The Spectacular Second Empire, 1852-1870

By Bruno Soulié

VERSION FRANCAISE An exhibit on the Second Empire – a must-see! For if the artistic rehabilitation of the Second Empire has been going on since the Grand Palais’ 1979 exhibit, it’s now been over 35 years, as Guy Cogeval recalled on the night of the opening. The Second Empire as a political regime has historically had “very bad press.” And unfortunately for the defeated, Napoleon was pardoned for nothing, and the punishment (the Battle of Sedan) fit the crime (the coup on December 2, 1851).
However, the Second Empire deserves more than sarcastic comments centered on Napoleon III, his aging erotomania and his shiny battles where you could hear the click of the harnesses of Edouard Detaille’s African hunters, who unnecessarily sacrificed themselves in Floing and Illy to break the siege of Sedan.


The curators of this exhibit played a bold role, which was to recognize and express the diversity and richness of this period – a time that is too often marked with the seal of the Second Empire (the political regime being itself a coincidence that fell like a veil over the artistic leaps and bounds). This period doesn’t mean much to us these days – in fact, I think that some of the visitors had some difficulty thinking of any significant facts about the time, which is largely forgotten today.

1-Monet “Mme Louis Joachim Gaudibert”
2-Manet “Emile Zola”

Which is exactly why Guy Cogeval, Yves Badetz, Paul Perrin, and Marie-Paule Vial invited the general public to this little memory refresher. The arrangement can only give us small samples, for a comprehensive collection would have been near impossible. But even the setting helps set the tone: the old Orsay station is undeniably “Second Empire,” with its metal skeleton, which acts as the background for an abundance of eclectic decorations. It’s a summary of the style during this period, which continued in popularity under the 3rd Republic.

Edouard Degas “La famille Bellelli”
Gustave Courbet
Gustave Courbet “P. J. Proudhon et ses enfants”

It’s difficult to summarize a period whose artistic fabric is so rich and diverse. The curators had to be selective in their approach, lest they sacrifice certain fundamental aspects of the era. For example, this time is marked by the Catholic Revival, an expansion of missionary orders, and an alliance between the throne and the altar. A short section is dedicated to the diffusion of Catholic thought, with which several Parisian churches are contemporaneous: the Sainte Clotilde Basilica (1857), or the Saint-Augustin Church (1860-1871), for example.

Psyché au fond de l’Impératrice au Château de Saint Cloud

The risk here is that of reducing the splendor of the Second Empire to its luxurious and eclectic décor – the adornments of the living room where Princess Mathilde, the true artistic muse of the era, welcomed guests; and the tastes of her lover, Alfred de Nieuwerkerke, the superintendant of fine arts. Princess Mathilde would appear in these elegant salons in drawings by Sébastien Charles Giraud, in his townhouse on Rue de Courcelles. The Second Empire was also an authoritarian regime, replete with political clashes, attempted attacks (such as that of Orsini against Napoleon III), and beginnings of the working class challenge. Another aspect at play was the recognition of the French sector, depicted by the bronze worker Tolain of the International Association of Workers (the first international one was created in London in 1864).

Société de cristallerie Lyonnaise
Bénitier, 1867 offert à l’impératrice.

This period is thus a paradoxical one: the dominating taste was geared towards the new and towards diversity. But at the same time, modernity broke through the drapes of the bourgeois taste. It’s a complicated task to display such diversity and tension, behind the homogenous façade of Offenbach’s operettas, and the period’s precious drapes and furniture. Everything seemed “kitsch,” and our current era’s taste for vintage and ostentatious design should be largely satisfied with the collection produced by these tensions.

Edouard Manet
“Le déjeuner sur l’herbe”

The highlight is probably a painting by James Tissot called Le Cercle de la Rue Royale. Nothing sums up this edge-of-abyss feeling better than the elegant, Parnassian poses of the subjects, who represent the aristocratic class of 1870. In 1870, everything felt suspended on the edge of a cliff: The storms were gathering, the dark points obscuring the horizon – and yet, the painting symbolizes a French lightness. It makes you think of Prévost-Paradol, who prophesied the future face-off between France and German, and who killed himself in Washington when he heard about the declaration of the Prussian War on July 20, 1870.

Berceau du prince impérial – Louis-Napoléon 1856.

But the creativity of artistic expression during the Second Empire lies in the decorative arts. It was under this regime that a new type of creativity was born and flourished. Certainly we’ll always have the sarcasms of Zola to stigmatize this class of the accomplished nouveau-riches, the Saccards and Rougon-Macquarts, but this class had the means to adapt art according to the modernity that new industrial techniques had created. Sculpted wood, painted enamel, ceramic molds from live models, multicolored glass, and semi-precious stone settings were all challenging techniques attempted by artists trying to keep up with the old masters by using the industrial means of their time.

Couronne et diadème de l’Impératrice Eugénie.

World fairs served as windows into modern techniques. The coin collection known as the “Mérovée” of Guillaume Diehl and Emmanuel Frémiet, created during the 1867 World’s Fair, is a demonstration of all the styles – Merovingian, Roman, and “Roman-Merovingian.” The bas-relief sculpted by Emmanuel Frémiet represents Mérovée’s victory over Attila in the Catalaunic Fields in the year 451. The monumental marble sculpture (2 by 38 meters) demonstrates “National Antiquity” style and also the construction of the French nation’s heroic past, which Napoleon III and minister of public education Victor Duruy promoted through propoganda.

Spectaculaire Second Empire

The exhibit on the Second Empire fits coherently in the general program of the Musee d’Orsay, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year (1986-2016). This trajectory began one year ago with the hidden sides at the heart of the Second Empire’s society, the “splendor and misery of the courtesans.” Then there was the exhibit dedicated to Fredric Bazille, “the youth of Impressionism,” killed in combat at Beaune-la-Rolande in 1870, which continued the description of this imperial society and its future impressionists. For the exhibit aptly demonstrated the tension between academic painting, naturalism and the origins of impressionism.

Manufacture impériale de Sèvres.
Antoine Léon Brunel Rocque
Vase commémoratif de la visite de l’impératrice à Amiens en 1866 – 1867

The exhibit takes care to avoid Manicheism, concentrating instead on the diversity of artistic expression in both the painting world and its related fields. Thus it plays with nuance, recreating in one of the last rooms the layout of paintings in one of these world fairs. You can see here the birth of Venus… (peut-être vous n’avez pas fini cette phrase?)

Photography also makes a powerful appearance in the exhibit, since the Second Empire was the Golden Age for photography. The invention of the negative allowed for reproduction, and progressive techniques reduced the waiting time. Disdéri’s snapshots democratized photography.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter
“Portrait de l’Impératrice Eugénie” 1857

Among the photographers of the time, Nadar is the most famous. Stereoscopic photographs become the phenomenon of the moment: they set up exotic journeys, biblical paintings, and worldly evenings, or the famous “diableries,” heated satires of Napoleon III and his dignitaries. These gatherings announced in advance the “roman-photo” and the cinematic fantasies of Méliès.

The choices of the exhibit’s curators willingly obey the eclecticism that marked the Second Empire and their gamble turned into a success: it’s difficult to recreate the creative energy of the Second Empire, which plunged France into modernity and economic development, and this exhibit perfectly evokes the kaleidoscope of art and society. The political rehabilitation of the regime and of Napoleon III’s personality has often failed in the face of the prominent and authoritarian figure of Napoleon I. Victor Hugo and Léon Gambetta have definitively won, one with his punishments and the other with his speech. Bismarck, the defeat of Sedan and the Paris Commune have finished the trial of the “imperial party.”

Vue de l’exposition

The ambition of Musee d’Orsay’s exhibit is different: it aims for an artistic sort of rehabilitation, to transcend the clichés and the “kitsch” quality that becomes too often tied to the idea of the Second Empire. It’s a successful whirlwind that’s all owed to Guy Cogeval, Yves Badetz, Paul Perrin et Maris-Paule Vial.

Bruno Soulié

Translated by Danielle Cohen, Vassar-Wesleyan Program Fall 2016

The Spectacular Second Empire, 1852-1870

27 September 2016 – 15 January 2017
Musée d’Orsay

The Spectacular Second Empire

Théodore Gudin
“La princesse de Metternich en diable noir” 1864 (bal du Ministère de la Marine)


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