10392 - 20170105 - "The Spectacular Second Empire 1852-1870" at musée d'Orsay in Paris - 27.09.2016-15.01.2017


Installation view. Photo: Sophie Boegly.
The ostentation of the “fête impériale” and France’s humiliating defeat in 1870 by Prussia, have long tarnished the reputation of the Second Empire, suspected of having been a time purely of amusements, scandals and vices, as described by Zola in his novels written during the Third Republic. It was, however, a period of unrivalled prosperity in the 19th century and one of unprecedented social upheavals. A time of abundance, euphoria and numerous celebrations, political, economic, religious and artistic, today we see the 1850s as the pivotal moment in the birth of “modern France” (Gambetta). To celebrate its 30th anniversary in autumn 2016, the musée d’Orsay is, for the first time, looking at this first society of spectacle and consumerism, a society that we have inherited. The exhibition brings together paintings, sculptures, photography, architectural drawings, objets d’art and jewellery in a lavish thematic exhibition based around the great aesthetic and social questions that are just as relevant today: art used in the staging of power, the individual and his/her image, the taste for objects and decoration, society’s latest entertainments and the great artistic events of the Salons and the Universal Exhibitions.

Napoleon III's authority was staged during the Second Empire in an attempt to create an image of himself as the worthy heir to his uncle, while the Empress Eugenie fostered an image of herself as the perfect “first lady”, devoted to charitable causes. Set in locations inherited from the monarchy (Tuileries, Château de Saint-Cloud) or on new stages (the new Louvre, Château de Pierrefonds), the Emperor used the many dynastic and political events that marked his reign to bind the population to a fragile regime. The baptism of the Imperial Prince in 1856 – represented in this exhibition by the magnificent cradle given to Napoleon III by the City of Paris (musée Carnavalet) – was the high point of the reign, following the success of the 1855 Universal Exhibition and the victories in Crimea.

Enriched and triumphant, seduced by its own image, the wealthy middle class reflected itself endlessly in painted, sculpted or photographed portraits. Faced with such high demand, artists carried on with the neo-classical traditions (Ingres, Flandrin), or broke new ground, turning to new sources of inspiration: the verve of English painting for Winterhalter or the spirit of French Baroque for Carpeaux. In response to narcissistic exhibitions and tricks of photographic distortion, like those of the Comtesse de Castiglione and the Empress Eugenie, painters such as Courbet, Manet, Monet and Degas produced realist portrayals of the individual “in his or her environment”. The decoration and arrangement of the interiors, the backdrop to this new society, were the subject of particular care where collection pieces or flamboyant new pieces of furniture were displayed. Certain residences embodied these concerns - Prince Napoleon’s Pompeian Villa, the Château d’Abbadia near Hendaye, a neo-Gothic folly, and the Château de Ferrières, a luxurious neo-Renaissance gem built by the Rothschild family - and are evoked in the exhibition with an eclectic display of objects and interior views.

During the Second Empire, Parisian life pulsated to the rhythm of a multitude of society balls, soirées and salons organised by the most dazzling court of the 19th century, the memory of which is kept alive in several large watercolours by Eugène Lami and Henri Baron. Paris became the court of this “fête impériale”, which was more political than it seemed, and which supported the luxury goods industry. This society cultivated a taste for tableaux vivants, dressing up and fancy dress balls, where identities were concealed, where the beau monde and the demimonde mixed and intrigued.

Taking advantage of the vivacity of the Parisian world of opera and theatre, the Emperor brought in modern regulations for theatres, demolished old theatres and launched a building programme for new venues such as the theatres in the Place du Châtelet, and Charles Garnier’s new Opera, the monument to entertainment par excellence. The city of Paris, a constant building site, transformed by Haussmann’s scenography, became an openair set and an element of artificiality invaded the urban space. With the arrival of leisure activities and holiday resorts, from Biarritz to Deauville, came a New Painting, evoked in the exhibition by the paintings of Boudin, Degas, Renoir and Monet.

A place of official recognition and of scandal, the Painting and Sculpture Salon was both an aesthetic battleground and a huge market for the new middle class who flocked there in great numbers. In 1863 Napoleon III, confronted by the protests of artists rejected by the jury, created a “Salon des Refusés” alongside the official Salon, an act of significant liberalisation. With paintings hung at several different levels, as was customary in the 19th century, the exhibition here demonstrates the startling difference between the two Salons with Cabanel’s Birth of Venus and Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass.

Napoleon III’s Empire was also staged in Europe during the 1855 and 1867 Universal Exhibitions in Paris, when the Empire still shone brightly. Here the excellence of the French art industry and the unbridled eclecticism of the sources of inspiration to which the creators turned were affirmed. Through its spectacular scenography, the exhibition presents those joyous accumulations of the most beautiful objects produced by the Imperial Manufacture of Sèvres, cabinetmakers Fourdinois and Diehl, goldsmiths Christofle and Froment-Meurice and the bronze founder Barbedienne.

This exhibition has been organised with the special assistance of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Musée national du palais de Compiègne, the Musée Carnavalet-Histoire de Paris, the Mobilier national and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.