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.
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.
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. 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.