and moved into the Tuileries, the residence of the kings of France.
One of his first projects was to complete work on the Louvre and Tuileries, intended to house the sovereign’s residence, the Ministry of State and a museum.
In the former palaces (Saint-Cloud, Fontainebleau, and Compiègne), the sovereigns made the most of the prestigious historical decorative schemes. Empress Eugenie introduced modern amenities and was keen to cherish the memory of Queen Marie-Antoinette, who was a source of fascination to her.
The Empress surrounded herself with 18th century royal furniture which she sourced from dealers or from the Imperial Furniture Repository. She teamed it with lavish contemporary designs created by the great craft factories (Les Gobelins, Sèvres, Beauvais) and the finest cabinetmakers (Fourdinois), exact replicas of furniture with an alleged royal pedigree, and looser variations on the Louis XV and Louis XVI styles.
Beauvais ManufactoryLouis XVI sofa © Collection du Mobilier national © Isabelle Bideau
Mid-reign, the Empress tasked architect Hector Lefuel with building a new apartment on the terraces of the Tuileries Palace decorated in this style.
This fashion, which was the hallmark of the entire era, was such a distinctive feature of her reign that the Louis XVI-Empress style has passed into the annals of history.
Portraits of a Society
“The flood of portraits is swelling every year and threatens to submerge the entire Salon. There is a simple explanation: the only people still buying paint are those who want to have their portraits painted,” wrote the young critic Émile Zola, castigating a narcissistic society. In the early Second Empire, few artists could compete with the masterpieces of Ingres and Winterhalter.
Alexandre CabanelNapoléon III© RMN-Grand Palais (domaine de Compiègne) / Thierry Le Mage
During the 1860s, a new generation of realist painters – Manet, Tissot, Degas and Cézanne – aspired to revitalize the genre and to make their name with full-length portraits which elevated middle-class sitters to the rank of historical figures, while Cabanel revealed a modern and intimate face of a sovereign whose image was often misunderstood.
For their part, photographers Nadar, Mayer and Pierson drew on the pictorial tradition to lend nobility to their sitters. Technical advances fostered the development of a real portrait photography industry. Paris had three hundred and fifty studios belonging to professional photographers in the late 1860s, chief among whom was Disdéri, who patented the portrait-carte photographic calling card process in 1854.
Painted, sculpted or photographed, public or private, the modern portrait hovered between conformity with social conventions and the free expression of the personality of the artist and sitter.
The Pompeian Villa and the Greek Revival Trend
Second Empire society theatricalised its living environment. As performance spaces, interiors became the setting for fantasies about the past or distant climes for a middle class steeped in Romanticism.
Gustave BoulangerRehearsal of "The Flute Player" and "The Wife of Diomedes" at Prince Napoleon’s house© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Adrien Didierjean
Fashionable trends included a new interest in Classical Antiquity and the Greek Revival style.
This is epitomised by the Pompeian villa belonging to Prince Napoléon Jérôme, the Emperor’s cousin. The villa, which was a total work of art, was built at 18 Avenue Montaigne by architect Alfred Normand for the Prince and his mistress, the tragic actress Rachel.
The interior was a synthesis of the Greek and Pompeian models which had previously only been loosely captured. Despite Rachel’s death in 1859, the villa was inaugurated at a party in February 1860 attended by the sovereigns and Princess Mathilde, the Emperor’s cousin. Actors from the Comédie-Française performed several plays by Émile Augier and Alexandre Dumas.
It was soon abandoned by the Prince who had commissioned it, in the face of disapproval from his young wife Marie-Clotilde of Savoy. The building was sold in 1866, vandalised during the Commune in 1871 and demolished in 1891.
This folly, which reflects the eclecticism of the age, was a near neighbour of the Moorish house belonging to Jules de Lesseps at number 22 and the Gothic Revival palace by the architect Jean-Baptiste Lassus at number 20 in the same street.
The Gothic Revival Style and the Catholic Revival
The Second Empire was the pinnacle of experimentation with the Gothic style in the form advocated by Viollet-le-Duc, theorist and “restorer” of the great monuments of medieval France such as the Château de Pierrefonds and the fortifications of Carcassonne.
Emmanuel LansyerThe Château of Pierrefonds© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The imperial couple’s favourite architect designed a large monstrance and a reliquary for the Holy Crown of Thorns for the Treasure house of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in this style.
This masterpiece crafted by goldsmith Froment-Meurice was showcased at the International Exhibition in London in 1862. Moreover, Viollet-le-Duc produced sketches for the processional canopy woven by the Beauvais tapestry factory for Marseille cathedral.
Although the Second Empire witnessed the triumph of Positivism and a sharp surge in anti-clericalism, it was also a period of Catholic revival.
The state ecclesiastical budget increased, new churches were built and fresh pilgrimages established, including Lourdes, where the Virgin Mary appeared eighteen times to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. It remains one of the most popular pilgrimages to this day.
The Second Empire expressed its social diversity and new-found prosperity in a very wide array of bold stylistic experiments ranging from Greek Revival to Gothic Revival and encompassing Orientalism and Japonism. The growth of revival movements, which was already a feature of the July Monarchy and continued under the Empire, made a daring yet conservative statement.
Baccarat, Emile BeletVase (one of a pair)© Collection du Mobilier national © Isabelle Bideau
This encyclopaedic approach to ornamental sources was documented in works such as The Grammar of Ornament (Owen Jones, 1856), which raised awareness about motifs and helped to disseminate them to a wide audience.
The ultimate expression of the secular Gothic Revival style was the restoration work carried out at the châteaux of Pierrefonds (Oise) and Roquetaillade (Gironde) and the construction of the Château d’Abbadia in Hendaye on the Basque coast.
Built for a family of anglophile monarchists on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic by Edmond Duthoit, a student of Viollet-le-Duc, the building is the epitome of a skilful modern synthesis of styles drawn from the Gothic and Islamic repertoires fused by a common taste for polychromy.
The Renaissance also emerged as one of the favourite styles of the new generation commissioning architectural projects, echoing the Marquise de Païva’s luxurious town house, which was a consummately executed synthesis of styles, illustrated here by one of the consoles from the grand reception room and precious velvets.
Among collectors and financiers, a taste for artefacts dating from the 17th and 18th centuries remained constant and dictated the construction and layout of private town houses and residences.
The finest example is the Château de Ferrière, built in the Seine-et-Marne département by the British architect Joseph Paxton for the family of the prominent banker James de Rothschild.
Glittering Highlights of The “Fête Impériale”
The image of the “fête impériale” has cast a long shadow over the history of the Second Empire. However, organising lavish receptions was motivated by a political desire for prestige.
Henri BaronOfficial Celebration at the Tuileries Palace during the Universal Exhibition of 1867© RMN-Grand Palais (domaine de Compiègne) / Droits réservés
The young, cosmopolitan court championed the luxury goods industry and helped to make Paris the entertainment capital of Europe.
Between three and four thousand guests regularly flocked to the grand balls thrown at the Tuileries in the winter. To mark official receptions in honour of Queen Victoria in 1855 and the King of Spain in 1864, for example, the Empire revived the lavish festivities of Versailles in the reign of Louis XIV.
The visit made by the King of Prussia and the Tsar of Russia during the Universal Exhibition in 1867 was celebrated with one of the most splendid receptions of the era.
During the carnival period, the Empress, who shared a love of donning disguises with the Comtesse de Castiglione, organised costume balls. She appeared as a dogaressa, an odalisque and in 18th century attire reflecting her fascination with Marie-Antoinette.
At Compiègne, the famous séries, organized three or four times per season between late October and mid-December, brought together writers, composers, painters and politicians.
At parties organised by the Comte de Nieuwerkerke at the Louvre and by Princess Pauline de Metternich at the Austrian Embassy, tableaux vivants and other games were improvised.
This fostered the image of a regime engaged in a constant round of partying.
Theatres under the Empire
Charles Garnier’s new Opera House, the most famous and spectacular monument in Haussmann’s Paris, is still one of the most iconic examples of what the architect dubbed the “Napoleon III” idiom when asked to describe the style of the building by Empress Eugenie.
Alphonse Crépinet, Alphonse BotrelProject for the New Opera House, a Perspective View© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / René-Gabriel Ojéda
However, it should not overshadow the richness and diversity of the world of entertainment under the Empire.
Verdi and Meyerbeer reigned supreme at the Opera House, but Wagner’s Tannhäuser caused a scandal in 1861. The Théâtre-Lyrique was the venue for a revival spearheaded by Gounod and Bizet.
In order to create the Boulevard du Prince-Eugène, Haussmann demolished the Boulevard du Temple and its theatres which staged popular shows, and so many of them were rebuilt, including those on the Place du Châtelet, the Vaudeville, the Gymnase and the Théâtre de la Gaîté.
The decree of 1864 liberalising theatres led to a proliferation of new venues open to a fresh repertoire and fostered the emergence of figures whose names are now a byword for the era. Jacques Offenbach, inventor of the comic opera, had a series of hits at Les Bouffes-Parisiens and at the Théâtre des Variétés with La Belle Hélène (1864), La Vie parisienne (1866) and La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein (1867), whose popularity was due in part to his star singer Hortense Schneider.
Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux Eugénie Fiocre© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The theatre was dominated by comedies of manners penned by Dumas fils and Victorien Sardou and vaudeville shows by Labiche, who owes his fame to Un chapeau de paille d'Italie (1851) and Le Voyage de Monsieur Perrichon (1860).
The working classes favoured the new cafés-concerts, L’Eldorado (1858) and Le Ba-ta-clan (1864), where they flocked to hear popular singers such as Thérésa, the first star in the history of popular song.
New Leisure Pursuits and New Painting
The 1850s were characterised by the emergence of modern leisure pursuits. The many theatres and cafés-concerts which sprang up in the capital were not the only form of entertainment or means of escape sought out by the various social classes.
Pierre-Auguste RenoirLa Grenouillère© Photo: Nationalmuseum
You did not have to go far to avoid the bustle of the streets, and parks – whether recent creations like Les Buttes-Chaumont, or historic gardens like the Tuileries – provided a haven of peace and leisure opportunities.
In 1867, while living in Paris, Adolf von Menzel captured the twin faces of the city, a bustling street full of people going about their business and parks for meeting up under shady trees.
Not far from Paris on the banks of the Seine, on the Île de la Chaussée at Croissy, La Grenouillère, with its restaurant and dance hall, was a popular venue for boating and painters Monet and Renoir found suitably modern subject matter for their new aesthetic vision.
This was also the period of holidays and coastal resort tourism facilitated by the expansion of the railways.
The Normandy and Basque coasts were the destinations of choice for the aristocracy and newly prosperous industrialists and financiers.
Napoleon III had a villa built in Biarritz for the Empress and private investors built seaside resorts at Cabourg, Deauville and Arcachon.
The respectable classes and the demi-monde promenaded there, just like on the boulevards.
These new habits were embraced by painters of “modern life”, such as Eugène Boudin, for whom the coast and changeable skies became a favourite subject, and Claude Monet, who spent the summer of 1870 in Trouville and immortalised the famous luxurious Hôtel des Roches noires, which opened in 1866.
The Salon – a Stage For Art
The Salon, a two-hundred year old fixture, still dominated the art scene in Paris under the Second Empire.
Gustave Le Gray1852 Salon, Grand Salon north wall© Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Alexis Brandt
Every year or every other year, thousands of artists submitted their works to a jury made up of members of the Academy and to the scrutiny of an ever-growing public, whose foibles delighted caricaturists.
Despite the emergence of a handful of private galleries, fame could only be achieved and art could only be bought by the French State or commissioned at the Salon. Critics regularly lamented the demise of grand historical painting there and the popularity of minor genres such as portraiture, landscapes and still lifes.
In this period of abundance and aesthetic crises, no single school seemed to be dominant. The eclectic, teeming Salon welcomed without distinction paintings by Delacroix, students of Ingres, provocative realist canvases by Courbet, Bouguereau’s nudes, the fantasy works of genre painters and Orientalist mirages.
In May 1863, the huge number of works rejected (3,000 out of the 6,000 submitted) and protests from artists led the Emperor to sever his ties with the Academy – a bastion of monarchist opposition – and establish a “Salon des refusés” (exhibition of rejected works), to allow the public to judge the merits of these works.
The great and the good rubbed shoulders with ordinary people, but the Emperor’s purchase of Vénus by Cabanel and Édouard Manet’s scandalous Déjeuner sur l'herbe whose modern subject matter and frank style caused a shock by blazing a trail for new methods of depiction, have secured their place in the annals of art history.
Universal Exhibitions or the Triumph Of The Empire
Championed by the Emperor and supported by major French industrialists (Émile Pereire and Eugène Schneider), the Universal Exhibitions held in Paris in 1855 and 1867 showcased the prosperity of the Empire.
Max BerthelinThe Palace of Industry, perspective view © Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
After the inaugural London exhibition in 1851, Napoleon III ordered the construction of a “Palace of Industry” on the Champs Elysées in March 1852 to host a French exhibition.
In 1867, the Exhibition extended onto the Champ-de-Mars and welcomed a record eleven million visitors from April to October, including a host of crowned heads, impressed by recent developments in Paris.
This new type of fair became the locus for commercial rivalry between nations and was a spectacular manifestation of a society captivated by the abundance of goods which the industrial revolution had made accessible. The historian and philosopher Hippolyte Taine wrote in 1855: “Europe has come here to see our wares”.
France and Britain, who had signed a free trade treaty in 1860, were now waging a genuine covert battle for supremacy in the applied arts.
Thonet BrothersNo. 4 Chair © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Konstantinos Ignatiadis
Although Britain’s industrial capability was beyond dispute, French products led the way with their innovation and superior quality and dominated the luxury market.
The exhibitions also served to harmonise distinctive national traits and consolidate a strong European cultural ethos which was expressed in a gradual standardisation of styles.
Although the notion of the “masterpiece” was still a key concept for designers, the growing popularity of manufactured goods such as bentwood chairs made by the Thonet company heralded the increasingly prominent role of industry in the history of the decorative arts in the 20th century.