Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873) and his wife the Empress Eugenie (1826-1920) 

Franz Xavier Winterhalter & Studio (1805 – 1873)

Portrait of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873) and his wife the Empress Eugenie (1826-1920), Franz Xavier Winterhalter & Studio
Oil and Canvas
19th Century
Each 39¼ x 28½ in. (99.7cm x 72.4 cm)
Private collection, Denmark; Private collection, Italy.
Ariccia, Palazzo Chigi, Castelli e Castellani, Viaggio attraverso le dimore storiche della Provincia di Roma, 19 July - 20 October 2002, nos. 42 and 43. Rome, Complesso del Vittoriano, La Campagna Romana dai Bomboccianti alla Scuola Romana, 23 January - 14 February 2010, nos. 70 & 71.
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These recently discovered studies of the French Emperor Napoleon III and his wife, Eugenie, are modellos by Winterhalter for a now lost original pair of portraits painted in the early 1850s. As such, they would have been commissioned by the Emperor as part of an important plan to visually embolden the new Bonapartist Empire he established in 1852.

Born in 1808, Napoleon III was son of Louis Bonaparte, the sometime King of Holland, and thus the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. The final abdication of his uncle in 1815, following defeat at Waterloo, ensured that his early years were spent in exile. But a determination to cast himself as the heir to the French Empire, encouraged after the death in 1832 of Napoleon I’s only son, the Duke of Reichstadt, led to a number of abortive coup attempts in France, for which he was variously imprisoned or exiled. The first serious signs of success came after the revolution of 1848 and the deposition of the ‘Citizen-King’ Louis-Philippe (1773-1850), when Napoleon returned to France and won election to the new chamber of deputies. He soon formed a ‘Bonapartist’ party, and won, by a surprise landslide, the election to be the first French President (of the 2nd Republic). When he was unable to persuade the legislature to extend the single term period of office beyond four years, Napoleon seized power in a coup, and installed himself as Emperor. He called himself Napoleon III, thus symbolically recognising his late cousin, the Duke of Reichstadt, as Napoleon II. Napoleon III’s reign was on the whole a success, and in terms of foreign policy he did much to re-establish France’s position in Europe, not least by defeating Russian in alliance with the British during the Crimean War (1854-6). His Empire was swiftly and calamitously brought to an end, however, when he rashly began a war with Prussia in 1870. After just a few days, Napoleon himself was captured at Sedan, and forced to abdicate. He lived the rest of his life modestly in exile in Chislehurst.

Although from the age of eighteen German-born Winterhalter had attracted the attention of wealthy patrons, it wasn’t until 1841, when he painted Louise Marie of Orleans (1812-1850), Queen of the Belgians, that he really established his reputation as a leading society portrait painter. The following year Winterhalter was commissioned by Louis-Philippe to paint his wife Marie Amelie (1782-1866), Queen of the French, and, having now penetrated the royal court, was immediately noticed by a number of highly influential nobles from Europe as well as Russia.

It was shortly after this rapid rise to prominence that Queen Victoria (1819-1901) invited Winterhalter to England, where, in 1842, he painted one of the most defining images of the young Queen, standing three-quarter length in a white dress, the Queen herself writing in her journal ‘[…] The likeness is perfect and the picture very fine’. Throughout his career Winterhalter painted over one hundred and twenty portraits of Queen Victoria and her court, the majority of which are in the Royal Collection.

The establishment of the Second Republic in France of 1848 did little to effect Winterhalter’s reputation, despite his patronage from the French royal family. After a brief period spent working in Switzerland, England and Belgium, the artist returned to France where the now Napoleon III and his wife the Empress Eugenie were in need of portraits to help mark the beginning of the Second Empire, with the new Imperial family presented in all the official regalia of their position. Such portrait commissions were offered originally to French painters such as Alfred de Dreux (1810-60) and Eduard Dubufe (1820-83), however, due to the undeniable reputation of Winterhalter he too was invited to submit designs. It is thought that the present reduced scale studies were the two pictures submitted. In the finished pictures, which we know from contemporary replicas and copies, a far more expansive landscape background is seen, along with other inclusions such as the Imperial throne. The plain backgrounds seen in the present studies are instead almost certainly taken directly from the studio set up for Winterhalter in the Tuileries palace, with its panelled walls. Technical analysis of the pigments used has also confirmed that the pictures are comparable to other Winterhalter pictures of the early 1850s. Finally, the boldly and freely painted sketches seen here evidently indicate the artist’s first portrayal of the Imperial couple in this pose, not least with the evidence of pentimenti (signs of the artist changing his mind) in, for example, areas around Eugenie’s hand, the Emperor’s crown, and also his neck. While it has been suggested that the backgrounds were painted by a studio assistant, this seems highly unlikely; there seems little reason for Winterhalter himself to complete the large majority of such an important picture himself, and then ask a studio assistant to add in the background. And nor in fact does the paint surface itself give any indication of more than one hand at work, as seen in passages such as the penumbra around Napoleon’s head, which merges seamlessly into the background layer behind it.

The finished, life-size portraits were sadly lost in May 1871 when the Paris Commune, a radical socialist party, assumed governmental control of the capital and ransacked and burnt the Palais des Tuileries, in which the completed works hung. Fortunately, numerous copies of varying sizes and quality were made of the finished full-lengths, which allow for an interesting comparison to be made with the compositional ideas displayed in the present modellos. Most obviously, the loosely painted wood panelling seen in the background of the present works has been replaced by more expansive backdrops in the finished portraits; the Palais des Tuileries is visible beyond a draped curtain in the portrait of Napoleon III, and the palace garden of Saint-Cloud is thought to have been depicted beyond the drapes in the portrait of Eugenie.
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